Yesterday I stopped in at my local bookstore in London. It’s a small shop, but a good one, and seeing its doors open again was like hearing an ice-cream truck from a block away as a kid.
I walked straight into traffic to cross the street to get there.
Inside the reality of our time was apparent. Laminated signs told patrons to wash their hands, and which direction to go—left to adult books, right to kids books. Green ovals on the floor suggested marks on which to stand. I stepped into one and bent over the fiction table.
Just like that, I felt at home. I hadn’t done this in six months. I was hoping to find a book, Burnt Sugar, which had just been long listed for the Man Booker Prize. I didn’t see it at first, but there was Inland, a rewriting of the western by Téa Obreht, a novel I’d loved.
For a brief, but real moment, holding the book, weighing its satisfying bulk, I was struck dumb to find it there. Of course it should be there, but in a way, why of course? I know she’d written some of this novel in Wyoming, other bits in New York City.
I bet she’d lugged the manuscript around all over the American West.
She’d probably sent bits of it back and forth across North America and then to Random House, and then to other people to check her facts—like would a camel really be able to hike up and down the Southwest? Or how long were rebel confederate forces on the lam from losing the Civil War?
Afterwards no doubt the novel would be turned into an agent or a partner or many friends and then finally—after receiving their feedback—to an editor, who would have set the book into motion.
This single object, then, had been made by a lot of movements, almost as many as a body. And by many people. Some of these people knew things about serial commas; others about the right shade of purple to use on a cover not to make it look like a throw pillow.
The pleasure of a novel, though, is its singularity of vision. Only Obreht’s slightly bent and hopeful-twisted mind would have dreamed up a Western in which a man from the Middle East goes on the lam in the US aboard a camel.
As a reader, this close contact with one mind is a pleasure. A chaste but warm embrace. Outside of the pages of a book, though, this closeness to a near but far mind can be unbearable, especially if it asserts from above that its version of reality is truth. Indeed, one of the many problems with reality today is how much one man wants to control it.
It has been strange, having arrived in London last month to take care of family, to discover that I’ve gone an entire month without seeing Trump’s face, hearing his voice, or seeing his apron of a blue suit on the cover of a newspaper. Yet these were everyday things in America. A perpetual telescoping of focus and attention onto one person.
The president of course is a master of this magnetizing trick. But he uses cruder tools than showmanship alone. On Friday, for example, he threatened to shut down an entire social media app because it had been used to thwart one of his campaign rallies. That same day, Turkey—run by his pal Erdogan—passed legislation forcing all social media companies in Turkey with one one million users to open up offices there, and store their users’ data there, raising concerns they can be surveilled.
Now that so many inconvenient truths are out into the open, many of our governments have decided rather than address them—they will simply lie even more loudly. In Colombia, for instance, the president, Iván Duque Márquez, took to broadcasting a series of absurd claims about the victory over the Coronavirus on Facebook live.
When a one man lying machine doesn’t work, some governments simply muzzle the truth tellers. In India last week, nearly 50 journalists were arrested or beaten for reporting on the upturn in COVID cases there. Most of them were freelancers working in rural areas, where their protections are already weak.
Finally, when none of this works, many governments try to distract the public. They’re going to make such a spectacle—look over here!—that the media, under-staffed and working remotely, has to all but put down any investigation.
So in July, while the world was focused on the surge of COVID numbers in the US and elsewhere, Israel was busy clamping down harder than ever on Palestinian territories, going so far as to demolish a drive-in testing facility in Hebron. Apparently they didn’t have the right building permit.
An enormous gap has grown in recent decades in so many parts of the globe, one that has dug a canyon between how people live and what the official story of their lives sounds like. This official narrative is supported by a series of stories, ones we encounter so frequently in public space they’re almost not even seen anymore.
The stock market, for example, is one such story; this index of publicly traded corporations and the way it’s obsessively tracked in the news as a gauge as economic health suggests that labor can be abstracted into a series of financial speculations about the future, all of which tend to put value into the hands of the rich.
Not surprisingly, even though the US has entered its worst economic downturn in history, with food lines that stretch for miles and people dying of hunger, the market—as in the Dow Jones Industrial Average—has lost barely ten percent of its value. The S&P 500 has already recovered all its losses.
Like Obreht’s novel, these indexes are fictions, too, ones made with the help of many, many people—far more than a mere book—but due to their ubiquity, the fiction of the market seems, perhaps true. Why not? Of course the market will go on forever. It is everywhere and feels durable and it has been made by so many different people, it must be true.
