Dystopian visions are everywhere in popular and literary fiction, as novelists try to speak to the political and environmental crises of our present moment. But few novelists have practical experience in political work. Ravi Mangla, whose new novel, The Observant, tells the story of a filmmaker enlisted in service of a fictional dictator in an unnamed country, is the exception. He depicts an unsettling and familiar view of our daily negotiations and complicities rather than a horrific future. Laura Tanenbaum sat down with Mangla to talk about political novels, movies, and writing fiction while doing organizing work. Their conversation has been edited and condensed. 


Laura Tanenbaum: Your main character is a filmmaker, and there are lots of meditations about film and ideas about film throughout [the book]. I’m curious to hear about your interest in film: where it started, if there were formative film experiences or artists that you were thinking about when you started writing?

Ravi Mangla: I have always had a real love of film, and it felt like a kind of awakening when I was getting involved in the arts. So there are definitely touchstone filmmakers for me. Robert Bresson directed A Man Escaped, which is one of my favorite films and is a kind of slow-burning thriller like the novel. My novel is very, very loosely based on the kidnapping of Shin Sang-ok, the South Korean filmmaker. And that's the story that's always been in the back of my head. It seemed like this unique intersection of film lore, politics, and just a stranger-than-fiction story that felt like this perfect synthesis of my interests and something that would make great material for adaptation.

Tanenbaum: Do you want to say a little bit about what that story was, when and how it took place, and how you came to the idea of drawing on it in your book?

Mangla: I don't remember when I first heard about this story, but there have been books written about it, documentaries. So in the late 1970s, the most famous South Korean film director of the time, Shin Sang-ok and his ex-partner, Choi Eun-hee, who was one of the most well-known actresses in South Korea, were kidnapped by Kim Jong-il, who was the Minister of Culture, I believe, at the time — and who, later, of course, became a North Korean dictator. But he had an ongoing fascination with film and a collection with over 15,000 titles. He wrote a book called The Art of Cinema and talked a lot about how film is meaningless if it does not have a kind of political center to it. So they made propaganda films for the North Korean government while in captivity for a number of years. The notion of propaganda is something that's very interesting to me, both in terms of my day job and as a fictional idea. 

Tanenbaum: I think people without knowledge of the context have this image of Kim Jong-il as this sort of over-the-top, cartoonish figure. One of the most interesting things in your book to me was that your dictator character is very understated. He's not this eccentric buffoon and he's also not obviously a philistine, right? We’re sort of left thinking, "Well, maybe he does really have a ‘genuine’ interest in film." How did you come to the decision to  portray him differently from how we often see dictators written about? 

Mangla: For context, I started writing this book right after the Trump election in 2016. Just seeing the global rise of authoritarian figures, it felt like a theme that would resonate. And I was looking at dictators all across history or figures that had some kind of, I don't know, autocratic oversight of their countries, whether that was the Romanian government or North Korea. Reading some of the more sensational stories, I was then trying to synthesize a figure that had some of the opulence and luxuries that we often see with these figures but, at the same time, did not (hopefully) feel  broad or cartoonish. I wanted the figure to feel more grounded. And then I was also playing around with the tension between the way that he perceives himself and the way that others perceive him, which I think is an interesting thing we see with a lot of dictators living in a bubble surrounded by yes people or like-minded individuals and having very little awareness of how they are broadly perceived.

Tanenbaum: Your main character becomes complicit in making this propaganda, and I'm wondering how — especially during the Trump years — you thought about complicity and these bargains that we make. 

Mangla: I think there's an interesting mixture of him grappling with the level of complicity and also, over time, becoming more comfortable with it, which is a disturbing thing. People often bring up the idea of the banality of evil, and I think that plays into some of this. People that may not seem evil or malicious on the surface  and yet are overseeing or are a cog in something that is far more destructive and how they reckon with or have a kind of dual mind about that. That was interesting to grapple with, the narrator finding himself drawn into this and having empathy for figures he would normally think of as his opponents or as antagonistic to him.

Tanenbaum: Do you want to talk a little bit about how you came to do political work and not just write about it?

Mangla: I was a freelance writer for a long time, and I started getting involved in my local community more and more to the point where I had a career switch and started community organizing beginning, I think, in 2015. My first job in organizing was around public education and disproportionate suspensions. From there, I ended up transitioning into more of the behind-the-scenes of organizing, working in comms and digital for a number of grassroots organizations and then national nonprofits. And now, I’ve worked with the New York Working Families Party for the past year and a half. It becomes extremely hard to separate the kinds of things I want to write from what I encounter on a daily basis.

