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"Poetry Is Not A Luxury:" Thoughts on Writing for Social Change's picture

In my first post for this course, I mentioned my enthusiasm for interdisciplinarity in the context of wanting to “be able to better talk to my Biology-professor parents about my Anthropology major.” While I learned much in the science arenas of this course, the area I seem to have been craving the opportunity to link to gender studies even more was literary studies, as pointed out by Anne in a comment pointing out a correlation between my first two papers: “Am I seeing a pattern here? A month later you're reflecting on gay-themed children's literature, and so considering once again "the potential politics of such literary efforts -- the effects they can have on readers and audiences." In this essay, I hope to reframe the arguments I made about Shakespeare’s Richard III and the children’s book And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell in the context of this observation: What do each – or what do they together – tell us about the relationship of writing to social change, about the ways in which it is or is not possible to make our writing a call-to-action? Layering these thoughts with an exploration of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, as well as moments of insight from other authors from in (and out of) this course, will help us to understand the precarious challenges that face writers of literary texts – texts that that can never be disentangled from the reality of the imperfect world in which they exist.

My paper on Richard III is more an argument about the way we should be reading than the way we should be writing. My thesis, essentially, was: “the character of the hunchbacked Richard III in Shakespeare’s Richard III seems to me to both reinforce some theories of disability – Clare’s notions of desexualization and the supercrip – while also subverting many of the tropes so often used in literary representations of disabled characters, as explored by scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. As she puts it, “If we accept the convention that fiction has some mimetic relation to life, we grant it power to further shape our perceptions of the world” (Thomson 10).” If Shakespeare’s work offers an implicit meditation on such important themes of sexuality and disability (and their intra-action), we would be remiss in our literary studies of this text if we ignored these dimensions of it. Authors themselves do not necessarily need to have had an explicit eye to social justice issues as they wrote their poems, plays, and novels to offer up characterizations and plots that can be analyzed fruitfully by scholars like Garland-Thomson who do have such issues at heart. In this case, the efforts to link the literary to the political are not to be found in the original text, but rather in the scholarship – both Garland-Thomson’s and my own.

In response to being pushed by Anne to further develop my ideas on Richard, I offered: “if there exists a spectrum of ways of depicting disabled characters, I would argue that a central character given so much agency on the way to his eventual demise is preferable to one who is relegated to side-character status for it from the start. Would a happy ending for Richard be "optimal"? Not necessarily. (He killed a lot of people!) But getting to actually see him struggle through it all gives the readers/audience the chance to decide for themselves at the end who should get blame -- Richard, or the way his society understood him – or perhaps a more-realistic combination of the two). Which I think leads into the potential politics of such literary efforts -- the effects they can have on readers and audiences can be profound (and lasting, especially in the case of Shakespeare!). Thinking through [Act 1 of our course] … definitely made me more willing to see disability much more as a social problem with the way people perceive rather than a physical problem with individual bodies. … And if pairing Clare and Richard (among others) produced such a strong reaction in me, maybe that's part of a broader argument for more interdisciplinary work, for inserting a bit more Richard into Gen/Sex/Dis classes and some more Gen/Sex/Dis thinking into Shakespeare classes.” In Richard III, I found a way to read issues of sexuality and disability productively out of a literary text. But what about literary efforts that are infused with explicitly political goals from the start? How are we to read and interpret these texts?

My second paper addressed one such text: the children’s book And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. Taking up the (nonfictional) story of Roy and Silo, the “gay penguins” in the Central Park Zoo, the book, beautifully illustrated and directed at children, portrays the “naturalness” of homosexuality in these animals. This is part of an implicit argument for recognizing homosexuality, and gay parenting in particular, as natural and appropriate in the human social sphere as well. My response to this text was two-pronged: on the one had, I acknowledged the scientific validity of recognizing homosexuality as a frequently-occurring phenomenon among nonhuman animals (as we learned from Joan Roughgarden). On the other hand, I had serious qualms with some of the strategies used by the authors:

“[Conservative parent Steve] Walden’s second concern – that anthropomorphozising animals to contribute to a conversation about human morality is suspect – is actually, I must admit, one I kind of agree with. I think it’s possible to find fault both with the authors of Tango and Roughgarden herself on these grounds, even while I very much agree with their political orientation. Looking at the above example, Roughgarden’s emphasis on the parenting success of gay male swan couples is clearly meant as a response to social conservatives’ demonization of gay (human) parents. But looking at the reason for this success reveals gaps in the project of mapping animal behavior onto human behavior: males apparently have more power in swan society. Would the gay males’ swans parenting advantage diminish if feminist swans rose up and controlled more of the resources? There are limits to equating swan and human society. Tango is quite clear in its assertion that animal families and the human families who observe them at the zoo are similar in their diversity. But what if Roy and Silo turned out NOT to be gay, after all – would we then be forced to question the legitimacy of human homosexuality? We ought not to allow important questions of human morality to hinge upon the behavior of penguins or swans or any nonhuman creature. While humans are by no means immune from an evolutionary past, our decision-making abilities and moral compasses (though my own may be differ greatly from Walden’s) distinguish us from other animals and make efforts to use animal behavior to justify human behavior suspect from the start, regardless of the political ends they may serve.”

