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October 25, 2017 by

Bhopal Dance: The 2017 Novel With Political Lessons from a 1984 Catastrophe

Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 4.51.28 PMWhen Jennifer Natalya Fink was in her first semester of college, she says that two events made her feel as if the end of the world was imminent. The first was the November, 1984, re-election of Ronald Reagan. The second was an explosion of a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, that began on December 2 that year, and spewed 30 tons of the highly-toxic gas methyl isocyanate into the air. Thirty-three years later, Bhopal remains the worst industrial disaster in world history.

Fink’s latest novel, Bhopal Dance, explores this environmental calamity through the eyes of three young North Americans, one man and two women, who want to see Union Carbide prosecuted for poisoning thousands. The three are intimately involved—as lovers and as political comrades—and their strategic plan to avenge the deaths can be seen as both a call to arms and a cautionary tale. Winner of the 2017 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize by FC2/University of Alabama Press, Bhopal Dance will be released in March 2018.

Fink recently met with Eleanor J., Bader to discuss the book, her fourth. (Her other books include BURN, V, and The Mikvah Queen, which won the Dana Award and was nominated for both a National Jewish Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.) Over tea, coffee, and bagels, their conversation touched on a wide range of topics: The ongoing need for non-violent activism to promote social justice, living as a secular Jew, and juggling writing, parenting, and teaching.

Eleanor J. Bader:  In an interview you did with a reporter from Examiner.com, you said that you write experimental fiction “to explore how the state inhabits our most private moments.” Can you say more about this and how it works?

Jennifer Natalya Fink: I’m always interested in how the state, in implicit and explicit forms, manifests in our intimate lives and personal relationships. In Bhopal Dance, the state, as characters Caren, Cordelia, and Ian imagine it, is something they insert into their lives. For them, the Bhopal disaster and what it exposes about the structure of capital is a catalyst. It energizes them and gives their lives purpose.

At the same time, they are ego-driven. They are idealistic, yes, but they don’t actually practice what they preach—something that Cordelia, the now-jailed narrator of the book, can see in retrospect.

EJB: I found the novel really sad. Cordelia is incarcerated, with no hope of ever getting out. Caren is dead. Only Ian, whose family had the connections to pull strings on his behalf, is living a conventionally productive life. Did you mean to write a warning about violent extremism?

JNF: First, I think the character’s diagnosis of the problem of globalized capitalism is correct. Their anger at Union Carbide is warranted. So, while the story can certainly be read as a cautionary tale, it is also linked to the accuracy of their analysis and commitment. It is we, terrible humans all, who must change things. There are no saints, no avenging angels: It is just us, in all our flawed beauty. At the same time, the reader will likely groan at some of the characters’ inflated political rhetoric.

That said, I was really interested in the left-wing argument that posits the state as the ultimate actor to mobilize against. Union Carbide was a corporation that transcended borders. It was producing pesticides in Bhopal that could not be legally produced in the United States because they were known to be toxic and difficult to produce safely. After the explosion, no state or government was held accountable for what happened and Union Carbide could not be prosecuted because the company dissolved and by 2001 had become part of Dow Chemical.

The Bhopal disaster was the moment in which corporations became the prime actors in world politics, more powerful than the state. That fact was eye-opening for many of us. Today, is the Trump presidency anything more than an extension of his brand, his family’s global corporate interests?

EJB: Were you personally involved in protesting what happened in Bhopal?

JNF: Oh, God, yes. I remember thinking “We just have to blow up Union Carbide.” I don’t remember who talked me down from that, but in the end I didn’t do anything violent.

Still, I grew up thinking about the Buddhist nuns who immolated themselves to protest the Vietnam War and I wondered what it would take to change things, if acts like that were what was needed to make the world less competitive and people less greedy and horrible.  I tried to resurrect these moments of desperation, anger, and frustration as I wrote the book.

I’ve since learned that the nature of change involves messy human agents and requires the difficult, slow organizing that tends to happen in the aftermath of an acute crisis.

EJB: Why do you think using violence held so much appeal in the 1980s?  Have these reasons been consistent throughout time?

JNF: In 1984, we felt marginalized and invisible. There was the sense that the 1960s revolution had failed. We felt this way despite the gains of feminism and the fact that the women I was in school with had a kind of agency that our mothers and grandmothers could not have imagined.  For me, the early 1980s was a period in which those of us who leaned left felt isolated. We were living in a landscape of complete suppression and invisibility of progressive movements, at least as perceived by mainstream culture.

It felt as if we had to create something new and explosive.

