Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
What does this perilous time of disease and destruction ask of us as readers and writers?
Three new books shine a light on the power of the written word to foster creative responses to confinement and oppression – and to inspire profound change within us.
The R of Azar NafisiReading Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled TimesI by Elena Ferranten Margins: on the pleasures of reading and writing and that of Anna Quindlen Write for your life focus on the transformative possibilities that underlie political, social and personal crises.
Nafisi, best known as the author of Read Lolita in Tehran, warns readers that America may well be on a slippery slope toward autocratic government, like the Islamic regime in its home country of Iran. His book shows the power of great literary works to resist the dictatorial impulse of American politics today. She proposes that we read dangerously – authors whose works defy comforting clichés and attempt to change the world. Readers will find here incisive analyzes by Salman Rushdie, Zora Neale Hurston, David Grossman, Elias Khoury, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others – authors whose writing is an act of surviving trauma.
read dangerously is an exciting book. Nafisi frames the interpretations as a series of letters to her late father, who was imprisoned for four years by the Islamic regime for insubordination. She draws the reader in with the intensity of her expression and her direct address to her father, focusing on personal reminiscences of oppression to consider big questions: how should we act in the world? What should our attitude be towards our enemy?
Nafisi goes to the heart of these questions with his analysis of Grossman’s writings on the dehumanizing effect of war. “History gives the enemy a voice, forcing us to face him as human beings, to look him in the eye,” she writes. “And through this process, we restore our own humanity.” His emphasis on the value of literature in teaching us not just how to change the world – but also ourselves – lends a sense of urgency to the role of reading amid today’s disconnect and dysfunction.
If Nafisi celebrates reading as a way to challenge political tyranny, Ferrante, the elusive and anonymous Italian author of Neapolitan novels, documents her struggle as an author rooted in the male literary tradition. In the margins includes four essays that were presented in 2021 as lectures by an actress and an academic, now translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Ferrante informs readers about his practice, articulating his way of working, his literary influences and his struggles to find a space of freedom.
The essays often read like mystical ruminations on the author’s literary conception, inspiration, voice, and presence. Yet Ferrante also offers tangible reflections on the craft such as a list of five foundational discoveries she gleaned from her reading of literary works.
At the heart of the essays is a concern for artistic freedom. The cage pattern repeats throughout. In the opening essay, “Pen and Pain”, Ferrante recalls his childhood anxiety to contain his writing in the margins of his notebook. The sense of margins imposing impassable borders remains etched in his sensitivity. “For a woman who has something to say, does it really need a miracle – I said to myself – to dissolve the margins in which nature has locked her up and show herself to the world with her own words?” she writes. Reading Gaspara Stampa in his youth taught Ferrante how to free himself from the male literary tradition.
The essays are at their best to convey a sense of the brashness of Ferrante’s search for a literary form that can capture the truth about the female experience. This impetuosity is his challenge to conformity. “I developed a first-person narrator who, energized by the random collisions of her and the world, distorted the shape that had been painstakingly given to her, and from those bumps, distortions and wounds extracted other unexpected possibilities: all of this as she made her way through an increasingly uncontrolled story, was perhaps not even a story but an entanglement, in which not only the narrator but the author herself- even, a pure writer, was entangled,” Ferrante writes. For her fans as well as the common reader, the essays offer insightful insight into the making of her novels and a practitioner’s view of the craft.
by Anna Quindlen Write for your life contrasts sharply with Ferrante’s essays. Where Ferrante’s authorship is still under erasure, Quindlen emphasizes writing as an expression of the author’s self. The book urges ordinary people to take up writing – journals, diaries and letters – to stave off the numbness and loneliness induced by recent political events and the Covid pandemic. Her preoccupation is not to make art but to document daily life as a means of bearing witness to traumatic moments.
Write for your life is an inviting book, and readers will find its door ajar. He argues that ordinary writing is as important as the professional writing of novelists, scholars, and historians. Anne Frank’s diary, The Freedom Writers Diary led by educator Erin Gruwell, Work Progress Narratives created to reflect the lives of slaves, and other examples reinforce Quindlen’s claim that writing is restorative in that that it connects us to our deepest selves and to others. It also frees us from the shackles that bind us to the oppressors.
“It is mainly in stories, memories, anecdotes, everyday experiences that the true place of women, of people of color, of immigrants, of all those who did not belong at the tables where the big decisions, will not only be recounted but as central as they actually were in everyday life,” she wrote.
Quindlen writes with the brilliance of a storyteller, and she’s good at how formal education stifles creative self-expression. But some readers may think that Write for your life says nothing more complex than the fact that we will regain our humanity if only we sit down to write. Yet the book shines with the author’s confidence in the transformative potential of writing.
Nafisi, Ferrante, and Quindlen argue vigorously that reading and writing can get us out of our mess. They show us how the written word can help us transform our current adversity into something beautiful. In their hands, reading and writing are our panacea, worth celebrating.
Sharmila Mukherjee is an associate professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle.