A Hero of Our Time
Jean Marc Ah-Sen speaks with Naben Ruthnum about his new novel.
Osman Shah is an executive at AAP, a tech start-up company selling distance learning modules to post-secondary education institutions. He is recounting to the reader all the ways he formerly used his racial identity to gain respect, sympathy and ultimately power in business situations. In a bid to make his interlocutors deferential during negotiations, “eyes shy to meet mine and saturated with a compassion,” Shah would highlight the brutish treatment he encountered at airport security checkpoints in a post-9/11 world.
“I don’t blame them, I’d pat me down too,” Shah quips. “I am always, no exception, late to the airport, sweated up when I get there. The air conditioning freezes it on my face and gives me that hospital or strapped-with-plastique sheen.” He ends his account with the sober acknowledgment that his tactics were self-serving, and explains his rationale for stopping altogether. “Anyone who takes pleasure in rendering even brief power from goodwill and fear is shit. When I used this story, I was no exception.”
This is the explosive opening scene of Naben Ruthnum’s novel A Hero of Our Time, set to be published in January 2022 with McClelland & Stewart. Shah isn’t the only executive engaging in dubious business practices for the sake of a stupendous paycheque. In the cutthroat world of Silicon Valley, all employees at AAP must check their moral compasses at the door while devising unique ways to squeeze money out of the education sector.
Shah’s colleague Nena Zadeh-Brot lies about her Swiss private-school education in a successful bid to convince a venture capitalist to invest a small fortune into AAP. She sings the investor a song of economic hardship, detailing how her Iranian father was forced to moonlight as a drug dealer, and she obtains a large pay bonus on account of her legerdemain. Later on, a South Asian employee jockeying for a promotion that will require him to betray his superior has his ambition rebuked by Zadeh-Brot: “You want the big chair and you will do what you need to in order to get it, and that’s not always evil. It’s not evil when you do it. Right?”
Such episodes disrupt the static but no less accepted representations of people of colour found in much of the social-remedy fiction being published today—representations that oscillate between two extremes of the model or beleaguered minority figure. Hero resists the idea that in order for literature to be germane to our lives, it must present benevolent, idealized ethical positions that you would find only in the most inflexible conduct books of the eighteenth century. Ruthnum’s morally ambiguous characters pry racialized existence from a truly vulgarized trend within contemporary fiction, one where characters serve little purpose beyond the articulations of an author’s moral crudity.
The takeaway from Hero is unavoidable: people lie. More specifically, people lie because they are geared towards upward mobility, and they are not above distorting their personal narratives for advancement, wealth and social capital. This kind of Hobbesian position can be unpopular in the arts and political discourse. These fields have largely embraced strategic essentialism—the idea put forth by cultural theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak that it is advantageous for oppressed identity groups to simplify and collectivize their objectives when engaged in social mobilization. Doing so can combat various ills plaguing society: underrepresentation in the workplace, social stratification, state-sanctioned violence.
To run counter to these strategies in a field as petty as the literary arts carries the risk of being thought of as a detractor from the creditable objectives they serve. But the possibility that flattening multiple groups into a singular identity category can also perpetuate tokenism, fetishism and othering—Spivak has acknowledged the possibility—is no trifling matter, either. Some people might remain undeterred in their political actions, arguing that this unintended consequence is a small price to pay in the service of a broader progressive ideal, especially when compared to the stakes and social challenges being tackled.
Hero, however, takes the opposite stance. It portrays a world where tokenizing employees of colour not only erases the difference among them, but allows for parties that are not well-intentioned to adopt the language of racial liberation. At AAP, the white corporate world co-opts identity theory only to further its own commercial ends. (Is it not a capitalist truism that, as an economic system, it wants to be as inclusive as possible so that it can peddle its commodities to everyone?)
Shah vows to have his workplace nemesis, an evangelical Christian named Olivia Robinson, dismissed from AAP after she secures a promotion by using his airport story to highlight how the company isn’t doing enough to accommodate its employees of colour. Robinson was born into poverty—something Shah, as a second-generation child to successful immigrants, cannot really appreciate—and her ravenous transformation into an edutech-saviour figure at AAP is paralleled by Shah’s eclipsed status at the company (in part because he is too obsessed with his vendetta against her to focus on career advancement).
In a cultural moment where Robinson can only be understood as an embodiment of white privilege or supremacy, she ascends the corporate hierarchy in the only way available to her identity group: by exploiting Shah’s otherness further by devising a diversity hiring campaign built around his life and experiences. Incensed by her hubris, the irony is not lost on Shah that the hiring initiative is enacted while AAP’s policies continue to lower academic standards, buck student failure rates and bolster the already precarious gig economy of academic professions.
