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Writers Get Political

[1]On Election Day in 2008, my father was bedridden, his body ravaged by lung cancer. Luckily, I’d convinced him to vote early, and less than three weeks later, he was gone. Herman Hugh Johnson, a man who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and Jim Crow, cast the last vote of his life for America’s first Black president.

I believe those of us whose ancestors have been denied the right to vote have a profound respect for its power. My debut novel, The Kindest Lie, opens with an election night watch party for Obama, and I tell the story of the promise and limits of hope during that era. As an author, I’ve struggled with how public to be about my own political activism. Who am I to speak out about politics? Will I alienate readers? What I’ve come to realize is that as a Black woman in America, my very existence is political. The stakes are too high for me to remain silent, so I’ll continue to use my voice as an author to encourage civic engagement and fight for freedom and justice.

That’s my story, but I wanted to hear from other authors. So, I asked them why they’ve chosen to be politically vocal and public about it. Here’s what they told me:

“I talk to my (social media) followers about the election as if we were sitting in a room having a conversation. I like to know what people are thinking, and I like to be heard.” – Maurice Carlos Ruffin, author of We Cast A Shadow

“I am a writer. It is something I’ve always wanted to do. Always wanted to be. I want to sell books. Lots and lots of books. And spend my days thinking about the next book I want to write. But I am a mother. Of two Black sons. The wife of a Black man. The grandmother to a tiny Black girl. This country has never GIVEN us anything. We have had to demand it, take it, die for it. The last four years have shown just how fragile these gains are, how easily taken away. If I can’t breathe the air, drink the water, have access to health care, marry who I love, make my own reproductive choices, or even be assured that my sons will come home at night, then having a bestseller is pointless. I DO care about book sales and alienating readers, but not as much as I care about living in a safe, clean, moral country.” – Rita Woods, author of Remembrance 

“I believe in a movement of the Left, one that can stop American fascism and apartheid dead in its tracks, one that can mitigate or even reverse the worst consequences of climate change, one that can benefit an entire intergenerational, multiracial working class. This is a movement that goes way beyond this election, so, in my experience talking to readers, people are hungry to ask questions, confront realities, and transcend mass amnesia and nationalism. It’s a great privilege as a writer to participate in those conversations. My great-grandfather, who founded a small farming village in Ecuador, was a political exile and a poet in hiding. He built a small, adobe one-room library and stocked it with French, Spanish, and Latin American writers. My grandfather, his son, was a farmer and helped organize a national farmers and truckers union. For years, I taught re-enrollment high school students in Chicago. My novel The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is about exile, liminal spaces, and desplazados (the displaced). It’s impossible for me to separate all this history and lived experience as a first-gen Latino from my work as a writer, so I’ve never given a second thought to alienating readers.” – Michael Zapata, author of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau

“When contemplating how to best steer A Mighty Blaze through the rapids of the upcoming election, cofounder Caroline Leavitt suggested the Blaze the Vote initiative, encouraging viewers to vote—and offering very cute merch! (We may be a bit biased, but who doesn’t want Blaze The Vote t-shirt, dog sweater or knee socks?) We at Blaze are well aware that this election is NOT business as usual; it is a choice about what kind of America we want to be, and we stand in solidarity with everyone who is politically anguished, active, and energized—and also viewers and readers who may feel scared and alone. You’re not. We’re here—a reading community that is also an American community welcoming all readers, all viewers, every ethnicity, age, gender. (And even literary preferences!)” – Jenna Blum (New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us) & Caroline Leavitt (New York Times bestselling author of With Or Without You), Cofounders, A Mighty Blaze

“Anyone following my author accounts could probably figure out my political leanings — I live in the Bay Area, am an immigrant, support Black Lives Matter, and champion diverse voices — but I was never explicit about it. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, I dipped my social media toe in the political waters. I posted about making donations to Senate candidates in five key states (but didn’t specify which party) and about writing letters to “get out the vote” (but didn’t say for whom). I’m not sure why I was being so coy. It’s not that I was afraid of alienating readers. I think it was probably a combination of trying to keep my social media presence positive and thinking that no one would care about my political views anyway. Recently, when a fellow author asked me to join other thriller writers to co-host a text-banking party with Field Team 6 — whose motto is Register Democrats, Save the World — I didn’t hesitate. So much is riding on this election. If I can sway even one person to text-bank with Field Team 6, register as Democrat, or vote Biden-Harris on election day, it’ll be worth it.” – A.H. Kim, author of A Good Family

“I’ve always been politically active, but I doubled down after Scott Walker became governor of Wisconsin and pushed through legislation to eliminate collective bargaining. At the time, I’d hear rumblings from friends who disapproved of political content on Facebook, but the issues at stake felt pressingly urgent to me, and I wondered where else we could even share dialogue with the political parties so entrenched in our state. Once Trump was elected, I noticed that my feed became much more political, and with much less resistance to the shift in tone. I thought about neutering politics from my social media after I signed a contract for my book. I didn’t want to offend potential readers and was thinking about myself as a public figure for the first time. But every day I woke (and wake) to a fresh new hell, and it seemed more important than ever to leverage some of these platforms to share information about injustice and policies that affect our lives… and honestly, posting is also a form of venting. Jane Smiley said that when we fall in love with a book, we’re really falling in love with the way that a writer thinks. My politics is part of my thinking.” – Christina Clancy, author of The Second Home

“My father, a poet, was a revolutionary who escaped Hungary following the failed 1956 revolution. His mother was a novelist who wrote sometimes in hiding, sometimes not, often thinly veiling her political commentary in her fiction. She wrote two books that were smuggled out of the country and only published after her death. This is all to say that I have ZERO compunctions about being political as a writer. I just can’t get too worked up about alienating a few readers (who, spoiler, were probably not going to love my 400-page novel about AIDS anyway) when I remember what real political courage looks like. What I’m doing is easy. If it gets harder, I hope I’m up for it.” – Rebecca Makkai, New York Times bestselling author of The Great Believers

My fervent hope is that we’re all up for it not just during election season, but every day. Thank you to these phenomenal authors and engaged citizens for their honesty, courage, and passion.

Please share why you vote, why you get involved politically, and why you’re encouraging others to make their voices count!

About Nancy Johnson [2]

Nancy Johnson [3] (she/her) is the debut author of THE KINDEST LIE, forthcoming February 2 from William Morrow/HarperCollins. Her novel has been named a most anticipated book of 2021 by Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, Woman's Day, and PopSugar. A graduate of Northwestern University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nancy lives in downtown Chicago. Find her online at https://nancyjohnson.net/ [3].