Writing in an age of resistance

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I haven’t shared my thoughts on the U.S. presidential election here at my website, though those of you who follow me on Twitter have seen that I have had plenty to say. I also wrote this piece on #BlackLivesMatter and opposing Trump back in July. My political beliefs are not hard to find, and I suspect they have not alienated many of my readers. To me, especially in these times, the stakes for remaining silent dwarf the stakes for speaking out.

We do not know what will happen when the new presidential administration and Republican-controlled congress takes over in January. But we know the Trump/Pence platform is an aggressive plan to deport immigrants, repeal low cost health insurance for the uninsured, turn back environmental protections, and defeat progress with tax reform to the benefit of millionaires and corporations. Those are scary proposals that must be fought to protect human rights and economic justice, and sadly they are familiar themes in American politics.

What I see as an immediate threat, already underway through Trump’s campaign and post-election, is the de-legitimization of facts and pluralistic values, with the specific goal of disempowering immigrants, people of color, women, and to an extent LGBTs. That’s also a familiar strategy in American politics, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen it used to so blatantly, at least in my lifetime. Trump was an amazingly successful provocateur of White American self-interest, perhaps particularly among working-class, rural voters, though that’s a narrative of the election that I suspect is overplayed (in many states, Whites of all income levels went for Trump).

The economy is a disaster and only going to get worse.

Illegal immigrants are pouring over our borders, stealing our jobs, and endangering our lives with crime and terrorism.

Universal health care is an unfair burden on the middle class that is crippling our economy.

Rampant voter fraud in (Black) inner cities is disenfranchising White Americans.

None of those talking points are true, but the truth did not matter. I’m not sure whether we should be demanding a recount or demanding a psychological autopsy on Trump voters. I suspect we would find that White economic and social insecurity pushed Trump to the winning side of the Electoral College.

That insecurity was fomented by racially-charged misinformation. And it’s incredibly dangerous. We have already seen White anger acted out post-election through white nationalist graffiti and attacks on Muslim Americans and Black Americans, a disturbing trend across the country and right where I live in New York City. The triumph of fear-mongering propaganda has prompted many to wonder if we are on the cusp of a fascist regime, as discussed by political observer, linguist and author Noam Chomsky. Trump’s so-called “populist” and more so nationalist and anti-immigrant campaign has counterparts in Europe. It has created anxiety around the world.

In author circles, an interesting question that has emerged is how can literature help during times of oppression and resistance? Author Vaughn Roycroft wrote about the subject back in September in an excellent POV piece for Writer Unboxed titled: “The Importance of Storytelling in Turbulent Times.” In that article, Roycroft talks about the power of storytelling to bring about collectiveness:

“Stories inform our worldview, and create a common basis for our interconnectedness. Our stories define us. And it’s what we share that defines our humanity.”

Humanity. That’s something we definitely need more of. Literature reaffirms our humanity, and not just through explicitly political stories. Stories introduce us to different worlds, different people, different perspectives. They enhance interpersonal understanding. They help us see ourselves in different ways. Stories can be powerful tools to expand the notion of self-interest. They take us on a journey wearing someone else’s shoes, and have the potential to build empathy and relatedness, which is key to recognizing the benefit to the individual when all of us are treated fairly and with dignity.

This question of the role of literature came up at the recent Queens LGBT Book Night, where I was asked, along with the other panelists, what can books and writing do for us as we resist and protest?

I think the most important thing that anyone can do, author or otherwise, is join the movement to fight misinformation with truth and stand up for the dignity of Muslims, people of color, women, immigrants and LGBTs. Writers can make important contributions to that effort by virtue of our ability to articulate well-reasoned arguments, as well as our ability to research. Journalist Lauren Duca recently wrote an exceptional op-ed for Teen Vogue: “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” for example.

I also talked about the role of literature in nurturing the soul. Many of us are wounded by this election. It was a rejection of democratic values. It was an affirmation of racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic rhetoric, and it left many of us wondering: how safe am I?

I don’t think that literature can solve that problem, but I do know it can renew us and make us stronger and better fortified to fight. When I read a good story, and as a fantasy author, I’m often reading fantasy, something happens inside me that is a bit hard to describe. Whether it’s through wonder, surprise, pathos, or the intelligence of ideas, I feel a sense of hopefulness. Maybe it comes from experiencing the power of possibilities. Unlikely heroes can triumph. Even when everything is stacked against us, we can solve epic problems. We have the ability to understand and have impact on our world. In social work, borrowing from one of my heroes Lawrence Shulman, we call it “strength for change,” the belief that “no matter how hopeless it seems, there’s always a next step.”

I’m not saying necessarily we need more stories with happy endings. Oftentimes, the most satisfying stories leave things in a gray area, which I find is true to the complexity of the world. It’s up to the reader to imagine what happens next. Yet by inspiring us to imagine, we are empowered. And I guess that’s what I mean by literature nurturing the soul. It activates the imagination and gets us in touch with our essential optimism. Surely that’s not a little thing as we resist the wave of reactionary furor that has beset our country. We need to refuel our belief in hope.

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