AAP, like most corporate entities piggybacking on rallying calls for social change, has found a way to market its ethical failings in a ploy for rubber-stamped allyship with an alienated consumer base. At the novel’s core, Ruthnum is asking important questions about whether meaningful resistance against oppressive systems on the basis of identity is possible, or if that resistance can really only be defined by incorporation within an exploitative apparatus of power.
Hero keeps pace with temperature-checking satires like Pola Oloixarac’s Mona, a comedic tour through a writers’ festival, which announced that devitalized Leftist movements have become a “more reactionary form of common sense,” and Darius James’s Negrophobia, a nightmare exhibition of tokenized America through the eyes of a white teen hexed by her Black maid. But Ruthnum’s novel also bears the distinction of being the most coruscating and important novel to emerge from this country in over a decade.
The edifice of CanLit has come to embody unchanging values, especially when concerning writers of colour, who are largely expected to churn out uncomplicated diasporic perspectives in order to be heard. In an industry as risk and liability averse as Canadian publishing, Hero stands as something of a confrontational outlier. The best satires are the timely ones, after all; they offer readers a glimmer of hope that it is not too late to extricate themselves from the depths of self-delusion at our collective disposal.
Given its subject matter, and the nature with which its critique is marshalled, Hero’s reception will not only depend on the readership’s ability to ask itself difficult questions, but more generally on the role that satire is understood to possess in informing the very fabric of social reality.
Ruthnum also publishes under the pen name Nathan Ripley. He’s the author of Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race—a book-long essay about the various ways South Asian identity is represented in fiction, food writing and broader aspects of culture—and the psychological thrillers Find You in the Dark and Your Life is Mine. Following years spent writing crime dramas for Canadian television, Hero is the first of three books Ruthnum is set to release in the coming years. His horror novella Helpmeet will be published in late 2022, and a YA novel called The Grimmer is slated for 2023.
Of the three projects, Hero is poised to attract the most debate about the broken state of the world. Sharing its title with Mikhail Lermontov’s 1840 Russian Romantic novel about dissipated living in the Caucasus, Hero is much more than its eclectic spiritual successor (although duels over besmirched honour figure prominently in both books). Transposing the milieu and timeframe to the technology sector in the immediate present, Ruthnum’s Hero preserves Lermontov’s fixation with the hollowness of a life spent indulging vice. Lermontov’s remarks on the value of this brand of psychologically-rich writing could certainly hold true of Ruthnum’s novel as well: “Suffice it that the disease has been pointed out; goodness knows how to cure it.”
I met with Ruthnum in a bustling west end Toronto bar, where he mapped the converging impulses that led to his first foray into literary fiction. “I couldn’t find a way to talk about what was most important to me—not in essays, not in interviews. The potential for misinterpretation is almost infinite in the non-fiction sphere, especially in the social media sphere,” he says. “People talk about the vanishing of nuance. To some degree that’s real, but the people who hide behind that phrase are sort of classical liberal types, or right-leaning people with hateful opinions, who I’m certainly not allied with. All this to say that fiction is about ambiguity as much as it is about nuance.”
Ruthnum, who is fairly active on Twitter, is well-known for his digs at the performativity of moral outrage and the pretensions of fellow writers. Hero feels like a narrative extension of the same voice that mused “Quite a few of you should write self-help books or workplace comportment manuals instead of novels, they would sell better and hurt art less” and alternately, “Is any nuanced position on identity politics and art guaranteed to be perverted and abused by repellent people? Yes.”
Our discussion of these overlapping stylistic modes of writing revealed the moment of realization that took the novel out of its gestational phases. “Social media thinking is really binary. Identity politics is bullshit or identity politics is everything. As with any, I think, sane person, I fall somewhere in-between,” says Ruthnum. “The way I was most interested in exploring it in this book is that like any form of politics, identity politics can act as a powerful lever for power. As much as it can foment collective discussion about justice, it can also function as an excellent individual stepping stone to achieving personal power.”
Ruthnum thinks of his novel as a course-correcting offering in the direction that identity politics—as unwieldy a term as it is, housing varying ideas on liberatory political movements—has drifted. This pivoting comes in the form of probing questions about the relationship identity theory has with the systems it means to depose.
What happens when an oppressed group is ushered into a position of power with better representational visibility? Do they remake the systems which formerly oppressed them, or is a condition of their inclusion that they ensure the systems’ longevity? A central idea of Hero concerns how capitalist-driven economies and corporations cannot make meaningful contributions to social justice by being more racially representative—in other words, hiring people of colour doesn’t make any business inherently ethical.