As was pointed out to me afterwards by a friend with whom I had discussed this paper, Roy and Silo actually did end up “breaking up,” Roy moving on to a female penguin partner in 2005. According to the New York Times article, the penguin zookeeper agreed with the argument I made: “Mr. Gramzay said that humans should not divine too much from the split. ‘People read so much into the gay thing, and the gay thing is necessarily a human constraint that's put on top of them.’” (Miller 2005). Those who create literary texts (and I think Tango is a literary text, in its poetic (over)simplicity) must be very careful about the strategies they use, and just because their ends are justified does not mean that their means will be valid, whether it’s flawed anthropomorphism that plagues them or any other type of problem. Tango is an example, to me, of the pitfalls of expressly political literary texts. Balancing the line between a beautiful story and one that holds sway in convincing people that your worldview is valid is a constant challenge, not to be underestimated. After all, I approached this book expecting to unproblematically endorse its efforts and ended up in a curious “queer alliance” with a conservative Christian homeschooling parent! I think that the final text I will examine, Little Bee, will walk more effectively the line between Shakespearean politics – the kind that has to be “read in” by critics – and Tango’s heavyhanded and tricky proscriptive attempt to embed ideas about social change directly in a text.

An note is necessary about presentation of the text here: I have to admit that the back-cover description of Little Bee made me really not want to read it at all: “Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.” Please – if it’s really magic, I’ll have heard about it from a friend without them having been directed to do so by the back cover. I think the term “chick-lit” is sexist, but if I didn’t, I would call this chick-lit packaging for a book that I think is definitely full of substance. I did end up finding Chris Cleave’s writing quite powerful (with the exception of some of the dialogue, which I found much less believable than the narrative sections of the story).

Overall, the literary power Cleave wielded was powerful enough for our classroom activity of pulling out passages to read aloud, from the center of the room and from the silence, to almost bring me to tears. After Cleave’s artful rendering of the lives of each of the characters, Little Bee’s line to Batman, “Peace is a time when people can tell each other their real names” (Cleave 265) tapped something very deep in me, and I don’t think I’m the only one. But to what end does Cleave access our emotions with his story about Sarah and Little Bee, and the mutual entanglement of first and third worlds? We discussed in class the challenges of harnessing our feelings of being emotionally moved by a text such as Little Bee; and our varying opinions about how much “direction for further action” the author is obligated to provide for a reader to translate that emotional movement into real movement in the world.

Chris Cleave follows up his story with an Afterword that acknowledges the realities upon which the story is based, and offers resources for readers interested in learning more about the relevant atrocities on Nigerian – and British – soil in recent years. He even takes responsibility for keeping this information up to date, saying that, “If this or other links stop working, the documents will be available from my website at” (Cleave 271). Is this enough? Should he be demanding more from his readers, who are largely from the English-speaking west and likely to be able to command resources – which may not be monetary, but could be as basic as citizenship, as the book reminds us – that could actually do some good in regards to the social problems he discusses?

Several of the third rounds of web events spoke to issues raised in Little Bee. While I think hers was motivated more by prior engagement with refugee communities than necessarily being explicitly “called-to-action” by Chris Cleave, Kammy wrote a beautiful piece on Refugees and Right Relationships that points to the structural limitations of rights-based action to support and work with, not just for, refugees with a have a variety of needs, few of which are being adequately understood, let alone met. She also points to potential alliances between lower-class native citizens and immigrants who often face similar challenges. Rachelr’s essay on The Ugly Footprint of Africa’s Black Gold exposed the realities of the impact of the oil industry on Nigeria and all of the atrocities that have unfolded in relation to it, and she suggested that, “Through [Little Bee], Cleave creates a right-relationship between the fiction that is the life of Little Bee and the reality that is so painfully vivid to so many in Nigeria by calling from his readers compassion for one, fictitious, 16-year old Nigerian refugee” (Rachelr). Finally, Shlomo wrote a piece called Creating Right Relationships With the International Refugee Community in the Wake of Little Bee that explicitly positions this novel as an inspiration to education and action, attempting to lay out the international refugee situation in broad terms and suggest specific actions a reader – potentially motivated by Cleave’s work – might take to alleviate some of the suffering that refugees experience.

