The use of literature- and poetry in particular - within the protest rhetoric of yesterday’s Women’s Marches was incredibly powerful. From references to Margaret Atwood’s (increasingly chilling) novel The Handmaid’s Tale to lines from Maya Angelou’s I Rise appearing on many placards, it is clear that literature has a role to play in the fight for equality and fairness.
Some of this is due to the fact that literature, at its best, breeds empathy. Once we have walked a mile in another’s shoes, even in our imagination, it is harder to dismiss, stereotype or persecute people. Stories take us beyond difference and unearth the same humanity we all share.
Many placards seen at the marches showed pictures of talented writer and actor Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia from the Star Wars franchise declaring that “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance.” There is a straight line between the Star Wars stories and those in ancient myth; George Lucas was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book on comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces which directly links our stories to our psychology. The message on those placards is simple and clear – when you act against women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, those with disability or any other marginalised group, you are not some edgy hero grasping at freedom, you are not The Resistance everyone roots for in those films, you are The Empire.
Ancient myths and classical epics tell the same stories over and over of oppression by the elite and uprising from the disenfranchised and what they have in common is that it is those resisting hate and oppression who triumph. It is, therefore, literally wired into our brains to stand against this tide of hatred because whatever your religious and cultural upbringing, the stories we tell and those we hear remain the same. The details in those tales bring us closer both to empathy for each individual and an understanding of the universal human condition.
I also came across a quote from poet and activist Audre Lorde yesterday:
Reading that made me want to know more, and I looked up the context of those lines. Here is her statement in more detail:
I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean--in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.
For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.
Literature, then, not only allows us to tell our stories, it gives us the language we need to articulate them. In this context, the personal is incredibly political. A recent example of this is found in Stephanie Northgate’s poem Miracle published recently on the And Other Poems website. The poem paints a clear picture of the vulnerability of refugee children by connecting them, and their parents, in the quiet and tender moment when a small child finally falls asleep. This is something all parents can recognise, and this personal experience of motherhood makes a strong and moving point about how we all have more to connect us than to divide us. Refugee parents want the same for their children as we do; those children exposed to danger and cold could be ours.
Writers must keep working. Representation matters in the arts and more must be done to make it happen. Lorde is right, finding the words to express and then address the challenges we face is not – and never will be – a luxury. To all the writers and readers, have faith in the fact that in your heart, you already know the story you need to tell and it is a vital necessity.