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The Role of the Writer in Perilous Times

My wife Carole and me at demonstration to Keep Families Together (Immigration), 2018

I’ve been sitting at my computer wondering if it’s selfish to be staring at the screen, searching for the perfect word, when our democracy is under threat? What is my role in times like these; what can writers do?

Searching for writers’ impacts in previous eras I think first of the long, difficult sojourn of African Americans, for whom every decade of their four hundred years on this soil has been perilous. But part of the resilience they built came from inspirational writing, like the early twentieth century poet James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing. Set to music, the iconic poem became the “Negro National Anthem,” sung at African American school assemblies, churches, and public celebrations or gatherings to mourn. The poem/song doesn’t shrink from trouble—“Stony the road we trod/Bitter the chastening rod”—yet the chorus rises melodically into a great rejoicing, to “resound loud as the rolling sea” with the singers “facing the rising sun of our new day begun/Let us march on till victory is won.” Every time I’ve joined others in the rousing chorus, the optimism, no matter the context, has been infectious.

Women of all hues, subject to continual abuse and attack, have also created a long history of literature encouraging resistance in the face of trauma. Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise is a beautiful example: “You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I rise.” It goes on recounting atrocities, but always countering them with the steadfast refrain: “Still I Rise.” Alice Walker’s Celie in the novel The Color Purple shows another woman who, beaten and scorned all her life, not only survived, but thrived. Marge Piercy, Doris Lessing, Audre Lorde, Agnes Smedley, Grace Paley, and countless others created characters who demonstrated, by their toughness, a capacity for survival. Others, like Delores Ibarruri (“La Passionaria”) in civil war Spain, wrote memoirs. All of them were touchstones for me when, as a young, poor, single mother, I wasn’t sure how to go on. Readers can draw on their strength again now, during this time when we need inspiration.

I think of this art when I ponder whether I should be siting at my desk, or busily raising support for undocumented immigrants, or Muslims or Jews targeted by rising intolerance. Not that both activities—writing and activism—are mutually exclusive, but I wonder if I can’t make my greatest contribution through writing. “What is literature which does not save nations or people?” asked Czeslaw Milosz, the late Polish poet and patriot.

Our work need not be explicitly didactic to accomplish this. We don’t need to preach or exhort. Any writing that moves people, giving them access to the world of another, will open their hearts. And thereby compassion. Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of the novel The Sympathizer, recently wrote, “Through identifying with characters and people who are nothing like us, through destroying the walls between ourselves and others, the people who love words—both writers and readers—strive to understand others and break down the boundaries that separate us.” If we writers create honestly, from the core of ourselves, we will touch readers. Paradoxically, in our solitary labors we can reach out to form a common bond. For whatever our genre, we are truth tellers, reaching deep inside for soul truths.

When we write from our own centeredness and express that integrity, most readers will respond in kind. When we write with love—even if we speak of terrible deeds—that tenderness will shine through. A recent study by cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley from the University of Toronto confirms what readers have long known: "When we read about other people, we can imagine ourselves into their position and we can imagine what it's like being that person. That enables us to better understand people, better cooperate with them."

Author Lynn Hunt, in her book Inventing Human Rights: A History, even argues that our commitment to equal rights stemmed partly from expanded literacy. Fiction helped readers identify with oppressed people.

Today, in a culture that trades in slander, “post-truth” and “relative truth,” we need empathy-inducing writing more than ever. Some of us will write new visions for our culture, with paradigm shifts that liberate imagination. Others may focus on daily moments of beauty—the flight of an egret or the slippery dives of a river otter—reminding readers that their own quiet moments in nature can be a meditation, bringing sanity to their lives. Some writers will author new histories, giving us a roadmap to the future. Others will document a slice of our world as it is—like Anne Frank’s candid diary showing her reality, still shining in all its horror and hope seventy years later. Whatever form and subject matter we choose, honest writing helps create human connection. Such writing melts the numb places inside readers, expanding their capacity for empathy.

Not only can we writers make a contribution to others, we need to write for ourselves. As Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” When we sit alone searching for the right word, the right sentiment, the act itself grounds us. We come from a sacred and honorable tradition, the truth-telling writers. Let us rejoice and do our part, “Facing the rising sun of our new day begun.”

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