I think that these responses to Little Bee represent an admirable range – from bringing the issues Cleave raises to bear on United States policy and NGO work for immigrants (Kammy, Shlomo) to investigating the current state of Nigeria (Rachelr). Some books that aim to spark social change do so by prescribing specific actions that readers should take, and telling them exactly what they are to do with the message that they have just received. For example, consider the (nonfiction) book Half the Sky that charlie posted about a few weeks ago. According to their website: “In 2009, with the acclaimed bestselling book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (already in its 24th printing in hardback alone), Pulitzer-Prize award-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn took on the the fight against the oppression of women and girls worldwide and encouraged readers all over the world to join the burgeoning movement for change.” To make such a direct and effective link between a book and a movement-to-be-supported is an incredible feat, but I wonder what is lost in the specificity of the call-to-action.

I think there is still much value in the kind of work Chris Cleave does in Little Bee, the kind of writing that trusts in its readers to interpret a literary offering in an appropriate way, and trusts that the personal emotional responses it evokes will push readers to act as they see fit – in their own communities, on behalf of faraway communities, or both. By forcing readers to confront emotions they may or may not be prepared for (a concept developed by Judith Butler in her lectures), Cleave’s style of writing appeals to our shared precarity very effectively.

This obsession I am developing with writing style and narrative power is, I think, not mere off-topic quibbling. (“Get back to social change surrounding gender and sexuality! What are you talking about, alice?”) Rather, it is central to the question of the role of writing and reading in effecting social change, related to gender or otherwise. In his nonfiction book about structural violence, Pathologies of Power, Paul Farmer often includes poems as epigraphs to his chapters. This one, quoted by Anne in class, particularly struck me:


The headlong stream is termed violent

But the river bed hemming it in is

Termed violent by no one.


The storm that bends the birch trees

Is held to be violent

But how about the storm

That bends the backs of the roadworkers?


-Bertolt Brecht, “On Violence”

(Farmer 11)


I think from now on I will conceptualize the (sometimes-confusing, but consistently relevant) idea of structural violence by thinking about a riverbed. How beautiful! And more than beautiful – how effective. A reader might be able to plow through a book of statistics without being moved to action, but it is the literary, the stories told well that make change actually happen. Paul Farmer understands this enough to know that poetry was a necessity to the type of “call-to-action” book he was writing.

Audre Lorde’s 1977 essay “Poetry Is Not A Luxury” speaks to the centrality of literature in social reform work in a (predictably beautiful) manner. In the paragraph from which the title is drawn, she writes:

“…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.” (Lorde 365)

Lorde’s “poetry” can be expanded to represent beautiful and moving writing more generally. This type of writing not the icing on the cake of writing for social change, it’s the core of it. Presentation is just as important as content if you expect to do more than inform your readers about something they will go on to immediately dismiss.

Lorde makes this point clear as well:

“And who asks the question: Am I altering your aura, your ideas, your dreams, or am I merely moving you to temporary and reactive action? And even though the latter is no mean task, it is one that must be seen within the context of a need for true alteration of the very foundations of our lives.” (Lorde 366)

To tie this point back in with another writer fairly central to our (and many Bryn Mawr classes’) endeavors this semester, think back on our discussions about the accessibility of Judith Butler’s writing – from Gender Trouble in 1990 to Precarious Life in 2006, Butler made a concerted shift in her writing style. While it is certainly admirable to be capable of speaking effectively to a community of philosophers, her notions of human beings as “undone by each other” is pure poetry. As a student who was only familiar with her early work, encountering this radically different writing style from a thinker I already admired caught me off guard in the best possible way. Marrying her engaging ideas with moving writing (although she would probably take issue with that verb) allows Butler to not only reach a larger audience, but reach all of her audiences much more deeply.

Where does this trajectory leave us? We’ve discussed how some literary texts not expressly political can be made so through the scholarship surrounding them (e.g., Richard III.) We’ve noted how complicated the attempt to infuse a literary text with specific political goals can be (e.g., And Tango Makes Three). We’ve pondered a book, Little Bee, which walks a line between the prescriptive and the directionless in terms of social change goals, and hopes that readers will interpret it in productive ways. And we’ve seen in writers as diverse as Audre Lorde, Paul Farmer, and Judith Butler, a recognition of the essential, non-expendable power that skilled literary efforts can have for effecting social change. Thinking to the future, I will be doing a small internship this January with a small book publisher called Just World Books. With a tagline of “Timely books for changing times,” JWB publishes social-justice-oriented books about international issues (Food, Farming, and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring looked like something that might interest phenoms in particular…) My thoughts about writing and social justice will surely be enriched by an experience, and I greatly look forward to it!


Works Cited:

Cleave, Christopher.  Little Bee. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.  Print.

Farmer, Paul. Pathologies of Power. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Print.

“Half the Sky.” <> Accessed 14 December 2011.

Lorde, Audre. “Poetry Is Not A Luxury.” In By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry. Ed. Molly McQuade. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2000. Pp 364-367. First published in Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture, no 3 (1977).

Miller, Jonathan. “New Love Breaks Up a 6-Year Relationship at the Zoo.” New York Times 24 September 2005. Online.  <> Accessed 14 December 2011.