Tanenbaum: I've spent some time in both those worlds as well. And I think a lot of people see them as having opposing tensions. Working in comms, there’s a sense of, you need message discipline, you need to stay on point. You need to repeat the same thing over and over and to keep it simple. And then you want to write imaginative fiction. So I wonder, what is it like for you to transition between those two ways of using language that seems so different?

Mangla: I've had to learn to write in a much more direct, simplistic, and accessible way. But at the same time, it has probably had positive impacts in my fiction writing and helped me strip away some of the excess and hopefully get down to the essence of things. And I think that good political communication is direct and accessible and does not include the kind of stylistic flourishes that you may expect from fiction or literary writing. So it's been an interesting interplay, seeing one influence the other and how my writing has changed in subtle ways.

Tanenbaum: I teach English. When I talk to organizers, or people who work in politics, a lot of times they say, "Oh, I don’t read fiction. I have a hard enough time reading about what is happening.” So since we're speaking for a publication that's talking to organizers and people who are in those political trenches, why do you think carving out of space for fiction or poetry is important?

Mangla: I think that fiction has an incredible ability to both stretch our imagination and expand our empathy. Many of the people I work with are some of the most empathic people I've ever met, but we can never have enough imagination in this work. And one thing I've learned over time is that you can't take people somewhere that they can't envision in their mind. If we are not helping people imagine what that north star is or what it is that we're striving towards, we can't really bring them there. Imagining that better world is very much aligned with a fictional imagination because the society we want is something that we've never had for sustained periods of time. What does it look like to have a world where everybody is housed, where everybody has healthcare, where all people's basic needs are met? I think that fictional imagination and reading fiction can be an important ally in helping us to answer those questions.

Tanenbaum: Since I started with asking you about formidable filmmakers, I'm curious if there are writers, especially contemporary writers or writers people might not know about, who are doing that kind of writing now? 

Mangla: I think that there seems to be less political fiction than we saw in the middle part of the last century. One inspiration for my book was the novels of Graham Greene, which had very strong political underpinnings. In terms of writers that are really important to me today or that I think should be more widely read, I love Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish writer who won the Nobel prize. She has an incredible range for her fiction writing, and it's just stunning work. Her latest novel is a 1,000 page magnum opus going back hundreds of years in history. A great name to bring up is Octavia Butler, and I know a lot of people have been rediscovering Butler's work. She’s somebody who stretches the creative imagination, and who does go into dystopian fiction, but there is a deep humanity within her fiction that speaks to a lot of the fears and pitfalls that we are facing in our society, and yet there’s a thread of hope that runs throughout many of her books.

Tanenbaum: That's a great example. And I think what's so interesting  for people going back to Butler now is that her work is dystopic in some ways, but it's also a world in which politics are still possible and people are making choices. The dystopic vision that gets hard, especially with climate fiction, is this constant sense of, "Okay, it's over." You're never in a world where you can have politics.

And it's interesting you mentioned Graham Greene, because I think your book feels a little bit, not old-fashioned, but of a style that maybe was more common mid-century in the US and England. And this may be more common in other parts of the world now, where people see their relationships to systems of power in politics very clearly. Whereas a lot of contemporary American work, there’s this very diffused, alienated, atomized world where you can't quite see your way in. 

You mentioned starting this during the Trump administration. How are you thinking about the contemporary moment that we're in now, both in your organizing work and in your writing? Sort of post-Trump, but not really. Sort of post-COVID, but not really.

Mangla: I think a lot about this kind of post-factual moment where many of us on the left are still in a mindset of wanting to be precise and correct, which is basically bringing a  scalpel to a hammer fight. How do we engage in a counter propaganda fight where we have to tell larger stories? One thing that I was told when I  started in comms was that Democrats will tell you a recipe and Republicans will give you a cupcake. So I think about that in terms of this organizing moment and, specifically, the work I do when it comes to messaging or communications.

But we're not misleading people in any way. Organizing facts in a better way to make sense of the world and connect the dots between competing crises, which we are not always so great at doing. It's a scary time, heading into a midterm where we don't know if we are going to keep the House. We have a Supreme Court that's against us and stripping away our rights, and a very difficult presidential election ahead of us.

So it feels like even though we are past Trump, we are still very deep in the fight against a far-right authoritarian movement that is also a global movement. So I think we are still grappling with, "What is the best way to contest for power within this climate?" And whether that is electoral, whether that is movement-based, how are we aligning  the tools we do have at our disposal to actually contend for power? Those are some of the things that I'm thinking about.


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