Over the past week, I’ve struggled to write. I’ve struggled to do many of the things that typically bring me joy or at least make me feel remotely content. Sleep has been elusive. These are difficult times for our country. We’re living in a moment when our democracy demands our attention, stirring our passions, forcing us to decide who and what we believe. It gnaws at our consciousness even as we may try to ignore it. We can’t turn away. And we shouldn’t. As citizens and especially as writers, we must engage.
I agonized over writing this post thinking that taking space here to address this topic may be labeled inappropriate. I might be subverting the unwritten writer code that we can’t risk being perceived as polarizing. Some would assert that this forum for writers is not the place for anything remotely political. They may be right, but I believe that silence is also political.
We often look to fiction as a means to escape the inescapable. Every summer, publishers promote the pastel covers of our favorite beach reads and many of us curl up with them well into fall and winter to cocoon ourselves in the warmth of stories we hope will have happy endings. Alternately, some of us read dystopian novels where humanity scrambles for survival in a dark, nightmarish world. We cloak ourselves in the illusion that dystopia is far-off and unimaginable to make our current reality more bearable. Unfortunately, we’re living the cautionary tale we fear.
When I talk to my friends in writing organizations, we often lament about how helpless we feel in this time when objective truth is pilloried, marginalized people are re-victimized, and hard-won rights are in danger of being stripped away. Our hand-wringing remains constant.
Now is not the time to stop writing or to write only to help our readers and ourselves escape reality. We can use our writing to fight our way out of what scares and overwhelms us. Some have labeled this “writing as resistance.” Yes, I want to resist injustice and intolerance, but I also want to foster understanding and build empathy. I’m not advocating that we write novels that promote a partisan stance. That’s didactic propaganda that keeps us kicking and screaming from our ideological corners. The best fiction remains a place where we can immerse ourselves in the world of characters who grapple with systems of oppression, demand agency, and struggle to make sense out of a complex world. It’s still all about story first.
As writers, we’re equipped for battle with our laptops and smartphones, or typewriters and pens, and access to Wi-Fi practically anywhere we go. Our bunkers may be our home offices, subway trains, or coffee shops. Our greatest weapon is our gift for writing. A talent we can use to create characters and tell stories that make people think and feel, challenge our assumptions about each other, and help us move forward in turbulent times.
Throughout history and in contemporary works, literature has held up a mirror to society, showing us who we are and asking us who we want to be. When I first read The Grapes of Wrath as a young student, I had no idea how political it was. John Steinbeck set this American classic during the Great Depression and followed a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers who rebelled against a corrupt political system and authoritarian institutions such as banks and farm owners. It’s a story of laborers, disenfranchised migrants traveling west seeking the American Dream while social inequality keeps it just outside their reach.
Sometimes, the most effective resistance in fiction is a story that upends the predominant narrative about a group of people. The contemporary short story collection Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires does just that. After the election of Barack Obama as president, some declared we had entered a post-racial era. Not so fast. Thompson-Spires introduces readers to blackness outside of the typical struggle narrative. She explores trauma visited upon black bodies in the nuanced, unexpected stories of everyone from university professors and yogis to anime cosplayers.
Immigration has been at the center of our national debate in recent years and I’m drawn to novels that humanize this issue, which divides us politically. Currently, I’m listening to the audio version of The Book of Unknown Americans, the story of two families – one from Mexico and the other from Panama – that came to America for the sake of their children. The author, Cristina Henriquez, lets us hear the voices and stories of men and women from all over Latin America who are redefining home. However, at the core of this novel is a love story between two immigrant teenagers. What I’ve understood of the immigrant experience has been limited to news stories. Hernriquez doesn’t address the political context in which her novel takes place; instead, she lets us get close to Maribel and Mayor, two kids finding love and figuring out what it means to be American.
At a time in our nation’s history when so many of us believe our voices are being diminished, this is the time for writers to tell the untold stories. We can amplify the voices of the unheard. We can change minds and hearts. Sometimes that feels like an added burden when we’re already depleted and perhaps disillusioned. Still, I believe that the choices we make about what to write and what stories we tell are how we reclaim our power. That’s where our hope lies. Yes, that’s political and I don’t apologize for it.
How do you view your role as a writer during these troubled political times? Do writers have a unique responsibility right now? Why? Why not? Which authors and novels are helping us fight our way back to our best selves and a place of hope?