I will be honest here. As a budding writer myself, the concept of ‘literary activism’ seemed alien to me when I first stumbled upon it. There are plenty of reasons why. Some time ago, I watched an interview of Arundhati Roy, a critically acclaimed author who was previously known for her social, political activism and contributions. It struck me while watching the video that her literary work, a novel, is in itself a form of protest against the age-old caste system in India. But wait, there are many layers to this.
Activism is my rent for living on the planet.
– Alice Walker
After watching that interview, my first question was ‘Why does it matter?’ Why does literary activism matter at all? We know that works of literature are rich with artistic merits. But it doesn’t stop there, does it? For literature also holds intellectual value to the readers. It cultivates a sense of universality and stimulates critical thinking. By offering a plethora of perspectives for us to view the world, literature moves from being aesthetic to being cultural, environmental, social and political. If you are a poet or writer, you might have battled thoughts such as these: How can I merge social awareness and my writing together? How do I integrate my work with a social or political overtone? How do I produce art that contain my socially conscious voice?
These questions are what concern literary activists. In her article, Amy King address the difficulties in defining what exactly literary activism is. But the one thing that is unwaveringly clear is that, she intends literary activism to be highly skeptical towards one single, defining authority taking control of narratives. She also welcomes all voices equally to be on the stage, no matter how micro or macro they are. So now, it has become easier isn’t it? Literary activism matters because it urges you to emphatise with the marginalized, the underprivileged, who have been systematically silenced up till today. One such instance we can think about is writings by migrants and refugees, for example Bidisha’s non-fiction collection, Beyond the Wall. We see an upsurge in migrant poetry today, precisely because how migrants have been viewed in complicating ways by the media and the world. Literary activism is about challenging and changing those views through prose, poetry and theatre.
The common misconception surrounding literary activists is that, it is a matter of choice. Most of the time, it isn’t. Many think that one fine day, an author wakes up and decides to be a literary activist thereafter. This notion is quite problematic, as it comes from a place of privilege. Consider the tribulations of a transperson in today’s society. To walk in their shoes, is to constantly be surrounded with judgments and physical danger. Such situations do not allow you to make a choice; speaking up becomes the default you are left with. This is one reason why many LGBTQA+ poets are activists first, and then later produced poems which are politically charged. Ultimately, literary activism is not a destination, but a journey that is constantly, evolving, engaging and expanding. Being a literary activist means being conscious of the changes society goes through, no matter how progressive the society is. More often than not, it takes years to establish your activism through your work of art, but it is nevertheless a fruitful undertaking.
If you are still with me at this point, it would be helpful to know that being a passionate, socially-driven artist, is the first step among the many. The next is reading. Reading plays such a crucial role in literary activism. Reading works that you like or resonate with will not offer you much help; you might end up having a narrow view of intersectional experiences of other literary activists. It is especially beneficial to read books that you disagree with, or those on topics you have prejudices against. Such books will help you find activist communities that are actively working to dismantle racism, sexism and many other forms of oppression that you may have not known about. Joining these communities (local or international) and being a part of it is the next step. Having the necessary conversations with unique voices around the world, will be tremendously useful for your own activism in the near future.
After all, we make the changes we want to see. The main goal of literary activism is also this: to read, write and better understand each other from our shared experiences. If you are as curious as I am, I recommend you reading Audre Lorde’s poems.
Written by Abhiraamee Ayadurai