by Ellen Meeropol, Stonecoast Alumna
I believe that literature can contribute hugely to positive social change. That stories and poems and essays and theater can illuminate injustice, open minds, and inspire us all to work to transform in our world. My favorite writers—like Kamila Shamsie and Paule Marshall, Rosellen Brown and Sadie Jones—position their work on the fault lines of our world, the dangerously shifting plates of political turmoil and human connection.
One job of the writer is to balance on those fault lines in order to illuminate the complex forces in our world—race and class and gender issues, war and peace and environmental crisis. Another job is to use the writing process, that powerful amalgam of memory, history, and imagination, as a tool to help traumatized and disenfranchised communities get back in touch with their birthright as storytellers.
There’s a long, global literary tradition of writing to effect social change. From Turgenev’s short stories about serfdom to Edwige Danticat’s depiction of both victim and torturer in Haiti, from Chinua Achebe to J. M. Coetzee, from Adrienne Rich to Martín Espada, from Eduardo Galeano to Octavia Butler, many authors engage the world in a passionate and partisan manner. “That is why we write,” Isabel Allende wrote, “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.”
Writing political-themed work is challenging. In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell claimed, “My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice,” but he admitted, “What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” It requires balancing conviction with character emotion and with story. It necessitates walking a tightrope strung high above the abyss of didacticism, with rhetorical rocks and metaphorical quicksand below. It obliges us to wrestle with contradictions and ambivalences, to find a voice between activism and emotion, between compassion and ferocity. Not so easy.
The difficulty of merging of politics and art brought me to the Stonecoast MFA program in late 2003 to study the craft of fiction. I had written several drafts of a novel that snaked from the Vietnam War protests of the sixties to the cusp of the Iraq War and I couldn’t get it right. As expected, learning craft helped, but even more important was the enormous contribution of the Stonecoast writing community in helping me articulate my questions and begin searching for answers.
Many writers shy away from political themes in their work, believing that it is somehow less literary, less aesthetically rigorous. For those of us who choose to engage politically through our work, questions persist: How can we avoid the stale diction of polemic, and dramatize conflicts without lecturing our readers? How can we use the writing process to empower vulnerable members of our communities? Are other writing programs and communities discussing these questions? Are there resources to help us all deepen the social engagement of our work and our writing practice, alone and with each other?
As our world spirals into ever more violence and conflict, as people respond with increased fear and hatred, it is more critical than ever that we tell stories that bear witness to our histories, give voice to our yearnings, and build bridges across the deep chasms across the earth.
Ellen Meeropol’s work explores characters at the intersection of political turmoil and human connection. Publishers Weekly called her debut novel, House Arrest, “thoughtful and tightly composed, unflinching in taking on challenging subjects and deliberating uneasy ethical conundrums.” Ellen’s dramatic script “Carry it Forward” will be produced June 16 in Manhattan for the Rosenberg Fund for Children.