Read dangerously, in the margins, write for your life: NPR

Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

Read dangerously, in the margins, write for your life (Dey Street Books, Europa Editions, Random House)

Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

What does this dangerous time of disease and destruction ask of us as readers and writers?

Three new books highlight the power of the written word to spark creative responses to incarceration and oppression — and to inspire deep change within us.

R . by Azar Nafisiread Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled TimesElena Ferrante’s In The margins: about the pleasure of reading and writing and Anna Quindlen’s Write for your life are all about the transformative possibilities underlying the political, social and personal crisis.

Nafisi, best known as the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, warns readers that America could be on a slippery slope towards an autocratic government, like the Islamic regime in its home country, Iran. Her book demonstrates the power of great works of literature to resist the dictatorial impulse of contemporary American politics. She suggests we read dangerously — authors whose works challenge comforting clichés and try to change the world. Readers will find here sharp analyzes of Salman Rushdie, Zora Neale Hurston, David Grossman, Elias Khoury, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others — authors whose writing is an act of surviving trauma.

Dangerous reading is a passionate book. Nafisi formulates the interpretations as a series of letters addressed to her late father, who was imprisoned for four years by the Islamic regime for insubordination. She draws the reader in with the intensity of her expression and direct address to her father, delving into personal memories of oppression to consider big questions: How should we act in the world? What should be our attitude toward our enemy?

Nafisi gets to the heart of these questions with her analysis of Grossman’s writings on the dehumanizing effect of war. “Story gives the enemy a voice and forces us to confront him as a human being, look him in the eye,” she writes. “And through this process, we restore our own humanity.” Her emphasis on the value of literature in teaching us not only how to change the world – but ourselves – brings a sense of urgency to the role of reading amid the current disconnection and dysfunction.

As Nafisi celebrates reading as a way to challenge political tyranny, Ferrante, the elusive and anonymous Italian author of the Neapolitan novels, documents her struggle as a female author rooted in the male literary tradition. In the margins consists of four essays presented in 2021 as lectures by an actress and a scholar, now translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Ferrante introduces readers to her practice, articulates how she works, her literary influences and struggle to find space to be free.

The essays often read as mystical musings on literary conception, inspiration, author’s voice and presence. But Ferrante also offers tangible reflections on craft, such as a list of five fundamental discoveries she made from reading literary works.

Central to the essays is a preoccupation with artistic freedom. The motif of the cage is repeated everywhere. In the opening essay, “Pen and Pain,” Ferrante recalls her fear as a child of keeping her writing within the margins of her notebook. The sense of margins enforcing impenetrable boundaries remains etched in her sensibility. “For a woman who has something to say, does it really take a miracle – I told myself – to dissolve the margins within which nature has enclosed her and reveal herself to the world in her own words?” she writes. Reading Gaspara Stampa as a young woman taught Ferrante how to break free from the male literary tradition.

The essays are at their best at conveying a sense of the fervor of Ferrante’s search for a literary form that can capture the truth about female experience. This impetuosity is her opposition to compliance. “I developed a first-person narrator who, excited by the random collisions of her and the world, distorted the form she had laboriously acquired, and squeezed out of those dents and distortions and injuries other, unexpected possibilities: all this as she made her way through a story that became more and more unchecked was perhaps not even a story, but a jumble, in which not only the narrator, but also the author himself, a pure creator of the writing, was entangled,” writes Ferrante. For both her fans and the casual reader, the essays provide an illuminating glimpse into the making of her novels and a practitioner’s view of craft.

Anna Quindlen’s Write for your life stands in stark contrast to Ferrante’s essays. Where Ferrante’s author is always obliterated, Quindlen emphasizes writing as an expression of authorship. The book urges ordinary people to start writing – magazines, diaries and letters – to ward off the numbness and loneliness caused by recent political events and the Covid pandemic. It’s not about making art, but about documenting everyday life as a way of witnessing traumatic times.

Write for your life is an inviting book and readers will see the door hospitably ajar. It argues that ordinary writing is just as important as professional writing by novelists, academics and historians. Anne Frank’s Diary, The Freedom Writers Diary led by educator Erin Gruwell, the Work Progress Narratives Created to Reflect the Lives of Enslaved People, and other examples reinforce Quindlen’s claim: Writing is restorative because it connects us with our innermost self and with others . It also frees us from the shackles that bind us to oppressors.

“It is especially in stories, memories, anecdotes, everyday experiences that the true place of women, people of color, immigrants, all those who had no place at the tables where the big decisions were made, will not only be told, but so central they were actually in everyday life,” she writes.

Quindlen writes with the talent of a storyteller, and she’s good at the way formal education stifles creative self-expression. But some readers may feel that Write for your life nothing more complicated can say than that if we just sit down to write, we will regain our humanity. Still, the book shines with the author’s confidence in the transformative potential of writing.

Nafisi, Ferrante, and Quindlen firmly argue that reading and writing can get us out of our mess. They show us how the written word can help us turn our current adversity into something beautiful. In their hands, reading and writing are our panacea, worth celebrating.

Sharmila Mukherjee is an English teacher at the University of Washington, Seattle.

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