Tag Archives: PEN America

How Bookish People can have Hope in Dark Days

Powerful malign forces are about in the world, and they work to disempower us. Yet there are also strong alternative expressions of a more positive view of human lives. While some may feel they must hide away until the danger is passed, others are seeking to find ways to give impetus to the strong humanitarian, democratic and positive currents. There are bookish things to do.

It has been a dreadful 18 months

Since the political scene turned toxic about 18 months ago, when the Conservatives were re-elected in the UK to continue the austerity regime, it has felt more and more hopeless to stand against the reductionist and discriminatory agendas gaining ground in democracies. Reactions to migration across the Mediterranean, the vote in favour of leaving the EU, and then the election of Trump, despite his behaviour, all this has been nearly overwhelming. Almost, but not yet overwhelming.

I take heart from some bookish people who remind us that dark days do not equate with the end of hope. Let’s start with Rebecca Solnit.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit

This book was originally written in the dark days of 2004, but has had some later additions in 2016 in response to more dark days. It is an important book for in it Rebecca Solnit suggests that without hope we are disempowered. No defeatism here! Hope implies the possibility of a better future, not one that will arrive simply by putting one’s head down and hoping for the best, but hope that indicates that action is required.

She describes some of the improvements that we now take for granted, such as votes for women, or changes in East Timor, or attitudes to LGBT lives. She reminds us that behind the imperfect victories in these areas have been movements of people, hundreds of discussions, oppositional acts, challenges, visions of alternatives, all the slow growth of the groundswell of opinion. The hope lay with Suffragettes and other supporters of women’s votes, with those who published stories of the atrocities on East Timor, and the campaigns to promote LGBT rights.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. For me this means not accepting the new American administration press secretary Sean Spicer’s comments to the press, designed it seems to intimidate, about the attendance at Trump’s inauguration. Rather to look for evidence. Trump appears to have declared war on the press, and it seems to me that we must support them in prosecuting their trade: finding evidence, demanding Trump’s Income Tax returns, telling, as they say, truth to power.

But further than uncovering lies and misleading information (don’t forget that bus) we also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Rebecca Solnit points out that this is not fast or direct action.

This is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no one is a bigger gambler. Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” finally found its readers in the twentieth century when it was put into practice as part of the movements that changed the world. (Thoreau’s voice was little heard in his time, but it echoed across the continent in the 1960s and has not left us since. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin, and Arthur Rimbaud, like Thoreau, achieved their greatest impact long after their deaths, long after weeds had grown over the graves of most of the bestsellers of their lifetime.)

You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might rot. In California some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire, and sometimes the burned landscape blooms most lavishly. (66-67)

Don’t be overwhelmed by ‘the defeatist perspective’, she argues. Talk about ‘both the terrible things we should engage with and the losses behind us, as well as the wins and achievements that give us confidence to endeavour to keep pursuing the possibilities.’ (142)

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit. Published by Canongate (2004 with additions 2016) 152pp

Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King

We must retell Martin Luther King’s story. In his Letter from Birmingham City Jail in April 1963, Martin Luther King noted four steps to successful nonviolent resistance. Originally a riposte to eight Alabama clergymen who accused him of being an outsider, it became a foundational text for the civil rights movement, but also for the struggle for social justice and equality everywhere. Here are three extracts:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:

  1. collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive

  2. negotiation;

  3. self-purification; and

  4. direct action.

I was trained as a historian. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Collect the facts! Pay attention to details!

We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

For more on this see Maria Popova’s brainpickings of March 18th 2015.

Paul Auster

The reaction of the American writer Paul Auster to Trump’s victory has been astonishment, and then asking the question what could he do, how could he live his life. He has decided to act.

I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years – to become [stand for] president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but I’ve never wanted to take on the full burden. I’ll start early in 2018. I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself. From the Guardian January 2017.

He will speak out, supporting an organisation that works against freedom of expression for writers.

Bookish actions

Community of readers has plenty to do it seems to me. Reading. Retelling stories of hope and injustice. Writing stories of hope. Showing us different views of the future.

And as citizens we must support both the law and the press that currently stand in the front line between us and tyranny in both the UK and the US. The press must go on asking awkward questions, must reveal unpalatable truths, seek out and present evidence of wrong-doing, and success.