Another such story told us that the Earth wasn’t sick. That global warming, as it was then called, was open to debate. In his 2019 book, Losing Earth, which grew out of a New York Times magazine article, Nathaniel Rich elegantly showed how this fiction emerged from the hands of a powerful few and then was everywhere—in effect, clouding what was clearly known: that if carbon emissions weren’t cut the planet would begin to revolt.
But for decades the lies of a few very powerful corporations and the politicians they paid for distorted reality to such a degree that even now, even with a pandemic raging, sea levels rising, wildfires burning, droughts expanding, and once a century weather events happening biannually, there are still people—some of them in power in government—who think it’s all a hoax.
Since the 1960s, another equally pernicious story has lurked in the public, largely because it has benefited people in power. This story—one told very often by liberal whites to one another in the US—concerned America, and in this tale the US was a troubled but hopeful society of mostly kind people who were lurching toward a post-racial moment. All it needed was a few more exceptional people like President Obama to carry us forward. To explain why we could transcend our demons.
One needn’t be a student of recent US history to have seen what a profound and limiting fantasy this was, and how blinkered. Indeed, since the passage of the Voter Rights Act of 1965 there has been a rejuvenated six-decade long push back against expanded notions of liberty. This push was powered by rage. One that didn’t move in the margins—the center came up with the term margins to allow themselves not to look. Not to note how the trillions poured into police departments stamped themselves onto the bodies of mostly non-white Americans. Or how the trillions funneled into the US prison system gouged deep and endless grooves into families.
The protests which exploded on the streets of all 50 states of America after the murder of George Floyd this summer were part of a rejection of this irreality—of watching lethal violence captured on film and be labeled protocol, or protective, or even good policing. I also think they proceeded from the grief of tens of thousands of deaths from COVID which this US government has yet to mourn, or even acknowledge. The weight of this grief can only be carried with rage and sorrow.For centuries, now, one unfolding story that has hidden within our culture’s worship of speed—otherwise known as progress—has been the brutal and relentless assault on this planet.
So many writers who have surged back into popular discourse recently had things to tell us of how to survive in such mendacious times, how to retain our ability to love and to nurture parts of ourselves that are necessary. I’m thinking of James Baldwin, but also Audre Lorde, June Jordan, one of the best writers of love poems America has ever seen, and Toni Morrison with her wisdom on race being the distraction. And yet, these writers—were they all alive—they could not alone fix it. To borrow one of the president’s most telling phrases.
It’s not a writer’s job to go and fix anything. No one should be required by virtue of who are what they are to be a nation or a time’s savior. But the beautiful coherence of a writer’s vision can lead us into thinking more of their singularity. To longing for its vision to be more of a beacon to our lives.
This is not asking for writers to be writers, but to be prophets.
Who hasn’t attended a march in the past five years and seen the words of Lorde or Adrienne Rich or Richard Wright on a placard? Like headlamps in a time of darkness. But it’s worse than that—it is not a time without light, but a war. Or it feels like a war.
In the 1960s, the rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King’s friendship deepened as they both saw the lengths to which the culture would have to go to renounce the violence it had normalized. Herschel was on the Pettus Bridge on the march to Selma, walking with King and John Lewis. He was with King at Arlington National Cemetery in 1968, arm in arm, protesting the Vietnam War.
It’s not hard to see why the two thinkers admired each other. They each had an instinctual revulsion for the use of power to dominate people, to disavow their reality through violence. When they spoke of each other, they used the word “prophet,” but never used this word when they spoke of themselves. To read Heschel’s great 1962 book, The Prophets, is to listen to a mind trying to sort out the role that a single voice can have in a time of disgust and unreason:
As it was in the age of the prophets, so it is in nearly every age: we all go mad, not only individually, but also nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders; we wage wars and slaughter whole peoples. Ferocity appears natural; generosity, superimposed. Since the natural often seems sacred, we seldom dare suppress or try to remake what has been called “all that fine belligerence within us.
And yet, each night, even in times of war, there are meals shared; love is made; children are even born; jokes are told. A long night’s drink tied on. These things are done privately, and yet collectively, as in they do not need to be seen to have value, yet they are social enterprises. They are habits of love; they are not solely acts of resistance, although they can be seen as such. The power of poetry in such times, the power of a protest—how else do you think of bodies entering space in such proximity?—is that it can take such intimate small rituals of care and tenderness, of truth-telling, and turn them outward, make them visible, in essence, and joinable.People go to work, they try to raise their children in smog so thick it obscures window; they’ll stay in a house after a landslide, often because they have nowhere to go. What does this feel like?
When we’ve been told not to believe our lying eyes—to borrow a phrase from Groucho Marx—for what they clearly have see for so long, reality hostility becomes a generalized part of life. In so many social movements, however, there comes a time when groups of people collectively recognize that the stories they hear and see all around them about reality are deformed. That it’s almost no use to refute them. It’s my belief that these time are great ones for writing—have you noticed how on fire poetry is now, how a good essay seems to arrive every day?—because it’s a chance to assert that the reality of people is of utmost importance.
