The last time I wrote about fate was in an article for the Guardian on addiction, two years ago: ‘There is some evidence for a genetic disposition,’ I wrote, ‘but it’s not straightforward. Genes do not map out one’s fate; they map out possibilities of fates.’ But perhaps, as in the classic fate narratives, I am deluding myself, blithely unaware of how narrow our choices are, how genetically and socially predetermined our lives.
The pieces in this issue are concerned with fate in its most serious manifestations: love, sexuality, identity, death, illness, religion and war. We have new writers, S.J. Naudé and Sam Coll, alongside established ones, Will Self, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich, Tim Winton and Kent Haruf. We are publishing four poems, by Mark Doty, Adam Fitzgerald, Barbara Ras and Mary Ruefle, chosen by our new poetry editor, Rachael Allen.
We also have a piece by a writer long since dead: an essay on Sarajevo by Joseph Roth, written in 1923, translated here by Michael Hofmann. Given the centenary, I wanted something in the issue about 1914 and the war that was supposed to end all wars. We read Roth’s description of Sarajevo, aware that he is thinking backwards, to the war, while we think forwards, to the second war, to the Bosnian war, to the atrocities and the occupation. That hidden kernel of the future, our knowledge of what is to come, speaks to fate.
The issue is not all serious – the extract from Miranda July’s forthcoming novel is genuinely funny and so, in its own way, is the piece by new Irish writer Sam Coll – but it’s probably true that the tenor of this issue is melancholy rather than light-hearted. Thus Cynthia Ozick’s captivating new story describes the tragic fate of the illegitimate daughter of a Jewish trader in ancient Greece. ‘Domain’, our lead story by Louise Erdrich, is about life after death in a hyper-digital age, written with the deft and warped veracity of all great science fiction. Will Self channels J.G. Ballard’s last days in a surreal and poignant meditation typed on Ballard’s own typewriter. Tim Winton writes movingly about his fear of hospitals. S.J. Naudé, the other new writer in the issue, describes a former nurse going for Aids training in the South African outback. Naudé writes in Afrikaans, but like many Afrikaans speakers he is bilingual, and translates himself into English. There is something reminiscent of J.M. Coetzee in his language, and in the vision of the fate of South Africa, hanging in the balance.
When I thought about this theme I felt that the contemporary discourse on sexual and gender identity must be part of it. Here, writer and academic Andrea Stuart describes, for the first time, her own transition to lesbianism. Her story is a measured defence of preference over destiny, of fluidity and of experimentation.
The transgender discourse has taken much of its narrative frame from the gay rights movement. Mark Gevisser is a South African writer, who is working on a project researching the Global Sexuality Frontier for the Open Society Foundations. We met and talked about the rise of transgender identity. It seems to me – Mark I think only partially agrees with this – that the idea of the simple structural opposite (the boy inside the girl’s body, the girl inside the boy’s body) might be temporal and fleeting, and that we don’t yet quite know how the model of gender identity will settle. But we do know that in at least some circles in America the gender you are born with is no longer assumed to be the gender you are destined to live.
The issue ends with Kent Haruf describing how, against significant odds, he became a writer. It is in some ways a narrative of anti-fatalism, or at least a story of self-determination – a good ending, I thought, and an oblique answer, if we need one, to the question of fate.