Local organizer discusses new novel ‘The Observant’

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Weaving a story about revolution, elite decadence, Western colonialism, and propaganda, local political organizer Ravi Mangla’s new book serves up a broad critique of authoritarianism in all its forms.

“The Observant,” Mangla’s second novel, was published in mid-May by a small New York City printing outfit, Spuytin Duyvil.

It tells the tale of documentarian Vasant Rai, who is imprisoned in a fictional Middle Eastern country after interviewing members of a revolutionary faction opposing their corrupt government. The bulk of the narrative focuses on Rai navigating the route to freedom he is offered and the costs that come with it.

Mangla is currently the communications manager for the New York Working Families Party. Before taking up that role, he worked as co-director of ROCitizen, a grassroots non-profit “committed to building a healthy, sustainable, and just community,” according to their website. He also held positions at the Justice Collaborative as a media strategist and at Citizen Action of New York as a political trainer. 

Penned by hand in cafes and the Rochester Central Library, the 150-page work was the culmination of weeks-long writing sessions spaced out over the past five years. It was partially inspired by his background in organizing and activism, and he saw the story as an opportunity to talk about authoritarianism in many forms.

Photo by Justin O’Connor

“If you imagine me starting this in 2016 or 2017, we have the backdrop of creeping fascism and authoritarianism here,” Mangla says. “Working in political spaces, I feel intensely interested in the way power manifests—the way it manifests with movements, the way it manifests in political and governing structures—and for this, I was using this story as a vessel for talking about authoritarianism from kind of every angle I can.”

It was also informed by the tensions he felt between being an artist and being political. As Mangla wrote the novel, he was grappling with questions about how meaningful his written works could be in actually advancing political change, an inner turmoil that he parallels in his main character.

However, Mangla says the writing experience was not all informed by gloom. He found great joy in carefully crafting perfectly-balanced sentences and playing with the rhythm and movement of dialog. The process also gave him the chance to research wide-ranging subjects, from falconry to Middle Eastern regime changes.

He encourages interested people to buy the book directly from Spuyten Duyvil or local bookshops like Akimbo or Hipocampo.

“Amazon is not the ideal venue for purchasing books if (the purchase is) meant to benefit the author or benefit the press,” he says.

The Rochester Beacon spoke with Mangla about “The Observant.” Following is an edited version of the conversation.

ROCHESTER BEACON: The book is a very nuanced and broad indictment of authoritarianism—it’s backdropped by criticism of Western authoritarianism, but it’s also critical of this nationalist, dogmatically anti-Western authoritarianism and tries to grapple with that tension. I’m interested in what led you to explore those dynamics.

RAVI MANGLA:  If you imagine me starting this in 2016 or 2017, we have the backdrop of creeping fascism and authoritarianism here. Working in political spaces, I feel intensely interested in the way power manifests—the way it manifests with movements, the way it manifests in political and governing structures—and for this, I was using this story as a vessel for talking about authoritarianism from kind of every angle I can. Colonialism definitely plays into this quite a bit, and there are tensions between the narrator’s own biases, perceptions and the naivete that he goes in with. Some of my favorite parts of the book are the conversations between Mohadessi, the dictator, and Vasant, the narrator, as they discuss their perspectives. In many ways they’re not dissimilar; you cannot say they’re diametrically opposed, and both of them recognize a lot of the issues with the West and the kind of colonialist mentality or the paternalistic mentality that comes from there, yet their response to that may be very different.

ROCHESTER BEACON: You also see Mohadessi’s paternalism towards his own people.

MANGLA: Yeah, and I think another thing that’s really interesting to me is the way that that intention kind of mutates itself, or the way that someone like Mohadessi deceives himself. You see with a lot of dictators or authoritarian figures throughout history the tension between how they present and how they govern. Trying to call themselves these egalitarian, man-of-the-people types, and yet everything they do is extremely top-down, isolated, siloed, and repressive, and it contrasts with their own view of themselves. So kind of holding up a mirror to that was interesting to me.

ROCHESTER BEACON: And also this obsession with stability that you see with Mohadessi and leaders like him, it’s almost like, “we can have utopia after we build security.” To some extent it’s fair because these countries are subject to frequent regime change, but it’s interesting how that utopian intention gets perverted over time.

Ravi Mangla (Photo courtesy of Ravi Mangla)

MANGLA: I think that’s a huge thing about it, the perversion of that intention, if you think about society’s ultimate goal as finding utopia. Whether we recognize it or not, I think we all kind of have this hope that we move and march slowly towards progress, towards a closer vision of something that feels utopian, better, progressive. Whether we are to the right, to the left, no matter where we are politically some vague vision of utopia is what lies before us. A huge thing is how easily that becomes perverted as things like propaganda, prejudices, and other things end up sending us off course.

ROCHESTER BEACON: I think the book is also unconventional in how it tells a story of uprising. Minus the prison scenes, it’s kind of tranquil in reveling in lavish hotels and estates. I think the natural impulse as a writer might be to build drama by embedding this in revolutionary violence. I’m interested in why you chose to tell it from this angle instead.

