25 Works of Poetry and Fiction for Anger and Action
A Reading List for Resistance
In the few days since the devastating results of the 2016 presidential election, many people have written about the place of art in times of grief, fear, and disaster. Literature can offer solace, of course, but what if you’re not looking for solace? For some, the time for consolation and pain may now be over, and replaced with a desire to do something—about our own pain, and about the pain of others. So here, as a companion to our list of 25 nonfiction books for anger and action, are 25 works of fiction and poetry—out of many, of course—that may, in their various ways, inspire you to act up, speak out, and change the world. Otherwise, who will?
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
This is the book women will be whispering about to one another in Trump’s America—an all-too-real vision of our country under a totalitarian theocracy where women are stripped of their rights and kept around only as breeders or servants. But there is resistance. Offred remembers life before the revolution, and works, as the novel goes on, to shake her indoctrination and the oppressive eye of the state, and perhaps, to carve some agency for herself back into the world. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
Martín Espada, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed
In this volume, Espada embodies the voices of America—from immigrant workers to students to people of color killed by police to children killed by guns to his own father. “melt the bullets into bells. melt the bullets into bells,” he cries. A beautiful ode to America and all of her failures—and triumphs.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
In Bradbury’s classic, books are outlawed and burned whenever found—the logical extreme, no doubt, of the bizarre new American anti-intellectualism—not to mention a president who doesn’t read. But in the end, like the phoenix, even the destroyed city will be reborn. Also, this: “Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were heading for shore.”
Julia Álvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies
This novel is based on the true story of “Las Mariposas”—three young women, opponents of Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship, who were assassinated in 1960 by Trujillo’s right hand man and quickly became national martyrs in the Dominican Republic. Álvarez’s fictional retelling of the sisters’ lives lets us into each of their heads, fleshes them out as people, and inspires us to fight back against tyranny.
George Orwell, 1984
As our dependence on technology deepens, Orwell’s classic novel of the surveillance state only gets more and more relevant. But with Trump, so too does the notion of doublethink: “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.” Sound like anyone we know?
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou
Poet, author, civil rights activist, and legendary figure Maya Angelou’s work is a must. This volume contains, among many other things, her inauguration poem “On the Pulse of Morning.” An excerpt:
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change. [full text here]
Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Noted Moon-colony enthusiast Newt Gingrich may now become Secretary of State. Think about that as you read Heinlein’s classic, in which a penal colony established on the moon revolts against Earth and declares its independence—on July 4th, 2075.
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy
I know, I know, The Hunger Games. But look: these books are about the possibility of joining forces to rise up against the ridiculous, buffoonish, strangely colored overlords who oppress, use, and mock the working class. This seems to me to be relevant at the moment.
Basma Abdel Aziz, The Queue (trans. Elizabeth Jaquette)
In this Kafkaesque new novel, set in an alternate version of contemporary Egypt, an authoritarian government has taken control after a failed revolution now known as the “Disgraceful Events.” Citizens in need of help—medical, informational, and otherwise—must wait in front of the Gate in a line that only gets longer, and never moves forward. But a doctor trying to save a man shot in the uprising must make a decision about whether to follow the rules or flout them.
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues
Written in 1993 by transgender rights activist Leslie Feinberg, this novel is itself a revolution. It tells the story of Jess Goldberg, who grows from a confused young girl to a “butch” lesbian in her blue-collar town, before beginning to live as a man—but really, her transformation doesn’t fit neatly into any category, except this one: though it soon becomes clear that living authentically will bring derision and violence from the world around her, she seizes her agency and strives for it. Feinberg died in 2014. Her last words were: “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”
Richard Wright, Native Son
This classic novel is an unflinching look at the life of a young black man in Chicago in the 1930s, a man whose life has been ruined by racism, poverty, and the American society he cannot escape. As Irving Howe famously wrote: “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies. In all its crudeness, melodrama, and claustrophobia of vision, Richard Wright’s novel brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.” And yet the old lies continue to be repeated, and the violence continues to threaten. We must do better.
Émile Zola, Germinal
Zola’s masterpiece is the bleak story of the lives of French coalminers in the late 19th century, oppressed by poverty and powerlessness, who, led by the idealistic Étienne Lantier, finally strike. It’s all very bleak and dark—but there are also flickers of humanity, kindness and hope that, in the end, can’t be ignored. (Multiple translators.)
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” This is another classic about race in America that could have been written today.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
A story of a family driven from their home by poverty during the Great Depression, only to find that the land they hoped would be their salvation is filled with more exploitation and oppression. This novel is a humanizing, devastating look at migrant workers in America, and at how much a group of people can take before they rise up. “And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
Le Guin’s novel, which moves back and forth between a planet and its anarchist twin, begins this way: “There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.” It continues as a complex exploration of the nature of anarchy, society, the individual and what walls—physical and metaphorical—even mean.
Allen Ginsberg, Howl
The feverish, unbridled protest poem that actually changed the world. Proof enough: even if you’ve never read it, you probably know how it begins…
Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior
This isn’t a straightforward revolutionary novel like some of the others on this list—instead, it’s a realistic, literary novel about climate change—”global weirding,” as one character calls it—that will remind you not to stop fighting for the EPA.
Winona LaDuke, Last Standing Woman
Indian-rights activist (and two-time Green Party vice-presidential nominee) LaDuke’s first novel delves deeply into the past of the people of Minnesota’s White Earth reservation—and even ventures into the future. There’s history, insight, hope—but most important is the story of Native American women standing up against corruption and oppression—and ultimately seizing control of their own lives and destinies.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
No matter how long ago you read this book, it’s a good bet that at least one lesson from it still hangs somewhere in your head: do the right thing, no matter what. Have compassion for others, and do right by them, because it’s worth it. (That’s a message I’ve heard in another place recently, too.)
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
A postcolonial classic that asks us, above everything else, to question the conventional narratives passed down to us by those in power.
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
The 1906 novel about the exploitation of immigrant factory workers, particularly in Chicago’s meat-packing district, that actually led to the passing of the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Famously, Sinclair wrote, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Still: this is art that changed things, and as such is worth reading.
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
Like Maya Angelou, Hughes is as important for his social activism as he is for his poetry—but his poetry is wonderful, in turns uplifting, angry, illuminating, heartbreaking—and likely to inspire any reader to make the world a better place.
Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
This is the story of two boys exiled with their families to a work camp in the mountains during China’s Cultural Revolution—but more importantly, it’s about the power of literature and learning to change lives, and the inherent, brittle evil of power structures that ignore education and truth.
Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang
The wildly influential novel that might wildly influence you to oppose the money-grubbing bad guys and perhaps cause a little havoc in the name of the environment.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper
A classic feminist text to remind us all not to allow the patriarchy to shut us up in our rooms until we go insane—or to have our bodies and minds twisted and controlled. Gilman herself wrote that the volume was “not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy,” in particular from her own doctor, who prescribed her a rest cure that included a prohibition against writing.
Feature image: Barricades, 1968, Gene Demby