6 Ways Book-Lovers Can Use Literature To Fight Back
From movements like Writers Resist (the soon-to-be Write Our Democracy,) to the viral "understanding Trumpism" syllabus compiled by Johns Hopkins historian N.D.B. Connolly and University of Iowa history professor Keisha Blain, to writers concerned about the role of poetry in the age of Trump, book lovers and makers are clearly wondering if and how literature can be used to fight back against an increasingly unjust state. Some are certain of literature’s unique ability to protest. Others are asking questions like: how can I write about my own small life, when there appear to be so many larger stories that need telling now? Still more are concerned that engaging with art — reading and writing — might be too great an indulgence when there are more urgent, immediate tasks of justice that need attention. These are fair questions; and there have been moments when I’ve asked them of myself.
But unlike those readers and writers concerned about the importance of literature in the age of Trump, there is not any question in my own mind that art and writing must be part of the resistance against current politics — and in fact, have always been part of resistance movements, whether you’re a 21st century political poet railing against the government, or a Paleolithic artist tattooing quiet resistance against your own mortality onto limestone cave walls. Art and literature were changing the world long before the concept of “the poetry of protest” evolved — from Martin Luther distributing his 95 Theses, to Pete Seeger recording We Shall Overcome, or Virginia Woolf defending her right to a room of her own.
I’m not naïve enough to think Trump is going to be defeated by a couple of books, a handful of poetry, and some verse written in colorful ink across picket signs. But what the best resistance now endeavors to do is raise the volume of voices speaking against him, drowning out his own violent rhetoric beneath a cacophony of truth, justice, passion, wisdom, and kindness.
Here are six ways you can use literature to fight Trump, right now.
1. Show Up To The Movement, In Your Own Way
Here is something wonderful about literature: it shows up. The fact of literature cannot be disputed (unlike practically every other fact, these days.) It’s right there on the page. You can hand literature to someone and the fact of the weight of that literature will be sitting right there, in their palm. By writing literature, we’re adding the fact of our voices — we’re still here, we exist, these are our truths — to the larger movement. By reading literature, you make space for others to add fact of their voices to the movement as well; bearing witness to their stories, recognizing their truths.
This one isn’t complicated: if you don’t show up to the movement, you forfeit. If you don’t write, you won’t be read. Read, because others have written.
2. Demonstrate Diverse Forms Of Power
Here is something that Trump doesn’t, and certainly has never, understood: money doesn't always equal power.
Since I was a child picking up my first chapter books, and likely long before, governments at the local, state, and federal levels have threatened to revoke funding from arts education and arts organizations, despite the evidence that such programming has shown to improve everything from critical thinking and problem solving skills, to mental health, to emotional intelligence. Often such funding has been reduced and revoked — and it certainly will be again. But Trump’s scary plans to end national arts funding are no different than the plans to end national arts funding that came before him. And yet... we still have poets and novelists, musicians and painters, sculptors and photographers, and the like.
Autocratic, hostile demagogues like Trump always attempt to defund the artists. And who can blame them? In dictatorships throughout history artists and writers have shown themselves to be the last standing tellers of truth, when those authoritarian governments have stripped everything else away. If we writers (and we consumers of art and literature) were dependent on, forbid, government funding, we wouldn’t do what we do. To commit to something for the love of it — in this case, to read and write towards that unyielding love — is the greatest fear of repressive leaders the world over; not only because they can’t understand it, but because they don't have the tools to combat it.
3. Literature Allows You To Step Inside Someone Else’s Truth
Literature and storytelling can help shape the ways we approach the world, informing our understanding of everything from race and gender, to faith, culture, and nationality, war and immigrant rights, prison reform and environmental justice, and just about anything else you can think of. Books allow us all the equal experience of sitting inside someone else’s truth for a time — as Atticus Finch said “[to] climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
This is the key to countering the hatred we're experiencing and/or witnessing now. We hate because we don't know. Literature helps us know.
4. Literature Takes The Long View
In case you haven’t noticed, I am a Millennial — which is to say, I haven’t seen much more than the past two decades of history. I wasn’t alive during the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, or the Vietnam War, or the Watergate scandal. I wasn’t around when Dachau was liberated, or during the Civil Rights Movement, and was barely cognizant of my own existence when the Berlin Wall fell. Without the long view that comes from age and experience, I relate to many of the feelings my Millennial peers are having now: that a Trump presidency is the first of its kind, the worst of its kind, something we alone unknowingly created and we alone are responsible for addressing, without any guidance or sense of historical context.
But feeling unique in history is not only inaccurate, it’s isolating. There is a profound sense of loneliness that such perceptions invoke. What literature does is remind us that we’re not the first, we’re not the worst, and we’re not alone in history. Ebbs and flows of tragedy and success, violence and peace, turmoil and calm, loss and gain have always been central to the human experience. It’s our responsibility to simply do the best we can, where we’re at — to fight within our place and time, not against it.
5. Art Acts As A Reminder That Not Everything HAS To Be Strictly Political
While I think the mere act of continuing to tell stories (loudly) in spite of a White House administration that endeavors to silence any and every dissenting point of view is itself inherently political, what literature reminds us of in times of great, divisive turmoil — when everything seems exhaustingly politicized — is that not all things have to be. The pursuit of art for art’s sake, beauty for beauty’s sake, is still a worthy one.
As American journalist Alistair Cooke — someone who was alive during every success and failure, crisis and tragedy, invention and advancement of the 20th century — said: “In the best of times, our days are numbered anyway. So it would be a crime against nature for any generation to take the world crisis so solemnly that it put off enjoying those things for which we were designed in the first place: the opportunity to do good work, to enjoy friends, to fall in love, to hit a ball, and to bounce a baby.” I'd certainly add: to read and write books.
6. Read In Pursuit Of What The Very Best Storytelling Represents
Aka: careful thought. Self-restraint. Objectivity. Ethics. Public kindness. Grace. Beauty. Resplendent empathy. Creativity and imagination. Hope. Authenticity. Bravery. Full-heartedness. Wisdom and informed thinking. Passion. Profound truth.
We’ve seen plenty of writing that moves in the opposite direction of such noble, literary pursuits lately.
To stop engaging with literature in the age of Trump is to neglect to cultivate the very best of ourselves. If we are not fighting to preserve the very best of our human spirit in the face of such profound ugliness, then what, I'd ask, are we fighting for?
Don't stop reading. Don't stop writing. Hold tight to your keyboard, your pen, your paintbrush, your spray paint. Resist.