I know, America. I, too, have spent the last week googling "signs of possible world war III." The recent election results have left the majority of Americans devastated, angry, and legitimately afraid. But I invite everyone to take a deep breath, take a short break from reading think pieces about safety pins, and pick up a book. And then get ready to fight like hell, because a lot of your favorite authors were also dedicated activists who refused to take injustice sitting down. Here are just a few author activists who can inspire you to never, ever give up.
Now, of course, many activists have written books. We wouldn't have modern feminism without the writings of women like bell hooks, Judith Butler, and even the deeply problematic Betty Friedan (you know what you did, Betty). You can and should read their books. But many memoirists, poets, and novelists have also been deeply involved in activism. You don't have to be writing theory to be an activist. You can be writing children's books, science fiction, or prose poems, and still advocate fiercely for what's right.
Fiction, non-fiction, or in between, literature is never apolitical. This list is by no means complete, but here are a few of the tireless author-activists out there, to inspire you to keep fighting with everything you can:
1. Alice Walker
If you've read Alice Walker's most famous work, The Color Purple, then you probably won't be surprised to hear that Walker played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement as well as being an acclaimed novelist. Walker marched in the 1963 March on Washington, volunteered to register voters in the deep south, campaigned for children's programs, attended anti-war rallies, and coined the term "womanism" describe her Black feminism in 1983.
2. Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker is famous for her barbed tongue and witty poetry. But having an acerbic sense of humor didn't stop her from getting involved in various causes: Parker helped found The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936, which led to her being blacklisted by Hollywood as a communist. She was also an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, and willed her estate of Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP when she died in 1967. Her ashes are buried at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, under the epitaph she wrote for herself: "Excuse my dust."
3. Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was not just a poet and memoirist, she was also a prominent Civil Rights activist (and, at various times, a singer, actor, journalist, and fry cook). Angelou was a close friend of Malcom X, organizing marches and protesting apartheid during the '60s. She was politically involved well into her eighties, campaigning for Hillary Clinton and later Barack Obama in 2008.
4. Douglas Adams
Yes, comedy sci-fi writer Douglas Adams once climbed Mount Kilimanjaro while wearing a rhino suit (for a good cause!). Adams was an environmental activist who campaigned for saving endangered species, as well as working to educate young people on why endangered species matter. He traveled all over the world to advocate for environmentalism, and created the grimly-titled book and documentary series Last Chance to See to publicize species on the verge of extinction.
5. Claudia Rankine
Poet Claudia Rankine is one of the most celebrated author-activists writing today, and you should drop whatever you're doing right now and go read her "American lyric," Citizen. Rankine won a 2016 MacArthur "Genius" Grant, and she plans to use the money to found a Racial Imaginary Institute, which will be a space for artists and thinkers “to come together in a kind of laboratory environment to talk about the making of art and culture and… the dismantling of white dominance.”
6. Junot Diaz
Junot Diaz, author of Drown and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, somehow finds the time to be an award-winning novelist and an active member in a number of organizations. He's been involved in the Communist Dominican Workers' Party, the Dominican Youth Union, and the DREAM Project, which provides educational outreach to children in the Dominican Republic. He's also been a vocal critic of American immigration policies, with op-eds published in the New York Times.
7. Roald Dahl
OK, so Roald Dahl had a colorful life outside of writing about chocolate factories. He worked as a fighter pilot and a spy. He helped invent a treatment for brain damage in children, after his own son was hit by a taxi. He did and said a hell of a lot of problematic things. But he was also a fierce advocate for vaccination—especially after his beloved daughter died of measles when she was only seven.
8. Maxine Hong Kingston
Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior, is actually quite fervently against war. She's advocated for peace for decades, campaigning against both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. She and Alice Walker were once arrested at the same anti-war rally in 2003. But ten years later, Kingston was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Obama.
9. James Baldwin
James Baldwin was a playwright, novelist, and good friend of Maya Angelou, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr. He was a well-known spokesman for civil rights, as well as an advocate for gay rights long before gay rights were part of the mainstream conversation in America. His own sexual orientation caused many activists within the Civil Rights Movement to reject him, but he never allowed that to lessen his commitment to the cause.
10. J.K. Rowling
If anyone ever tries to tell you that Harry Potter is not political, remind them that Rowling "lost" her billionaire status because she donated so much money to causes she believes in. She's used her fame and fortune to fight for welfare rights and disabled and institutionalized children. Anyone who read that disastrous Pottermore piece on the history of American magic (oof) knows that she's far from perfect, Rowling's actions have undoubtedly made a difference in the world.