We who write must write in hope and remind readers not to despair.

Paignton Library 2015

Related blog posts

Not a Bookblogger’s New Year List (January 2017)

Men Explain things to me by Rebecca Solnit (May 2015)

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit in Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

Steps to Improve your Writing (August 2016)

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Banning Books

Why do people in authority ban a book? They fear the power of the book. They fear the ideas or knowledge within the covers. As so often happens when you ban something it draws attention to it. Remember Mrs Thatcher banning the voices of the IRA on the news. In the recent Banned Books Week some surprising titles were revealed to have appeared on banned lists, especially in US in school districts where they take a different line about things and have different processes.

Banning books to protect children

213 Jenny_Lives_with_Eric_and_MartinFrequently a ban on a book is intended to prevent the corruption of the minds of the young. Or to protect them from ideas that adults believe might be too difficult. Behind the idea of banning books for children is a distrust of their ability to explore their world. I remember schools being banned from using books about living with gay parents. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bosche (1983) was notorious. Local Governments were also banned in 1988 from promoting a homosexual lifestyle and ‘the acceptability of homosexual relationships as a pretended family relationship’ (the notorious section 28). The world had gone mad.

The Scottish Book Trust noted that these books about or for children had been banned somewhere: 213 1940 AnneFrankSchoolPhoto

  • Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Diaries of Anne Franks
  • Forever Judy Bloom
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Judy Bloom writes about themes that interest young adults, their relationships with their parents, with people of their own age, fractured families, sexuality, strong emotions. She was one of the first to do so and earned a loyal readership as a result. The idea that childhood is a time of innocence is also challenged in different ways by Alice and by Huckleberry Finn.

Young girls with spirit are notoriously dangerous to those with absolutist beliefs. That must be why The Diaries of Anne Frank appears on the list.

Books that challenge social (sexual) norms

Then there are books that shock a little, intended to push the boundaries of what is discussed, what is known.

213 LolitaThe list begins with Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. It would be hard to read Lolita without noticing that Herbert Humbold is a self-serving monster. It is a tough read because he sounds so plausible. People behave in bad ways and appear plausible. Those who wanted to ban Lolita mistook the messenger for the message. I suspect that many of them had not read Lolita.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence was completed in 1928. Penguin published it in the UK in 1960 and a court case tested both the book and the obscenity laws. Lady Chatterley was notoriously ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’, according to chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones. Lawrence’s particular joyfulness at sex challenged assumptions and made explicit the shocking idea that women enjoyed sex, had sexual desires. And it also offended class sensibilities. It was acquitted under obscenity laws in 1960.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness also from 1928 provoked extreme reactions: ‘I’d rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this book’ fulminated James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express. Its subject, lesbians, were seen to challenge the family values that the Express stood for. The Well also suffered under obscenity laws, although the legal battles over the book increased the visibility of lesbians in both British and American society.

Not about sexual norms but more about decency and a fear that it ‘wallowed in repulsiveness’ Barbara Comyns’s 1958 novel Who was Changed and Who was Dead was also banned. There is an interesting article about it on the PEN America website by Matt Bell. He argues that we should rejoice in its lack of moralising which promotes change ‘including an increase in moral complexity, intellectual range and truest empathy’.

And the political ideas

Banning the books with political themes is mystifying to our modern sensibilities, with exception of the Rushdie. Banned titles have included

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Frankenstein by Mark Shelley
  • Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

213 PerseoplisBut again, the powerful do not like challenges to the status quo. Or do not like readers’ minds being exposed to ideas that might challenge their certainties, even if the challenge is itself a critique of the opposing ideas, as is Animal Farm. And they don’t like books that promote girls and women as active and brave and determining their own futures as Persepolis does. It is graphic novel about a young Iranian girl during the period of the fall of the Shah and after. The challenges to the book’s place in schools and on the curriculum in the US is considered on the Banned Books Week website, Case Study: Persepolis by Maggie Jacoby, September 2015.

Books are good for healthy debate and challenge some questionable assumptions. In the forefront of reminding us about banned books are librarians, fighters for freedom of speech. That’s another reason to support libraries and librarians. And so too is the writer’s organisation PEN, and you can find the English PEN website here. Support them too!

What banned books have most grated with you? Is there ever a case for banning a book? What do you think?

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