In a world fraught with political tensions and daily life and death matters, can our stories really make a difference?

I had never been to a protest until two years ago; I went with friends to the Occupy March in Oakland. For the longest time, I was afraid of going to jail or of being deported so I avoided marches and protests and basically very large crowds. Even after I became a US citizen, I was still very concerned about safety and deportation. And even when I wrote my second novel, A Small Gathering of Bones, I didn’t think of it as a protest or activist literature, I just wanted to write about my friend that had died of AIDS. This was a childhood friend I had grown up with in Jamaica, and in the eighties, we both moved with our families to the US. Not long after he arrived he contracted HIV, which was very rampant in the US in the eighties. He was 26 when he died.

What really struck me was how his family had abandoned him after they found out he was gay. None of them was at his funeral, only his few friends. In fact, his mother had refused to see him during the terrible interlude of his illness once she found out he was gay. And to this day, in my mind, this is the real cause of Ian’s death, not the disease that devastated him at the end that crippled and emaciated him, but the heartbreak, the disappointment, the rejection from the very person he loved most. This was a man who was the life of every party, he was kind and friendly and loving, he had a great big heart, he was a terrific dancer, a flamboyant dresser and his folks were Christian and upstanding and the minute they found out he was gay and was ill, they cut him off. And that to me is what killed him.

Incensed by what seemed to me as such a terrible injustice I started the novel on the train on the way home from his funeral. I didn’t know then it was a novel, I just had to write about it, I didn’t know how else to process all of this, how to make sense of something that was so terrible.  I needed to understand the nature of the deep homophobia that runs rampant in our Jamaican society, and the oppressive nature of our religion that was turning us into unfeeling human beings, turning us into killers. I needed to write about all the gay people I knew who had had to move through the world silent and invisible, the ones who were dying, and dead.

I completed the novel for my MFA thesis. I wrote it from the point of view of the gay minister, Dale, for he must’ve been the most conflicted person of all, I thought, loving God, having a deep spiritual relationship with God yet living everyday amongst people who could so easily turn against him, persecute him, if they knew, and what was his life like holding this tension, this silence, everyday, everyday of his life. I was curious about his particular battle with his faith and his sexuality. His pain had to be so private, so invisible. His anguish haunted me.

Of course, after I wrote the book I got terrified. What am I doing? Who is going to read this? What if they come after me, or ban the book, or what if when I go home to the Caribbean, I am assaulted. The total opposite happened of course. The book was well received and was well reviewed, because ultimately the work was ground breaking. In a country where gay people were often persecuted, though quite rare now, the novel celebrated open gay male relationships, portrayed a community of gay men and women creating supportive networks for their friends who were dying of AIDS and rejected by family; and it highlighted the homophobia so prevalent in Jamaica society and in the church. I didn’t say that Christianity or religion was bad, but I showed how particular readings and interpretation of the bible created suffering for gay people. I didn’t say straight people were bad, I simply showed countless images of gay people loving each other and themselves. And I tried to make the novel really beautiful. I remember my graduate advisor saying to me, if you’re going to write about AIDS and about people suffering, then make it like a beautiful painting so that it will also be uplifting and strong

When the book came out I gave a reading at an AIDS center in London. Many of the men at the center were Caribbean. And after my reading they began weeping. They had never seen their lives, their relationships portrayed positively, they said. In literature and in life, they were often scorned and humiliated and beaten up and abandoned. But this book was transforming how they saw themselves portrayed in literature, no longer as monsters and freaks, but as real people struggling with the real challenges of spirituality and relationships and illness and love.

That turned out to be an important turning point for me. I understood for the first time the visceral impact a story can have on an individual and how it can transform the way they see themselves. Having experienced it myself in books by other writers, I knew intellectually that this was possible. But it was different to hear that my book was doing this, it was mirroring back to them the sacredness of their lives.

My life changed that evening. It was as if in that moment I truly became a writer or really understood what it meant to be a writer–something about the interplay between personal pain and its connection to the suffering of others, something about artistic expression, healing, and the benefits shared by others. After that I was only interested in writing about things that mattered. That book turned me into a socially conscious being and that awareness and the responsibility that comes with it have underscored my work ever since. Now I want my stories to not only change lives but to save them. I want my stories to raise large social, political and spiritual questions that provoke thought, challenge beliefs, help people deal with the complexities of their lives and help people through devastation. I want my books to insert new ways of thinking into national conversations and provide myriad perspectives. I want them to be a serum, an antidote to people’s pain.

Audre Lorde has a beautiful quote about desire, longing and social change. She says, “I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, ‘Why don’t they?’ And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change.”

But like many of you I wrestle with the question–is writing enough?

Shouldn’t we out there marching and protesting? If we aggravate some country with our military action and they turn around and retaliate and take us out, what good are our stories? Don’t we need to do something faster, more explosive, and with a big splash. Writing is too slow, it’s too internal, it’s too …

But I also know that when we write we are also carrying out quiet and deliberate moments of resistance. Every day that we are pushing past judgments into more nuanced observations, turning stereotypes into more realistic portrayals, and paying attention to the unconscious assumptions and biases in ourselves and in our work, we are actually protesting, we are challenging ourselves and each other. Teaching students how to bring conscious awareness to the challenges in their lives, helps them to write with more clarity and honesty because they become available to themselves and every person with whom they come into contact and that is important work. Alice Walker says, “the responsibility of the artist is to see and to be that expression in the culture that permits every one else to see.”  And she also says, after you’ve done that work in your poems and your novels and your paintings and your music, don’t be afraid to go and stand in line with your protest sign, the work of transforming ourselves and those around us is unending. Writing is good, and marching too is good.