MANGLA: It’s a curious thing. I think I’ve read books and experienced art and content that often tells the story of movement and uprisings from the ground, from the grassroots, and that’s been my lived experience too participating in movement culture and protest. I think I was curious of what it looks like from a distance, what it looks like if you’re one step removed from it, with him witnessing scenes on TV or talking to participants but not actually participating himself. And also having Vasant earlier in the story thinking about himself as somebody that is doing good and important work in the world through making films that are shining a light on various social justice causes or cruelties in society, and then being confronted with the fact that maybe he’s not really part of the struggle and is just a bystander who, in many ways, is maybe complicit in exploiting these for his own benefit and not actually helping or moving things forward. So it was a perspective that I probably have not seen quite as much, and I was really interested in just exploring it and being able to look at these as a kind of bystander, someone who is sympathetic but a step removed. You don’t see the kind of ferocity that is often happening on the ground. The Arab Spring was definitely an influence for the kind of democracy uprisings that form the backdrop of the novel, but we only get a very small peephole into what’s going on.

ROCHESTER BEACON: It’s also deeply embedded in extravagance.

MANGLA: There were a handful of influences for this. I often bring up the kidnapping of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, who were two members of South Korean film royalty in the ‘70s. One was a director, one was an actress, and they were kidnapped by Kim Jong-il, who was then the minister of propaganda. They were forced to make films for the North Korean government. That was really the kernel of this idea, and my own fascination with propaganda and power made me want to take that and figure out a way to spin it or reimagine it in a different kind of light. The extravagance is a theme that I think you see with a lot of these dictatorial forces, even ones who come up through humble means. There’s a synthesis between that power and that extravagance. I think about (former Romanian leader Nicolae) Ceaușescu, the Shah in Iran (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) before he was toppled, and even Kim Jong-il. Just a great deal of extravagance that has a deep tension with the way that they publicly promote themselves and the image of themselves that they project to the world. A lot of these countries claim to be communist, but it’s actually closer to state capitalism—a stripping of resources from poor and working people and concentrating it within a few powerful members of government. So yeah that’s something I definitely wanted to discuss, intersections between that kind of extravagance and power, and how at a certain point it feels like you stop seeing the extravagance as it becomes a way of life.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Moving on, all throughout the book is mentions of birds. You have this guy on house arrest at the start who memorizes all these facts about birds, you have this prisoner who listens to bird calls and composes from it, and obviously this extravagant falconry scene. I wanted to ask about the significance of that choice and whether it was intentional.

MANGLA: Even though the falconry scene may not be pivotal for the actual propulsion of the story, it’s one of my favorite sections and something that felt dramatically significant. I don’t know how to explain it, but for some reason that scene in the book pops for me. So when I thought about what to put on the cover, the falcon came to mind. I found this old guidebook drawing from the 18th century that’s in the public domain, and the fact that it’s a masked bird just seemed to be perfect. It kind of dovetails with Vasant’s own story of being in captivity and trapped and being subjected to a more powerful force in the way that these falcons are at the whim of their masters. It just felt right.

ROCHESTER BEACON: It also seems to contribute to this idea of Vasant’s naivete, because he overestimates his freedom as well. These falcons think they are hunting while they are really being baited.

MANGLA: Yup, they’re in a contained space, doing what they do in a very contained, controlled environment in the same way that he’s creating a film under terms that are not his.

ROCHESTER BEACON: In that first moment when the reader puts down the book, what do you hope they reflect on and pull away from this?

MANGLA: I hope that it’s an immersive experience and that people feel they can envision it and that they lived in it for a short period of time. I love the immersive experience of books, so I hope it’s something that people felt enveloped in. I hope it challenged them to think about language, maybe in a different way, to really enjoy the sentences or the way things were constructed. And, you know, I think political novels are important. We are in a time of scary things happening every day, to be frank, and there is not a lot of civic engagement in this country. We are seeing terrifying forces rise up all around the world. So, I hope it asks some questions about the way that government mutates, the way that power rises up, and the way that propaganda works. I would love to see more political novels, and I expect that’s something we probably will be seeing in the future.

ROCHESTER BEACON: How has your experience in organizing contributed to the novel? What are the personal elements there?

MANGLA: It just feels like such a culture that I’m steeped in. Working in organizing and politics has just been my whole world over the past five years, so it probably manifests all over the place whether I see it or not. Definitely when he’s talking with the movement leader, when he’s talking with the dictator, a lot of my own preoccupations and interests will come up. I just feel like someone who’s really fascinated with movement and protests, and even though this doesn’t spend that much time in that, it’s a backdrop to the story and definitely informs that in many ways. And then my other hobbies—I’m really passionate about film, so being able to marry politics and film in this was really satisfying and felt like a personal expression of the things I really love.

ROCHESTER BEACON: And it does seem most dominantly to be a reflection on the relationship between art and politics. You have these despots repurposing art for their own pleasure, and the limits of Vasant’s own art.

MANGLA: That’s spot-on. Those are the two interests that rise to the top for me. Grappling with the responsibility as well as the limitations of making art. I worked a long time as a freelance writer, more focused on art, and moving into a political space definitely made me question the purpose of what I was doing before. I truly believe that art is critical, writing is critical, reading is critical, but it does have limitations. I think that the interplay between those themes is kind of central to everything, and that’s where my headspace was for the early parts of writing this book, and I’m glad I was able to dig into those topics.

Justin O’Connor is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at the University of Rochester. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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