«The opposite of language is silence and silence for human beings is death», said American writer Joyce Carol Oates after she won the National Book Award for her 1969 novel Them. Highly prolific (she has written 58 novels and scores of short stories, plays, essays, and poetry besides), Oates could not be said to be a person of few words. The stories she has set to paper have often aimed to give voice to the marginalised and those who have struggled to feel heard or protected in a United States in which an urge to violence has been normalised, and citizens act in thrall to the dollar and celebrity.
The Swedish writer and filmmaker Stig Bjorkman seems to understand well that the quiet sanctuary within which an author like Oates creates differs greatly from the performative sphere of public-facing interviews that a biographical documentary entails. In Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind, screening at this year’s Beldocs edition in Belgrade, he draws a huge amount of insight, despite her self-professed discomfort with such a project. While the emotional texture of her life in the form of her two marriages is included, the primary focus, to Bjorkman’s credit, is overwhelmingly on her significant body of work and its politically trenchant place in culture capturing the currents and points of friction of twentieth-century America, and the dark shadows of a new authoritarianism that are creeping forward in current times.
Anyone who has spent much time on Twitter in the last few years would no doubt recognise Oates as an outspoken critic of former US president Donald Trump and his policies, who she argues has made race hatred respectable for many. She discusses the proliferation of internet self-publishing and social media sites in the film as a positive force in that they have decentralised the white establishment as a news gatekeeper and allowed mobile phone video footage of police violence against minorities and other close-up evidence of racism to circulate in the face of the lies and cover-ups attempted by authorities. When lynchings were occurring in the South before such technology, many may have been aware of them, but they were not seen in such public forums and were easier, therefore, to deny. It is such injustices that she argues artists can have a powerful role in representing and writing about. The role of real art is not to comfort — because for that, we have mainstream entertainment and each other.
the quiet sanctuary within which an author like Oates creates differs greatly from the performative sphere of public-facing interviews that a biographical documentary entails.
«I write about people», she says in the film, a human approach that inevitably means issues such as racism, alienation, poverty, sexism, celebrity and greed are explored, being that they are intrinsic to lived reality in America, its skewed values and its deep social problems. Her own origins, coming from the «working poor» and growing up on a small farm in upstate New York, mean she easily takes on an outsider’s view, never, though later moving to Princeton, feeling assimilated into an intellectual elite milieu. Women had no rights, and domestic violence was not considered a phenomenon in the world where she spent her childhood. The first in her family to graduate from high school, she won a scholarship to study at Syracuse. It may have seemed a more rarefied, sophisticated environment, but it was noteworthy for its racial segregation, anti-semitism, and sexism — a world in which violence was also in the air.
The writer’s heroine from a young age was the title character of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a female role model who did not get cowed by nightmares or the surrealistic actions of adults behaving terribly. Alice was prepared to recognise fear without succumbing to it — and this, to Oates, is the quality of a true writer of social conscience, which she tried to emulate in her own work. Excerpts from her numerous books are read out, including Black Water (1992), based on the car crash of Senator Ted Kennedy, in which female passenger Mary Jo Kopechne died by drowning after he abandoned the submerged vehicle, becoming a victim vilified to save a powerful politician’s reputation; and Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars (2020), about police violence, which came out around the time of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
Power, corruption, and brutal marginalisation are, in other words, recurrent thematic threads. Most fascinating is the talk by Oates of her own heritage and a Jewish-German grandmother that «seemed to have no history», having cut herself loose from a traumatic wartime experience in Europe and a father who had later tried to murder her, to pass herself off in New York as a Christian. It was a «performance of a kind», and one that seems to have seeded an interest in Oates in the crossover of identity, liberation, art and transformative imagination.