When all is said and done, AAP is in the business of “streamlining” education. Colleges and universities reallocate funds from their faculties—already torpefied by the replacement of tenured positions with contract ones—to third-party firms like AAP. In turn, corporations like AAP make recommendations on altering the organizational structure of these institutions in the name of efficiency or retrenchment. AAP justifies the expenditure of their consulting work by pushing for the erasure of in-person classes and all the overhead costs associated with it, regardless of the qualitative degradation to learning that naturally follows.
Having a more diverse roster in the corridors of power does not change the educational fallout for students or instructors, which becomes particularly grim when the Covid-19 pandemic shutters all the doors to academic institutions indefinitely and AAP’s stock rises practically overnight. Ruthnum describes how AAP’s serpentine consulting scheme came about while developing Robinson’s ideological affiliations for Shah to maneuver against.
“I watched my PhD friends struggle through the academy. The admin has become so swollen and the leakage of business-speak and business efficiency mindset into liberal arts settings is overwhelming.” Ruthnum laments the fact that despite the prevailing assumption that liberal arts departments are left-leaning, they do not have the greatest track record when it comes to collective bargaining and labour rights.
“Everyone is helpless to beat off the relentless onslaught of admin’s control of money. The disrespect sessional faculty gets treated with by people with salaries, people who look down on them as someone who delivers a service... It’s so odd to see the classroom teacher or researcher, depending on the department, seem like the lowest-ranked person there. It’s not what one imagined, is it?”
On top of navigating his superiors’ expectations that he develop evolving ways to erode the future of the American education system, Shah’s life is hampered on two fronts by his complicated relationship with his familial origins and his body. With a father who, like Zadeh-Brot, reinvents his past every time the occasion calls for it, Shah grows up disconnected from a defined cultural heritage. Compounded with his fear that stress-induced eating is sabotaging his romantic relationships, Shah over-invests in his quarrel with Robinson as a stabilizing force against his debilitating neuroses.
This positioning of Shah’s deficiently emerging sense of selfhood against Robinson’s essentialized understanding of a brown Muslim living in North America is something of an indictment against undemanding frameworks of identity, which cannot begin to describe the infinitude of variation that one’s identity encompasses. Identity is a continuously evolving negotiation with the overcodings of class, sexual orientation, diasporic migration, and racial background, not something you’d find on a bumper sticker.
“Osman is someone who has no interest in where he comes from, which I think actually reflects—even though they’d be guilty to say it—a lot of second, third, fourth generation people in the West,” says Ruthnum. “They don’t have that sense of where they come from, but they do embrace a collective sense of identity now, in the present.”
Haunted by feelings of inadequacy relating to his weight, Shah resorts to binge eating after spirited confrontations with Robinson. “The most relevant identity vector to Osman is the one that’s closest to him, which is literally his body, but he can’t get a sense of its reality or how it’s perceived,” says Ruthnum. “I thought it was an interesting way to talk about identity in relation to race or gender—any sort of identity that collectively is visited upon you from the outside. I could show how alienating collective identity can be if you don’t share that same notion of what our identity as group x is. His is the body equivalent of that. He doesn’t even share an identity with his own body.”
Despite Ruthnum’s reservations about the perceived failings of identity politics, he is wary of the idea that his novel makes definitive claims against any one stream of thought, or that fiction’s true value can only come from this interpretive level of reading. Ignoring, for the moment, its pointed commentary about a certain philosophical decadence encompassed by social progressives in the West, or the limitations of exclusively identity-oriented political engagement, Ruthnum is adamant that the book is written in a spirit of free enquiry more than in the nature of a denouncement.
“The reason why I can’t ever consider myself a writer-activist—which is a very noble and fashionable label right now—is because all of my best thinking comes from questioning. Which is why I’m not a good essayist or great at social media unless I’m making a bitchy comment,” he says.
To illustrate this idea further, Ruthnum describes how although his thrillers come from a place of easy moral certainty—the correct position on mass killings and violence against women being fairly obvious—writing a book like Hero afforded him ample room to explore contentious ethical dilemmas with no clear solution.
“My fiction doesn’t start with an assertion. It’s inductive as opposed to deductive,” he says. “I can’t figure out what I think of things until I write them out or argue them out. And frankly, I do find the questioning and ambiguity to be the most valuable parts of fiction.”
Jean Marc Ah-Sen is the author of Grand Menteur, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation and a participant in the collaborative omnibus novel Disintegration in Four Parts. He lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.