Here are some things I have learned about being an activist writer.

You have to be brave. You have to take risks. You have to love what you are writing about so fiercely you’re willing to walk through your own fears and put yourself at risk to write about it and share it with the world.

You also have to bring to the work, to your life, the way of tenderness. This is a concept coined by Buddhist nun Zenju Earthlyn Manuel who is also an activist. This was the name that was given to her by her teacher. Zenju means complete tenderness. And I was very inspired by Zenju as a way to move through the world especially in these times. And I’ll share some of her main points and my reflections on them and why tenderness might be a useful activist strategy especially in literature

Zenju says that: “The way of tenderness is a way of experiencing life with utmost honesty; A way of experiencing life without distortions or manipulations.”  To me this means that you are awake to everything you see, you do not shield your eyes from the injustice or the suffering around you, whatever it is, you do not shy from it, deny it, manipulate or distort it so it makes YOU feel better about yourself. You face everything and you write it honestly.

“The way of tenderness means laying bare your conditioning.”  To me this means acknowledging that you are a product of the stories and myths of our cultures, that your imagination is not free, it is tethered to those stories we have heard all our lives, stories that value some people and devalue others, we all know what those stories are, they are the stuff of our unconsciousness and the way of tenderness is to acknowledge that our imaginary is not free of misogyny or racism or homophobia or classism or hatred or fear. And so, when we write we should write with great curiosity and also with humility.

“The way of tenderness is void of hatred for oneself and for others.”  And so, for all of us, it is an ongoing journey of self-exploration.

“The way of tenderness comes when life has broken you down into a pile of despair or when rage has consumed every limb of your body.”

“The way of tenderness is the heartfelt acknowledgement of difference, it does not deny what is unique or similar among us, it embraces everything that is different and it affirms life. It does not kill. It is social action.”

Of course, by this point many of you are probably wondering–how can you be tender and at the same time be safe and strong?  How can you meet disrespect or disregard of life with tenderness? How can you be tender when there is terrible injustice, when you are being spat upon, or shot at, how can you be tender when there is war?

For many of us, when faced with a threat, whether real or imagined, we tend to have either one of two reactions, the body prepares itself to fight the threat or it prepares to flee the situation. In both cases the same symptoms occur, the heart races, jaws clench, body sweats, pupils dilate, digestion slows down, in fact the entire body shuts down, including the heart. In this heightened state of fear, there is no place for an alternative, or creative or thoughtful response to the threat, whether real or perceived. There is only the terror coursing through our bodies. But there is another way. What if we could retrain our bodies to respond differently to threat? It does not mean that fiery emotions would simply disappear, and that rage wouldn’t still blaze through or that the body wouldn’t begin its parasympathetic gestures, or that we should have a spiritual bypass and behave as if what is happening isn’t happening. But what if we could become more adept at letting intense feelings roar through us without always reacting to them in the predictable ways? This takes practice of course. But what other outcome might await us out of that place of non-reaction? What new possibility, what creative outcome, what third way might emerge if we took many more deep breaths and waited, if we found ways to self soothe so we can continue to stay curious, and open, in the face of fear or threat or insult? How might that shift the outcome not only for us, but also for the person doing the attacking or throwing the insult?

During the Civil Rights Movements, Martin Luther King Jr. chose only the most seasoned peace activists to walk the frontlines of his civil rights marches. Only those that were courageous, had self-control, were willing to die, and could also hold a high vibration of unconditional love and tenderness and calm and utter surrender were allowed to face the rabid dogs, the fire hoses, police brutality and bystanders shouting the worst forms of fury and vitriol at them. “Hate cannot drive out hate,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”  It is important to note that MLK Jr.’s non-violent approach was not only religious, it was also very practical. Studies show that nonviolent resistance is more likely to persuade others to join their cause, thus enjoying mass participation, it is more likely to diminish the legitimacy and hence the power of the opponent, sometimes even winning over the opponent to understanding new ways of creating cooperation and community, and it is more likely to employ flexible tactics.

So how can we be tender and at the same time be strong? When we recognize that with practice we can learn how to face injustice with an open heart, and in many cases, with our broken hearts.

We cannot let the voices of hatred and fear be the loudest voices we hear. Now more than ever before, we need your poems and stories that are full of their truth and their power and their connection to our hearts. We need your poems and stories that will lead us in a way that is clear and direct and clean. We need your commitment to non-violent protests. We need your daily commitment to keeping your hearts open, and to stand ground as peacemakers. As you change, you also change the world. And so, it is important to do your personal work so that you can create more spaciousness and freedom and joy in your life. Because all this you will bring into your writing, into your stories, into the structure of your sentences, into the themes you choose, the vibration of your consciousness, and this in turn can change the world.

Patricia Powell

Patricia Powell is the author of Me Dying Trial, A Small Gathering of Bones, The Pagoda and The Fullness of Everything. She is the recipient of a PEN New England Discovery Award and a Lila-Wallace Readers Digest Writer’s Award. Powell has taught creative writing at Harvard University, U-Mass, MIT and Mills College. 

Powell teaches Fiction in our low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program. 

Contributions by Patricia Powell