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BETWEEN THE LINES

Can fiction change the world? Should it even try?

I know. I know. This topic is likely to make you roll your eyes, unless you’re one of the 8.9% of writers who are – like me – obsessed with it. Another 35% believe that art is for art’s sake alone: spectacular sunsets, striking metaphors, startling insights about the human condition, but don’t step too close to the line. Over that line lurk propaganda, didacticism, partisanship, the literary equivalents of activist judges. The other 56.1% don’t care and have already clicked away. (Disclosure: these statistics are made-up.)

Seriously though, you can’t live in my family without believing in the power of literature to effect change. My father-in-law Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan) wrote the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” often quoted as the most important protest song of the 20th century. Even before meeting Abel, literature was critical to my education as a citizen of the world. In my teens and early twenties, I was captivated by Man’s Fate, André Malraux’ novel about the attempted socialist revolution in Shanghai in 1927. Same thing with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Bertolt Brecht’s poem “To Those Born After.”

There are daily reminders about the social injustices in our world. Just this week, there’s the racially-motivated murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida, more background about the possible role of traumatic brain injury in Robert Bales’ alleged killing spree in Afghanistan, the WHO report on drug-resistant pathogens due to the greed of agribusiness, more Republican-sponsored bills to slash reproductive rights. Etc. Etc. Does that mean that we should run out and write novels about these topics? Of course not. But I can’t ignore them either.

It feels increasingly critical for me, and maybe for you, to act on the probability that literature can offer a vision of political transformation. “Any oppressive social condition,” writes poet and essayist Martín Espada, “before it can be changed, must be named and condemned in words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses.”

I believe that Isabel Allende would agree with Martín. “That is why we write – as an act of human solidarity and commitment to the future. We want to change the rules, even if we won't live long enough to see the results.”
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