A protest is a way to get together as a group and change the story, to assert new norms; in printed terms, so is in anthology. Looking back over the last century in American letters alone, anthologies have reflected private space and made it newly public at key moments. In 1915, with socialism on the rise and the labor movement building up to its assertion of an eight-hour work day, Upton Sinclair brought together A Cry for Justice, which culled nearly 5,000 texts from philosophers, poets, writers and activists, dedicating the book to “those unknown ones, who by their dimes and quarters keep the socialist movement going.”
Ten years later, Alain Locke’s The New Negro energized the already burgeoning Harlem Renaissance movement, showcasing its depth and scope and challenging it with a philosophy; in the early 1980s, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back brought together writers of color and laid the ground work for a new wave of feminism, one which acknowledged the labor and cultures of women of color.
Some of the most exciting books coming this fall are collaborative works. I think of the enormous and thrilling new anthology of Native Nations poetry which Joy Harjo has brought together with LeAnne Howe and Jennifer Elise Foerster, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Song Came Through, it is the first of its scale. In September, Library of America will published Kevin Young’s 1,100-page anthology, African-American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, which begins with America’s first poet, Phillis Wheatley, and ends with Jamila Woods’s powerful Ode to Herb Kent, the great Chicago DJ whose career straddled a staggering seven decades. To think of all the joy he poured into people’s ears.
There are anthologies of celebration and there are anthologies of protest, and sometimes they’re the same thing. This week I’ll publish the third and final anthology in a series I assembled with nearly ninety writers across the last decade, trying to figure out how to retell the story of inequality in New York (Tales of Two Cities), in America at large (Tales of Two Americas), and now across the globe as we confront the scale of the climate crisis (Tales of Two Planets). Together their voices opened up or revealed whole new spaces that defied statistics—where one could feel despair and longing in the same breath.
I’ve edited anthologies because I find in their pages energy, difference and the warmth of proximity. Also, they can expose you to a great deal in a short amount of space; this has literary value which instantly becomes socially engaged. An anthology is a form which forces you to see how realty is prismatic, composed of events happening simultaneously—often of great importance to the actors, but not necessarily seen by a great many—at a speed that defies absorption.
For centuries, now, one unfolding story that has hidden within our culture’s worship of speed—otherwise known as progress—has been the brutal and relentless assault on this planet. This assault on wildlife, and forests, and the animal life—if not for food, than simply for sport—has been coupled with a violent attempt to move people off landscapes intimately tied to their history, family and culture. Is it any wonder that the nations built from this genocidal history are so determined to look away from it, to subdue it, to wrap it up in myth—look homeward, angel! look anywhere!—rather than confront the terrible costs of their greed and ecological sadism.
And yet the world continues. People go to work, they try to raise their children in smog so thick it obscures window; they’ll stay in a house after a landslide, often because they have nowhere to go. What does this feel like? How would it be to the spirit if you could skip across the globe without a carbon footprint, what would you see? What parallels might emerge from people telling stories about how inequality has collided with the climate crisis where they are? How is it shaping their imaginations?
When I assembled Tales of Two Planets, I hoped that the 36 writers from Colombia and Japan and Malaysia and Denmark and Indigenous land in New Zealand might ask these questions or yet bigger ones. I had spent time with all of them before; as in, I’d been held in that close embrace a strong writer can create in a book. Now I wanted to hear what it sounded like when they were all in a room, talking together, not all at once. What parts of the fiction of reality might fall away?
Standing in that bookshop yesterday, I went through such an orbit of thoughts when my eyes scanned across the front table, and they moved from an imaginary West of the 19th century, as in Obreht’s book, to the end of the life of that consummate consigliere run amok, Thomas Cromwell, as in Hilary Mantel’s final book in her historical trilogy, to a tale about a woman losing her memory, as in Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, which, as it turned out, was there. What I love of bookshops is how if your eye dilates the right way, the many-sidedness of the world glints into view. I stood there for a second holding this object, ferried along from many hands, written by a writer born in New Jersey who now lives in Dubai. Its first sentence was as clear a struck note as I’d heard in a novel in some time. “I would be lying if I said my mother’s suffering has never given me pleasure,” it begins. The next one was ever better, the third better yet: “But now, I can’t even the tally between us.” And just like that I was swept out of the present and its many lies, into this alternate world—where the past is lying to its keeper. The shop door was open as I held the book and for a second, a pleasing second, this was all there was to reality.
Tales of Two Planets, ed. by John Freeman, is available now from Penguin Books.