On Literature as Prayer in Post Election America

Soph Bonde/Argot Publications Inc

I wasn't raised in a religious household, so when I say that all I wanted to do this week was pray that should strike you as odd. After all, how does one pray when one does not believe in God? (Dear God? Dear Mr. Christ? Are you listening, it's me, Cecilia?) How does one turn to the unknown in times of uncertainty? And so, instead of bending forward in prayer, I curled up in the company of a few good books: the relics and holy words of a non-theist.

In the absence of a holy text or divine answer, I turned for comfort to the powerful words of prose. Authors may be but human, but they’ve always seemed like prophets to me. That faith ties into my deep belief that stories shape reality. The examples we grow up with, lived or imagined, define our expectations for the future. For me, the most powerful examples have included stories of women achieving goals I always dreamed of (I’m looking at you Jo March). For so many others, those examples included representations of people who look like them, think like them, love like them, and feel like them. The books we read as children, and even as adults, not only tell us who we can be, but how we can be.

Young adult books of courage and adventure have reminded me of the hope I held not just years ago, but before this election shook my faith. Books like The Book Thief, The Harry Potter series, and A Wrinkle in Time have been in my thoughts most recently (but that’s not to say libraries worth of others’ favorite stories don’t matter just as much). These are the stories, so unlike those I am reading today, that taught me what kind of world I want to live in. They're the kinds of stories that taught me that peace is worth struggling towards; that fear is the beginnings of bravery.

For those of us worried about the world we may soon be living in, I think it is only fair to begin with Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Lovers of literature, stories, and words all have their favorite books about the power of stories. Mine is The Book Thief, not simply because it reaffirms my belief in words, but because it does so in dark and difficult times.

The World War II-era novel tells the story of German orphan Leisel Meminger who finds family in her foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann, childhood friend Rudy Steiner, and the books she finds as Hans teaches her to read. As the war escalates, Leisel begins stealing forbidden books from the mayor’s library and book burnings and learns the power of stories when her family hides a young Jewish man named Max. During dark nights in bomb shelters or quiet evenings protecting Max in the family basement, Leisel reads stories or makes up her own. She finds light in darkness through words.

Whether your ‘power of words’ book is The Book Thief or another like Inkheart, Matilda, or Fahrenheit 451, stories that encourage us to value and tell our own stories are now beyond important. We may soon be facing times, if not of book burnings, then certainly of marginalizing diverse stories. Of silencing counter-narratives. Whatever stories we are told, we may have to remind ourselves of the stories we can imagine.

Fortunately, many of us grew up in the Harry Potter generation and are no strangers to the language of courage and love. We spent year after year waiting in line at bookstores and movie theatres for stories. And not just any story, but rather one of resistance and rebellion. Of family and friendship, sacrifice and triumph over evil.

I don’t think it would be going too far to say that Harry Potter is the holy book of millennials. I certainly don’t turn to it every day, nor even every year, but I can’t live through difficult situations without remembering its guidance. I can’t listen to conversations about racism and white supremacy without thinking about Purebloods and Mudbloods. I can’t tell my friends I disagree with them without thinking “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to one’s enemies. But a great deal more to stand up to one’s friends.” I can’t listen to bullies, and now politicians, without wondering whether my love might be enough to protect others.   

As someone who turns to words before prayer, who believes in human compassion and stories, I’d be remiss if I didn’t end with the light that is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. If you loved A Wrinkle in Time as much as I did, you’ll remember it as a story that begins dramatically “It was a dark and stormy night” and ends with the power of love triumphing over evil. It’s the kind of story that seems cliché when described as such, but reaffirms our innocent, yet powerful, faith in goodness with creativity and grace. As the Murray children, Meg and Charles Wallace, travel through space and time with their friend Calvin and three mystical beings (presented as witches but revealed to be stars), they fight the forces of evil to save their father from mysterious captivity.

The witches, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, offer words of wisdom that I’ve played over and over again in my head these past weeks:     

“And we're not alone, you know, children," came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter. "All through the universe, it's being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it's a grand and exciting battle. I know it's hard for you to understand about size, how there's very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won't seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it's a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it's done so well."

"Who have our fighters been? Calvin asked.

"Oh, you must know them, dear," Mrs. Whatsit said. 

Mrs. Who's spectacles shone out at them triumphantly. "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not." 

"Jesus!" Charles Wallace said. "Why of course, Jesus!"

"Of course!" Mrs. Whatsit said. "Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They've been lights for us to see by.”

For those who find comfort in prayer, Charles Wallace’s exclamation of “Jesus!” might speak to the justice in divinity. Though I’m not one of those folks, I can understand the power of a figure who represents kindness and sacrifice in their most total forms. Yet, I find greater comfort in Mrs. Whatsit’s response, “There were others. All your great artists.” To know that human creativity can guide and inspire us gives me great hope for our future.  

As our media begins to normalize the horrors of this election, I try to remember the books that taught me that bigotry and ignorance, hatred and lies, are not normal or good ways of living a life. Rather than telling ourselves stories where the outcome of this election is okay, we must constantly and aggressively rewrite that narrative. If we tell stories where this is okay, we won’t survive. But, if we tell stories where we survive, and show ourselves how, we’ll make it.

Remember, for a moment, stories of radical hope, like the Star Trek episodes of the Civil Rights Era. Stories that imagined interracial explorers setting off into the stars, knowing that peace had been reached on Earth and adventure waited in the beyond of the Universe. Remember the stories that taught you to be kind, like Horton Hears a Who and Charlotte’s Web, and the stories that taught you to be brave, Dealing with Dragons, Esperanza Rising, and The Outsiders. Perhaps most important now, remember the stories that taught you your values, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lorax, Beloved, family histories, cultural legacies, lessons learned and lived. Fortunately, we have all been children who believed in many things. It may now be time to believe once again.

So, be loud and fill your media with voices of dissent, courage, and kindness inspired by these stories. Now is the time to write letters-to-the-editor when news organizations normalize oppression, to create alternative media—zines and comics and more—that tell true stories, to submit articles to your local newspapers and online magazines. Listen to the stories that encourage expression, bravery, and hope. Whatever the conditions of our world, let us continue imagining. If stories create our expectations, let our stories be ones of compassion. Let our prayers be ones of action.

Cecilia Nowell is a freelance journalist who writes about political art, feminism, and anything else that strikes her fancy.  Her writing has appeared in The Establishment, The Tempest, Bustle, and Ms. Magazine’s blog. In her free time, she runs a cat blog, drinks too much tea, and enjoys hiking. Her writing can be found at cecilianowell.wordpress.com.