I think it is different today. I teach at Georgetown and because of Occupy, Black Lives Matter, mainstream trans visibility, the Dreamers, and so many other mass movements, young people—as well as their elders—can feel part of a vibrant non-violent resistance. Back in 1984 we felt irrelevant. It was hip to be square, remember?

EJB: Bhopal Dance includes a lot of graphic sex. Juxtaposing the escapades of a sexually adventurous threesome with an unprecedented environmental calamity is jarring. Was that your intention?

JNF: I wanted the novel to depict an erotic utopian collective and simultaneously demonstrate the fucked-up power dynamics. To show how the characters’ idealistic political beliefs influenced the sexual stuff. But it isn’t simply a failure, this ménage à trois. In some ways, the triad is disappointing to the characters and in other ways it is not.

I wanted the book to portray the relationship between Cordelia, Caren, and Ian in a way that reflected all the complexities of their interactions. There was jealousy at some points, but they were also able to carve out a community. There is real joy and pleasure, true spiritual and sexual communion, in terms other than the usual heteronormative ones of “the couple.” The women have their own passionate relationship, rather than merely competing for the dude. They had the autonomy to imagine something beyond monogamy and beyond gay and straight.

I see this as what my generation has contributed to progressive political life. I’m 51 and my generation has centered leftist discourse around queer politics and erotics. We’ve queered the left, though the left doesn’t always realize it.

Author of Bhopal Dance, Jennifer Natalya Fink

Author of Bhopal Dance, Jennifer Natalya Fink.

EJB: One of the tragedies of the book is that Cordelia feels compelled to talk to her toilet, sometimes addressing it as if it is her father. She has had absolutely no social contacts since the baby she gave birth to early in her imprisonment was taken from her, leaving her friendless and alone.

JNF: For a while I supervised a group that brought college kids from Georgetown into a local prison as tutors. When you enter the space of prison and realize that you can leave and the inmates can’t, it hits hard. I had to ask myself what I would do if I were confined to a tiny box with just a toilet and sink. I wondered what would happen to my mind if it were stuck in a place that existed to dehumanize me.

The materiality of the prison was very important to me. I wanted the novel to portray an actual prison cell alongside a metaphorical prison.

In addition, I wanted to address what happens to pregnant women in jail. The reality of women giving birth in prison is an American horror story, set in a country that is supposed to value human life. I wanted Cordelia’s pregnant body to exist in prison, even though the story of what happened to her baby is not available to her because it was literally stolen by the state.

EJB: There is a lot of history woven into the book’s narrative. Did you do much research?

JNF: A lot of excellent books have been written about Bhopal from the perspective of the survivors; this one is written from the viewpoint of the perpetrators—us!

But I’d say I still spent about a year researching, reading all kinds of stuff about the explosion and its aftermath.

Overall, it took me about 12 years to complete Bhopal Dance. It was written in between writing other books, teaching, and having a child. I wanted to make the disparate pieces connect while keeping a certain rawness, vulgarity, and political framework intact. I also wanted disparate discourses to exist on the same page while making sure that I got my facts right. It had to make sense. Lastly, since the book is set in Toronto, I had to make sure the places the characters lived and worked were accurate and evoked a certain “Toronto-ness.”

EJB: Did the book find a publisher right off the bat?

JNF: No. A number of people couldn’t figure out why I was talking about Bhopal now. The sex also freaks people out, as if it’s obscene to put explicit sex and the Bhopal disaster in one place. For me, this is the point of the book. I wanted to explore how these two factors influence sexual politics. The book is a provocation to look at these dynamics—to explore the relationship between radical politics and the corporatization of the state.

The fact that the novel won the 2017 Catherine Doctorow Prize, however, may reflect the fact that we’re now in a period of renewed activism, along with rising fascism and oppression.

I think today feels very much like a post-Bhopal the-end-of-the-world-is-imminent moment for young people. The difference, of course, is that there is real, highly-visible mass resistance movement today that did not exist in 1984. The young people I meet are so courageous and woke. The amount of respect they give to one another is astounding and the kind of “normative homophobia” I grew up with does not exist for my students. They are truly invested in equality.

EJB: Two of the three characters in Bhopal Dance, Cordelia and Ian, are secular Jews. Why did you give them this identity?

JNF: It is very important to me to write books that come out of a Jewish secular tradition. The questions the novel poses are Jewish questions about how to be an ethical actor. If you reject the martyr-to-the-cause structure of redemption, what are the other possibilities? This is the angel Cordelia wrestles with: How one can be a moral actor without being an immolation? I’m presenting a spirituality that is not tied to individual redemption.

I want the reader to finish the book feeling both upset and moved. Cordelia, after all, survives and tells the tale. She is speaking out into the void, from a prison she will never escape. She is reaching out to us.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.