When I worked in a commercial law firm, I was constantly struck by how neatly packaged my tasks were. I proofread something called a ‘scheme booklet’ within an inch of its life, and spent hours trying to figure out what was or wasn’t permitted in an area of land according to its zoning classification. Work was compartmentalised, discrete, subdivided. I often felt I was losing sight of the larger legal issue as stake as if it was hardly relevant. Although my experience was probably partly due to the fact I was low in the firm’s pecking order, I think this quality of abstraction is true of legal work in general. So many rules, imperatives, obligations—all leading to greater and greater degrees of abstraction.
Often it seemed as though this work was only very tenuously connected to the language of real life. Most people have never have encountered a ‘scheme booklet’. Zoning rules are prescriptive, capricious, as though they are arbitrary, or the product of unseen power dynamics. By marking some emails as ‘evidence’ and dismissing others, we create a narrative that is supposed to reflect ‘real’ life, but does just the opposite.
The law requires us to make things ‘black-letter’, streamlined. Yet in the exercise of selecting ‘relevant’ facts, it cuts out the ambiguity, the context, and the diversity. Life’s amorphous mess can’t, without some compromise, be pinned down to the simple notions of cause and effect that the law requires. By disregarding the things that distinguish one experience or set of preoccupations from the other, the law effectively undermines the difference inherent in the ways that people experience the world.
With all these ideas sprouting traitorously in my brain, it’s little wonder I didn’t make a very good commercial lawyer. I think one of the reasons I fell so hard and fast for the symbiotic practices of reading and writing is that good writing tends to aspire for the very opposite of law—rather than making things commensurate, generalising and compressing the infinite and uncertain world, fiction seeks to point out that which is inherently ambiguous, diverse and mysterious about the human experience, to consider and celebrate it.
True to this logic, I am most inspired by authors who have the capacity to suggest this mystery and universality with subtlety and conviction. Although I am probably the last person to have read Alice Munro’s Runaway, I found the accuracy with which it rendered the experience of being a young woman completely flabbergasting, and felt profoundly moved by the way Munro explores the multifaceted nature of a character’s emotional terrain. Lately I have also enjoyed Tessa Hadley’s short stories, particularlyValentine and The Surrogate. I find Hadley a spectacular role model because of the playful, thoughtful way that she considers how we characterise ourselves as we are growing up: the silly things we do as we attempt to court a love and the embarrassing nature of our fantasies. It’s very honest prose.
A lot of the writing I admire is lyrical—in high school, I wanted to write like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. My predisposition towards richly-described landscapes, allegories and the super visceral found a new home in the work of Jamaica Kincaid. In her short story collection, At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid describes the billowing rhythms of life in a manner I have never experienced before. Her stories, magical, thrum with an unholy lifeblood: entire worlds seem to bloom and collapse within confines of a few short pages. Her shifting, Antiguan settings form an evocative place to spend some good time.
It often amazes me how the truth can be suggested via such different stylistic forms. In my reading preferences, it’s as if I fluctuate between two extremes—if it can’t be very lyrical, make it sharp, bold, tight. When I first read Hemingway, it was as if I had discovered a new god. I found his treatise on lost youth, The Sun Also Rises, to be almost damagingly accurate—its sun-washed characters, meandering, restless, seem about to rupture with the overflowing pressure of all the things they cannot say. More recently, I have loved Junot Díaz and the blunt way with which he describes the imprint of a cultural heritage, and all its idiosyncrasies. While walking and listening to How To Date A Brown Girl (black girl, white girl or halfie) I think I actually stopped moving so that I could dopily smile in safety. Being of mixed cultural heritage and having spent some time as a teenager blundering through a network of unfamiliar cultural and social norms in South Korea, Díaz’s playfulness on this issue struck a chord.
So with respect to the law, where does this leave us? It is inescapable that fiction and the law serve different purposes, and I am not suggesting we try to regulate society via Díaz’s prose, or read legal judgements for pleasure. But we should be clear about what the law effaces, and perhaps more critical of its truth-telling claims. By the same token, we should also be alert to what literature can offer the law: US lawyer and rights advocate Bryan Stevenson has spoken about the power of narrative in advocating for rights-focused law reform. Similarly, stories can give a wider audience to those whose experiences go so often forgotten—for example, Dave Eggers’ chronicle of South Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng in What Is The What, or Katherine Boo’s meditation on life in a Mumbai slum in Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
This, I think, is what I am most grateful for: the capacity of writing to shed light on the diversity of lived experience. Through the act of being enveloped in other worlds and feelings, we learn more forcefully, and to a greater extent, all the things it means to be human.
Jacinta Mulders works in international human rights law research at Australian National University. Her writing has appeared inMeanjin, Seizure, Oyster, Pollen and TheVine, where she worked as an editor. She plans to commence postgraduate studies in creative writing in late 2015.