Here’s my small contribution to Amy King’s post “What is Literary Activism?” at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. To read Amy’s amazing intro and inspiring words from Samiya Bashir, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Ana Božičević, Emily Brandt, Ken Chen, Melissa Febos, Suzi F. Garcia, Eunsong Kim, Jason Koo, Lynn Melnick, Shane McCrae, Laura Mullen, Héctor Ramírez, Jessica Reidy (Jezmina Von Thiele), Metta Sáma, and Arisa White, click the link to the full post.
In a recent interview conducted by Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates stated, “Finally I think one has to even abandon the phrase ‘ally’ and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.” This is what literature can do, if properly wielded: It can help us know, and even more so, feel, that nothing that impacts another human can be truly separate from ourselves. Whether we are black or white; blind or seeing; male, female, or gender fluid, we are all made of the guts of stars. We all breathe and live and long. We are all limbs of the great organism that is humanity. Students who read not just John Donne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but Leslie Marmon Silko, Lucille Clifton, and Maxine Hong Kingston too will not have to be taught this. They will just know. They will feel it because they will have inhabited the minds of characters and authors whose experiences have grown them into larger human beings, who have taught them to feel the limbs of humanity not connected to their own physical bodies.
Sadly, we’ve seen the canon restrict literary empathy to a repetitive and limited experience of the world. We’ve seen privileged by literature those who were already privileged by life. This is not only wrong; it is dangerous for the people whose experiences, and therefore, lives, are not being valued. My activism is and has been to work towards growing our conception of literature to shape the world we want to have. Closest to home, that means making sure my students are not deprived of marginalized voices and perspectives—that their empathy reaches far and wide. In a broader sense, it means striving to provide those voices with platforms previously denied. That’s the work I’m doing with the forthcoming VIDA Voices & Views interview program—engaging a wide range of voices that we need to hear and learn from and spotlighting people in the field who are doing the good work.