WW Norton & Company
“Throughout my childhood, I was nourished by this ancestral myth which still remains fixed for many of my generation of Maliks. It is a kind of private family madness”, writes Nesrine Malik in the introduction to her first delivered, We need new stories.
She talks about a bit of family folklore that has been passed down in her family from generation to generation: the idea that in their native country, Sudan, an ancestor owned a house so large that the tea cooled while one walked from one side of it to the other. When she learned how false and fanciful this account was – her family members in Khartoum were so poor that many of them slept in the courtyard outside their overcrowded house – she felt betrayed.
His childhood disillusionment forms the irresistible and indispensable emotional core of We need new stories. Written in the wake of Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016, the book is framed by the myriad of blatant dishonesty of the former president. There is nothing clever or complicated about Trump’s individual untruths, the book points out; it is only when they are woven together that they become systematically insidious.
As Malik skillfully explains, history is sin. Like any other weapon, narrative can and has been used for both good and evil throughout eons of human civilization. Today, however, recognition of how we tell stories – and to whom – is essential to understanding the battle that progressives really wage.
We need new stories, to his advantage, doesn’t start and end with Trump. While he and his populist and ad hoc movement are truly the oxygen that ignites Malik’s militant outrage and academic curiosity, his book expands wider. It is divided into six sections, each of which addresses a single pressing topic, from feminism and freedom of expression to Black Lives Matter. She artfully makes her point: that the twisting of stories and denial of facts by the Right is only nominally ideological, if at all. These practices are pragmatic; money and power are usually at the heart of such intrigues, and Trump’s unbridled and transparent deception is just the apotheosis of America’s long history of scam. She calls for the terms of defense against ignorance and bigotry, those that have become rote in the mouths of some and insults in the mouths of others: phrases such as trigger warnings, signals of virtue, safe spaces, cancel culture and the bulk of all, Politically correct. Much effort has been made over the past few years to pillory or justify the thoughts and feelings behind such simplistic jargon. Malik breaks down these complex dynamics efficiently, but also wit, charm and warmth.
Why are people inclined to believe the biggest lie? Their size, Malik shows, is often the reason. Lies woven into narratives are often so overwhelming – especially in an age of social media and its manipulation – that it’s easier to choke on. In the hands of a lesser writer, such an analysis would be moralizing or arid. But Malik’s tone is both conversational and crystalline, and his outspoken but authoritative tone moves rather than raises eyebrows. Even when she directs the reader inward, probing the traps of self-denial and self-delusion, she does not seem didactic. At the same time, it subtly conveys the idea that identity politics problems may tend to arise from personal identity; recognize that power is a big step towards the implementation of external chance from within.
The paradox that Malik points out in his introduction to We need new stories is deep. By shamelessly weaving threads to ourselves and to our communities – family, social, or political – we are able to simultaneously protect ourselves from the hard truths while harming those who feel cheated when those hard truths are uncovered. She points the finger, of course, but she doesn’t categorically condemn any group of people – unless, of course, you count those individuals who willfully pervert not only the stories that inform our civic discourse, but the very sacred and essential human need to tell stories. himself. “The strength of the myths is not in the facts, but in the narrative”, summarizes Malik. “It is important that we also claim our right to stories.” In her measured but passionate voice, these statements are not mere observations. These are rallying cries.
Jason Heller is an editor and author of Hugo Award Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He’s on Twitter: @jason_m_heller