The natural state of humanity is to acknowledge tragedy, to honor it, and then to move on. We forget the dead, we can't remember what pain felt like in the exact moment that we realized something horrible had happened. This is a survival mechanism; if we never physically stopped feeling the immediate hurt of heartbreak and loss, we would not live for very long. The pain has to fade; the memory has to dissolve. The loss has to mellow from an acute stab to a dull ache over time.
As a society, this is how we deal with tragedy. When something horrible happens, we fixate on it for a few days, and then our attention is drawn by something new, and then before we realize it - several weeks later - a moment has transformed from "news" into "history," and we remember it differently.
They call it a "news cycle," but the truth is that it's more of a stationary bike: we move through pain and heartbreak and bombings and accidents without really moving at all. We just keep pedaling forward, and we feel as though the world has moved on.
Most of the mass shootings we have known in America over the last two decades have followed this pattern: we start to get news of a shooting. Then the numbers of dead and injured begin to climb. Footage starts to come through - of families and of survivors. Then the pictures of the perpetrators. And then the narrative starts to coalesce, in time for the whole event to disappear from memory.
The Parkland shooting hasn't followed that predictable pattern. Parkland refuses to recede from memory the way other mass-casualty events have, and the difference is simple: the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have refused to let us forget about it.
These students have raged and mourned and reasoned in public, and - like most teenagers - they lack the protective membrane that allows most of us to move on. They know pain, and they want to share it with the world. That's why so many of us are taking to the streets this Saturday as part of the March for Our Lives: We remember what it felt like to not want to let injustice fade from memory. We want to honor their outrage and hurt and brave unwillingness to accept things as they are. Not every tragedy can be so easily forgotten.
Jennifer Natalya Fink's remarkable new novel Bhopal Dance reflects on many of the same issues that are unfolding in the news today. The title refers to a disaster that shocked the world, but only momentarily so, in the winter of 1984: an accident at a factory in Bhopal, India, released toxic gases that killed many thousands of people, rendering the area unlivable for generations.
The Bhopal disaster was huge, and calamitous, and just as worthy of attention as the disaster at Chernobyl. The fact that the factory was American-owned should have caused an international incident, a national discussion about colonialism and the price of cheap goods and services built on the back of exploited international labor. Instead, we just forgot about it.
Who knows why? Maybe the victims were too far away, or not white or wealthy enough to earn America's attention. Maybe there wasn't enough footage to play and replay on the news again and again. Maybe there was no eloquent survivor to take up the charge and lead the way for us. In any case, the disaster at Bhopal faded into some forgotten parts of our collective memory.
Cordelia, the main character of Bhopal Dance, is a young woman who refuses to let the world forget about Bhopal. As an activist, she struggles against the forces of collective amnesia, and she pays dearly for her efforts. In a prison cell with no other humans around, Cordelia befriends and personifies her toilet. She names it Jerome.
Because as you may know, porcelain is cold-blooded, so he is sensitive to the slightest fluctuation of temperature in our dank little cell. Our cell: I think of it as an organism. A smelly amoeba. Single-celled, inimitable. It's all the same squalor to me, freeze or fry, but Jerome loathes cold, and stops right up when it hits 45 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Fahrenheit: we're in America, alrighty. Well, 45 isn't really cold; it's not even the freezing point. But Jerome won't budge: he needs 46+ or else no dice, no flush.
At first - though Bhopal Dance flicks forward and backward in time, it follows a rough narrative - Cordelia's political awakening is a typical left-wing muddle. As a child of the 1980s, she focuses on the evils of Ronald Reagan:
…this monsterman, this old-world Hollywood Loch Ness monster. They elect him and elect him again…this man has his hand on the red button. This man can - will - start World War III. This man believes in survivable nuclear wars. This senile old puppy. This man.
Cordelia is strung up by the typical pitfalls of working for a far-left leaderless group of activists. But then she finds clarity when a man named Ian joins her nameless political organization.
Of course I disliked him, immediately and forcefully. His politics were still bourgie, like I mean he believed in representative democracy, petitions, voter motor drives. Only Ian had a plan. We'd talk ourselves in circles, get lost, digress, dither into disestablishmentarianism versus ecofeminism, get drunk. Ian would stand up, part the seas. Let's do it up, he'd say, smoking clove after clove, driving his white Dodge for a Fuckoff run. Clove cigsmoke, vodka breath, wafflesweat. It was driving me wild.
Of course Cordelia and Ian end up in a relationship, and of course they immediately rebel against the restrictive forces of monogamy by opening their relationship up further. When you're young, every opportunity to love is a revolution.
And then comes Bhopal:
Gas. Gas ripping into shanty towns, wild tons of it escaping from December 2 into 3, 1984. Forty tons of lethal gas leaked: no, more than fifty. Make it sixty, seventy-five, one hundred-who knows; Union Carbide kept shoddy records. Tons upon tons of gas. Invisible, odorless. Official death toll: 2,259; 3,387; 4,871. All these weirdly specific numbers are given, then changed the next day. But they're all wrong, obscenely wrong. The newspapers and pundits and historians eventually settle on a nice round number: Another 8,000 will eventually die. In the future.
Cordelia refuses to let society forget about Bhopal, and she pays the price for it. By pushing against our propensity to forget the complications of tragedy, she's branded an enemy of the state, a foe of humanity.
Fink refuses to let us forget Cordelia's story. In this beautiful, twisty, entertaining, moral, horrific, angry novel, our cultural amnesia isn't just a major theme - it's an antagonist, a monstrous enemy that must be overcome. If we can't remember, Cordelia argues, we'll never learn.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant