I met Molly Sutton Kiefer in April of 2014. We were both reading at the Reader’s Loft bookstore in Green Bay, Wisconsin – a friend had recommended this place to me as a wonderful independent bookstore, with cats.
April in northern Wisconsin is changeable: outside, the graying skies promised late evening sleet, but inside (with much thanks to Molly, a former local who rallied her friends and family) the store was packed with poetry listeners, the cats wefted around our feet as we read, and we warmed ourselves in the glow of old-fashioned desk lamps and the peculiar glow of peculiar-looking lines. After the reading, Molly told me about her new project, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, which she hoped would be a place for hybrid work — poems that didn’t quite fit with traditional notions of poetry. She’d noticed the shapes of my poems on the page and asked me to send her some work — it was the first time a stranger had solicited my work.
Since then, Tinderbox has been publishing poetry, reviews, and essays that speak to these hybrid forms, and speak to poets like me who often find our strange poems don’t easily fit with the aesthetics of more conventional journals. More recently, the Tinderboxers have added another endeavor: Tinderbox Editions, a small press for poetry and literary prose. Both the journal and the press are located in Red Wing, Minnesota, and have become a part of the lively literary scene of the land of one thousand lakes. Milkweed, Graywolf, and Coffee House Press are well-known publishers in the Twin Cities, and Tinderbox augments this literary landscape in a number of ways.
Located about an hour outside of the cities, Red Wing is also home to Red Dragonfly Press and hosts a summer celebration of the arts at the Anderson Center. Last July, Molly curated the readings of several poets, including Heid Erdrich, Katherine Rauk, and Athena Kildegaard — in my correspondence with Molly, she shared this “lovely tidbit”: Molly met Chris Burawa (the director of the Anderson Center) through the preschool their children attend; she gives his homemade carrot cake a rave review. This year’s Summer Celebration of the Arts was held July 8, featuring poetry and fiction readings with Leslie Adrienne Miller, Mona Power, and Danit Brown. Tinderbox has recently joined the space at the Red Wing Incubator, sharing creative energies as they overlook Barn Bluff.
After the reading in Green Bay that night, it did indeed sleet. Highway 41 was closed — the thin covering of ice was completely invisible, and created some of the more treacherous driving I’d seen. The frontage roads were no better, so I crossed to the east and wefted my own way through country lanes and the edges of suburbs. I’m a bit of Luddite, so had no GPS or cell phone, but I kept Lake Winnebago to the left of me and tracked steadily south. The side roads were rutted and pocked, covered in places with branched shade. The slicked sheen found less purchase. I made my slow way home in the wavered light of the moon.
In a certain light, I willfully misread the title of Katherine Rauk’s poetry collection Buried Choirs. There’s a choir in my head that repeats those lines from Sonnet 73: “Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” There were no birds that night home from Green Bay, but the boughs did shake against the cold, and the sound of “bare ruined choirs” is buried in the back of the throat: a perfect swallowing.
The speaker’s voice in Rauk’s book rings with sounds and punning. The forms range from little rectangles of justified prose to spare couplets of simple language. The poems themselves oscillate from teacher-poems (invoking and mocking the mistakes of email, the ridiculousness of self-assessment, the mechanics errors of rough drafts) to intimations of loss to poems littered with imagery of childhood, often inverted to the strange and unsettling.
The birds are there too. In “The Price,” the speaker laments she “will never learn what love is / eating out of your hand.” The verb “think” and its variations build up, so the poem becomes a puzzle: the speaker thinking of the beloved not thinking of her, as she thinks of things — things like Thursdays, or “doorframes / stacked one up against / another’s emptiness.” The poem itself becomes this image of doorframes, spaces piled over spaces, with “some / kind of wind blowing through.” Rauk’s poems are often like this: a piling up of simple images, in simple language that becomes too complex to sort through simply. These deceptive poems require re-reading; the reader searches for the “I,” the source of the poem to hold onto and grasp.
There are also strange moments of humor paired with cleanly expressed loss, as in the poem titled “Instructions On How To Open A Gift That May Or May Not Be A Sausage.” The poem begins by referring to the mustard seed, and the Sermon on the Mount, which in Rauk’s poem becomes the “Sermon on the Meat.” But soon the poem points out that “the mustard plant is actually a weed, a subversive gift that is difficult to ungive.” And immediately after, the next sentence tells us: “Like the gift of love, which once opened cannot be returned to its original package, no matter what your ex-husband says.” From there, the prose poem returns to a pun or two, but we’ve been reminded that this is no joke — this is humor to save us from pain. Only a little funny, more than a little forced.
It is near the end of the second section that the collection reaches its apogee, its fullest emotional resonance, in the two poems “Summer Romance” and “Determination.” The first reminds us, “No less / beautiful for not being / true is the story / we tell ourselves / over and over / again about death.” The second reminds us of summer storms in prairie towns: “Sometimes we are given / lightning. Sometimes / the quiet heat / of a padlocked barn.” Both of these poems speak to the way we interpret images, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Both of these poems set up the third section of the book, which provides some resolution for the speaker, for us, and for this group of slow-burn poems with their central image of seeds – the Buried Choirs of the title.
Tinderbox Poetry Review and Tinderbox Editions continues to publish exciting work through the journal and the press. Of their work, Molly writes:
I’ve realized that I have a strong interest in promoting literary works that I felt were difficult, challenging, compelling, and ignited a spark inside me as a reader. Tinderbox wants to be a home for voices who need to be heard, whose works have an urgency in this world, and we also want to do what we do out of a sense of literary citizenship, which means that, for instance, [Kelly Hansen Maher’s book] Tremolo launched at Stillwater Prison, where Kelly taught, and we’ve given workshops in communities that might not have otherwise had this access.
She also promises exciting books in the works and the near future, including more poetry, an anthology of lyric essays, a poetic novel, and more. I highly recommend checking out the journal – free and accessible online – or buying a subscription to Tinderbox Editions.
Summer-wise, most of my reading is done in a hammock, slung under the grapevine, where the shade deepens from June to August.
This summer I set myself a few tasks: reread some favorites (the novels of Siri Hustvedt), find some shorter books (poetry, mixed genre, novellas) for an upcoming class to encourage students to be ambitious, and read interesting fiction to learn how to write interesting fiction. I wasn’t looking for “beach reads.” These were hammock reads.
Hammock reads disrupt my expectations, leaving me hanging, but not in any sort of plot-dependent, whodunnit sort of way. I wanted books that demanded my attention, my re-reading, my deepening investment not in individual characters or poems, but in the entire enterprise of the book. Hammock reads require dissection, sifting, and leave me wanting to create my own map—like those books that include maps as their end papers, all unknown place names and craggy landmass, with accompanying genealogies. I wanted to chart the geographies and topographies of these books to diagram how their parts work together, speaking between and across the pages, verso and recto, text to text. Both The Sorrow Proper, by Lindsey Drager (Dzanc Books) and Sarah Sadie’s We are traveling through dark at tremendous speeds. (Lit Fest Press) celebrate the pleasures of disrupture, delaying and toying with the reader’s desires.
Drager’s slim novel The Sorrow Proper is about love. It is also entirely about loss. These two things cannot be disentangled. Through the twinned story of a library’s eventual closure and a romantic relationship between a photographer and a mathematician, the book meditates on whether endings (which are always present) are endings. The library dies—sort of. The thing called the library, and known as the library, dies. Someone, either the photographer or the mathematician, dies. (Don’t worry, reader—this isn’t a spoiler; it’s revealed on page 10.) A young girl has also died in front of the library, and her death haunts the librarians, while her parents continue to observe the library’s present.
Because the book reveals that one of the lovers will die, and so early, our basic understanding of how narrative functions is disrupted. There is no suspense, not really. We are told, “things either intersect, refract, or pass untouched.” What we do not know, or what quickly becomes confused, is who has died. The photographer is an amateur, who only exhibits in the free space of the library—he only photographs objects, insists that to photograph people would be unethical. At one point, he tells his lover that “a subject is ‘captured.’ Photography is violent and cruel.” The mathematician is deaf; she communicates through notes and signs, teaches the photographer about proofs, how her experience of the world differs from his. (At one point he asks her what silence sounds like, but she tells him she doesn’t know what that is . . .) They connect through various signs—most poignantly letters inscribed on her body, as he writes on her flesh. After she, or he, dies, the book alternates between their grieving. Fragmentary chapters describe the photographer unable to throw away the marker he used to write on her skin. Another describes her wrapping and re-wrapping the writing in bandages to preserve it from the elements, the ordinary friction of the everyday, hoping to save for a little longer this memory of him and their time together. They both continue to exist, alone, yet together.
Alone, yet together, is the prevailing feeling of even the chapters where the mathematician and the photographer are both firmly alive and falling in love. Loss is present here too—traced throughout all their interactions. Both the structure and the prose (nearly prose poetry) insists it must be: early on, the mathematician writes to the photographer, “I will need you exactly always” and he thinks “in no world is always ever exact.” When the librarians gather to mourn the ending of their library, they write an epitaph for their building, their livelihood, their lives. They write: “I WANT TO EXPRESS THE DEGREE OF MY AFFECTION, BUT THE BORDERS OF THIS PAGE ARE TOO LIMINAL TO HOLD THE PROOF.” They write that the library has no floors, “MEANING NOT THAT IT LACKS A FOUNDATION, BUT RATHER, THAT IT IS A STRUCTURE THAT POSSESSES ONLY A SINGLE STORY.”
Perhaps the mathematician and the photographer are simply a possible story, a series of possible stories, in the library, as long as the library continues to exist. The reader reads the possible stories of them, as long as the book, the library, the culture of the book and the library continues to exist. Perhaps if and when the library and the book ceases to exist, so will the possible stories of the mathematician and the photographer, as well as any possible permutation of love stories, which are also every possible permutation of loss stories, and this is what concerns the librarians as they gather to bemoan the library’s fate, over beers and shots at the local dive bar. Perhaps what the book suggests through its exploration of the language of photography, mathematics, and the Many Worlds theory, is that we are all just “managing the dark.”
The dark is what greets the reader first in the tangible form of Sarah Sadie’s poetry book We are traveling through dark at tremendous speeds. A slim volume, black front and back cover, simple white text, reversed on the back, as if one is looking through the book. One also has to read through the book—the normal way of reading, turning the pages in sequence, simply won’t work. I tried. There is a long poem that runs the length of the book at the bottom of all the pages that (not so) subtly tugs one’s attention downward. In the end, I had to read this long poem first, then go back to the individual poems, then read a third time, finding the connections, the hinges, between the self-contained poems on the pages and where they intersected with the long running text, like a news channel’s banner, constantly updating. Given the topics and recurring metaphors sprinkled throughout the book, I came to think of this running poem on the bottom of the pages as breadcrumbs (as the banner itself says on one of its numberless pages), like those in the story of Hansel and Gretel, those little morsels left as trail, as markers, for the reader to find her way back home.
Throughout the poems, things are left for the reader to find. Most notably, the “princess water toys” the speaker leaves in the bathtub, in the “small, one-bedroom apartment” they rent in another town, “in another part of the state” where her husband works “half of each week.” The running text poems continues: “I leave them there anyway, emissaries. // Belle sighing, Girls grow up. / Cinderella nods, tired. Even a queen grows restless. // [. . .] And Ariel, facedown, repeats We were here. We were here.” Perhaps these quick mentions of everyday things would go unnoticed, if it were not for the book’s dedication: “For Reed, who knew to leave the princess water toys right where they were.” The poems are full of the everyday: laundry, strawberries, “bad cold wine,” acorns, and Great Horned Owls that nest in the backyard (more on that in a moment). But all of these everyday things, these quotidian moments, are complicated—fraught—with a simmering unease, a dissatisfaction that erupts from the running text poem and disrupts each page, challenging. The poem, “Riff on the Definition of a Poem” is interrupted by the voice that says, “I’m changing my name, she tells her husband. What’s changed? he asks.” Or the poem “The Girl the Gods Let Go” that speaks of not being chosen, of being left behind, so continuing on with “minivans / and pool parties [ . . .] Four kids and a successful spouse, a dog, / and all was well, more or less” is complicated by the running text that reads “Already she questions and crosses out her first sentences.” Here, the “she” seems to reference the earlier daughter, perhaps the Ariel princess left behind, but no longer face down, and no longer voiceless.
There are three poems called “Love in the Season of Great Horned Owls.” The first describes the discovery of the owls, and seems to only include the speaker and the children. The poem expresses a wish: “to translate / the wild of owls into English.” From the bottom of the page, the running text warns, “In order for there to be a story, a man has to pass by.” The second and third owl poems are nearer the end of the book and in both, spouse and children are fully present, the furniture of human relationships, reflected in the watching of the birds. In one, the speaker proclaims, “Married // love is muscled and damn big, but hard / to spot, even with binoculars.” The final owl poem shows the family engaged in a project together, creating a garden, with a walkway and bench, for the neighbors who come to view the owls. The speaker refers to them all as “human constellations.” They “visit together, having been visited.” And near this poem, the interrupting text has become quieter, less voluble. Fist in its mouth.
Finally, this may be the project of the book. The bottom text, its breadcrumbs, a path for the reader to interrupt the closed forms of the poems, to meander in and out of the book, interrupting and challenging what seems quotidian, a depiction of the trials and difficulties of marriage and children, the navigating of relationships that are somehow—strangely—unlike where you thought you’d end up. But they are, also strangely, where you’re glad to have ended up. Because the poems must address both these states, the poet writes them both, and allows them to comingle on the page.
Nicola Yoon's "Everything, Everything" Is Everything
As a teen, I had a soft spot for contemporary YA romance. I especially enjoyed the romance in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares.
I liked these books because the female characters showed me that even if you had personal issues, you could still find love. However, at some point, I found myself asking, “Why can’t black girls have a YA romance?”
Carmen Lowell, a half Puerto Rican character from the Traveling Pants series, was one of the few women of color I read in YA romance. I enjoyed reading about her because she was caring toward her family and friends and pursued a romantic relationship despite her confidence issues. However, by the end of the final book, Sisterhood Everlasting, she is the only one not in a relationship. Although she is very satisfied with her life, it bothered me that she couldn’t be married or dating someone when she is the only lead of color.
In addition to being one of the few women of color in YA romance, Carmen Lowell was the only female character of color I read who had happy romances. Other books like Sharon M. Draper’s Romiette and Julio and Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly had black female romantic leads, but their relationships also involved social issues. Both Romiette and Julio and If You Come Softly dealt with the racism that came with being in interracial relationships. While I was impressed by both authors’ takes on this important issue, part of me also wanted a book with a romance free of social tension.
Last year, I discovered Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything when it became a New York Times bestseller. After doing some research, I discovered that this book not only had black female lead but was also written by a black author. After waiting several months, I borrowed a copy from my local library to read and was totally enamored by the book. If this book were food, it would be cotton candy, filled with fluffy, sugary sweet moments that melted on my heart.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the main character, Madeline Whittler. Even though she is isolated from the world, she isn’t portrayed in a negative light. Instead, she is a quirky young girl who loves books and board games and yearns to experience life more fully. She spoke to my teen self, the me that had a hard time fitting in. In addition, Maddie being African American and Japanese gave me the long awaited representation I wanted as a black and Vietnamese person. As someone who rarely saw biracial characters who were black and Asian, this was very validating.
In addition to enjoying Maddie’s character, I liked that her romance happened gradually. Maddie Whittler can’t touch anyone or go outside the house because she has a rare disease that makes her allergic to everything. As a result, she has to communicate with Olly online and through each other’s windows. (They use mirror writing.) For a time, she is also allowed to have quarantined visits from him as long as they don’t touch each other. This makes the moments when they can interact in person all the more precious.
Out of all my favorite moments between Maddie and Ollie, my favorite is when they kiss for the very first time. At this point, they’ve only touched once before without anyone knowing. Maddie and Ollie’s feelings for each other have grown to the point where they can’t keep it to themselves anymore. They need to touch each other and express their feelings to validate them. The kiss is so beautiful and special, and Maddy savors it.
By the time I had finished the book, I had been thoroughly entertained and even taught a few lessons. The most important lesson is summed up in the quote, “Love is worth everything, everything.” This book shows that whether it is romantic love or familial love, it is worth experiencing and fighting for. It is a simple yet relatable message that makes the book memorable.
In addition to being ecstatic about the book itself, I am also excited for the movie adaptation, which will star Amandla Sternberg and Nick Robinson. When I heard this news, I was so thankful. Black YA leads in films are just as rare as black YA romance leads, and people have been craving this. Last year, Twitter user Mariah started the hashtag #WOCforAlaskaYoung in response to the casting call for the YA film Looking for Alaska. She and many others tweeted that they wanted Alaska to be played by a woman of color. Even John Green, the author of the book being adapted, stated that he supported the campaign.
Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything shows that black girls can have a happy young adult romance. It provides some much-needed representation on the page and tells a beautiful story of love. If the movie is as successful as the book, then hopefully we can get more books and movies with black female leads. Right now, Everything, Everything is everything I always wanted in a YA romance, and that is amazing.
The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.
Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.
Trump, in a speech on Friday, February 23, 2018, to the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C.:
“Well-trained, gun-adept teachers and coaches [should carry firearms in schools]. I mean, I don’t want to have a hundred guards with rifles standing all over the school. You do a concealed carry permit. This would be a major deterrent, because these people are inherently cowards.”
Saturday, February 24, 2018, Trump tweet:
“Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them. Very smart people. Must be firearms adept & have annual training. Should get yearly bonus. Shootings will not happen again — a big & very inexpensive deterrent. Up to States.”
It’s March 24, 2020.
In Denver, Colorado, a certain English teacher with streaks of silver in her brown hair completes her final “Armed Educator Training,” which her school district has mandated for all educators, in compliance with SB1999 passed after Colorado endured another mass shooting, this time in a Colorado Springs high school in May of 2019. This time, nearly fifty students and educators died. This time, finally, enough Colorado legislators stood up to demand alternatives. Thus “Armed Educator Training”: six courses all K–12 teachers are required to complete before the end of this 2020 school year. Former military personnel or teachers who can demonstrate similar arms certifications are exempt if they complete the appropriate paperwork. Upon completion of the six courses of the Armed Educator Training, each K–12 teacher receives a standard-issue M&P 9, with a Picatinny rail under the muzzle. On this day, March 24, 2020, a stern army colonel with wire spectacles perched on her nose hands this English teacher her M&P 9. The English teacher holds the gun on the palms of her hands and does not look away.
Behind her, a kindergarten teacher breaks into quiet tears as she is handed her gun. A middle school math teacher accepts his grimly. A high school chemistry teacher grabs hers a bit too eagerly. The room is silent. No one says thank you. No one laughs or jokes with each other, as they have been doing in the dreariness of these evening classes and at the shooting range, where learning how to hit the targets felt more like a sporting competition than anything real. But now. They fit the new guns into the blue plastic holsters they have been issued, and they accept the paper certificates that confirm their completion of Armed Educator Training.
At home, the English teacher sits in her car in the driveway for several minutes, trying to grasp this brave new world. She will leave the gun in her glove compartment and transport it to school tomorrow, in the clear plastic bag (all bags and backpacks at her high school must be clear now) that currently holds her students’ research papers, three books she needs to skim to prepare for tomorrow, and various spoons and forks she has neglected to return to her kitchen. She refuses to bring the gun into the house. Not with her child in there. But then she shudders: her child’s teachers all carry guns now, too. Every teacher in Denver is required to, now.
She sits in the driveway, and outside the March wind pummels her car. The car rocks. Mentally, she lists all that she still does not have as a teacher, though she now has a gun:
she does not have whiteboard markers
she does not have the students’ attention, since they are staring at their cellphones
she does not have a key that works in both classrooms in which she teaches
she does not have enough desks for all of her students when all of them attend
she does not have time to use the bathroom
she does not have a printer or a projector that work reliably
she does not have a reasonably sized class
she does not have enough books, or paper, or pencils
she is not paid enough to live in most of the neighborhoods in her city
she does not have adequate healthcare
she does not have regular assistance with her students’ mental health issues
she does not have reassurance that the district has invested adequately in her retirement
she is not paid enough to save for her own child’s college education
But she has a gun. On the passenger seat beside her, the gun in its ridiculous blue plastic holster, inanimate but not innocuous, waits for her to do something with it. She remembers other times she has held and fired a gun: as a child, when her father had reached around her and held the rifle with her so they could point and fire at clay pigeons the machine threw into the air over their cornfield. And she remembers the time in Alaska. In Alaska, where she trained to be a teacher, her program required all urban education students to do a one-week intensive in a rural school. She had flown to Kodiak Island, to a village of fifty, where two teachers led a K–12 school for eighteen students, lived together (though they were not a couple), drank tequila, and shot guns. For the entire week, the teacher had become increasingly dismayed by the ferocity with which the other two teachers wanted to finish the day so they could go shoot guns. Every afternoon, the three of them walked the short distance to the town dump, set up rusty cans on stumps, stepped back, and fired. Bang. Bang. BANG. The teacher wanted to know if they could hike instead. Ha, said the man teacher. Hike? There are Kodiak bears out there. THIS is all there is to do safely here. He lifted his pistol again, a little shakily, since he had been drinking. Bang! The other teacher, the woman, laughed bitterly, examining the pistol she held. Yeah, they say you have to be insane or be running away from something to come out here to teach. I think I’m doing both. She leveled the pistol at the man a moment, and they both laughed crazily. Bang! A tin can exploded in the distance, out by the dump where only the bears and the bald eagles could hear.
Until the mandatory Armed Educator Training, the teacher had not fired a gun since that moment in the Alaska. Some of the teachers in the training had reminded her of those two teachers on Kodiak Island: desperate, fierce, angry. Give me that gun, an eighth grade social studies teacher had said, his teeth gritted. No active shooter will think to bother my classroom, ever.
Now she sits in her car beside the gun, and outside, it has begun to rain: large drops splash rough-edged circles on her windshield, which is cracked. Where is she safe, if not in her classroom? Where is her daughter safe? She thinks of a cartoon she saw once, of a boy on a playground holding a stick. The teachers gathered around him, staring down at him, debating. Should we arm all the other children with sticks? Or should we take away his? The cartoon teachers frowned in their indecision.
The front door of the teacher’s house opens, and her wife steps out, peering through the gray rain. She wraps her sweater around her body and walks out onto the porch, down the two steps, across the driveway. She doesn’t hesitate: she opens the driver’s-side door and grasps the teacher’s hand. Come on, sweet wife, she says. Come inside. She glances at the gun on the passenger-side seat, but mostly she keeps her gaze focused on the teacher.
Shivering suddenly, though she is not cold, the teacher begins to cry. I don’t want this—I just want to teach writing—I hate living in America—I—
Her wife pulls on the hand she holds and guides the teacher out of the car. She shuts the car door, and the car, smart, locks itself with the gun inside.
Dinner’s ready, the teacher’s wife says quietly. Let’s just go inside.
Inside, dinner is already on the table, and the women’s daughter sits waiting, her dark eyes round with concern. The fireplace is on, and the dog greets them, wagging happily, as he does every day. The teacher lets her shoulders relax. Her daughter springs up from the table to hug her, and the dog wedges himself happily between them.
And the teacher gives herself permission, as she does every afternoon, to forget the world outside this one, to forget guns and inept politicians and deep gun lobby pockets that refuse to ban even semi-automatics and bump stocks and fear and students who jump at any loud noise and lockdown drills and lockout drills and the flashing red and blue lights of America.
Her wife locks their front door. Here, by the fire, the three of them settle into their chairs at the dinner table, and the dog stretches out at their feet.
But it is not enough. The teacher knows it: it is not enough.
I love storing the Christmas decorations and the tree downstairs in their respective boxes. I love rifling through all of our drawers and shelves and closets to find all that we no longer use: this year, we donated seven boxes full of toys and clothes to Goodwill. I even love beginning my new classes the second Monday of January. In the cold air, January is new. Clean. Spare. Ready.
Even last January, after a December of sulking and bargaining about Trump’s unprecedented win, I straightened my shoulders and started painting signs for the Women’s March. At night, I madly crocheted Pepto-Bismol-colored hats. December had been darker than usual, but January reminded us that light always returns.
That’s why I’ve begun this January reading two essential books for this time: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I read the former in those dark early hours before I head to school; the latter, I am reading to Mitike (she no longer needs me to read to her, but she tolerates it, for my sake). Both books have become like holy texts to me in these first days of January.
First, The Handmaid’s Tale, which Atwood published in 1985. The award-winning eponymous Hulu show has revitalized interest in the science fiction story, which details a near future in which the United States becomes a strict theocracy after a supposed terrorist attack that kills the president and the Congress. This theocracy, desperate to provide children for the increasingly infertile upper class, forces fertile women to serve as “handmaids” for the highest-ranking men. It sounds far-fetched in summary, but Offred, the protagonist, constantly reminds us in her storytelling that her loss of her job and daughter and husband and independence happened so rapidly—and so smoothly, orchestrated as it was by people in great power—that her disbelief could barely keep pace with her new reality. The breathless truth of The Handmaid’s Tale is the warning: this could happen, maybe not exactly like this, but with this rapidity, with this blindsiding sharpness.
In the clean light of this January 2018, in the second year of Trump’s presidency, Offred’s tale reminds me to take my current freedoms seriously, and to guard myself and those around me by writing words like these and by fighting to elect leaders who will preserve and nurture true democracy. It reminds me to stay awake. Atwood describes a world in which, suddenly, “people were scared. And when it was known that the police, or the army, or whoever they were, would open fire almost as soon as any of the marches even started, the marches stopped” (233). I would like to insist that The Handmaid’s Tale, which Atwood says she was inspired to write partly because she was living in West Berlin at the time, could never happen here. Certainly, I want to say, such a conservative, authoritarian regime could never seize power so fast. As Offred notes, “I would like to be ignorant. Then I would not know how ignorant I was” (340). But I know our nation is not immune at all to this kind of shuddering change. Especially not now, a year into a Trump presidency defined by policies that support xenophobia, racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism. Recently, Atwood, now 78, endured criticism for her insistence that men accused of sexual misconduct in the #MeToo movement receive due process in the court system. Still seeking to warn us of how quickly our society could devolve into one like her fictional one, Atwood said in an interview with The Guardian, “If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers?” Her message, still: stay awake, stay awake, stay awake. It could happen here. It could.
This brings me to A Wrinkle in Time. Those unfamiliar with the 1962 book might sigh happily that I am about to discuss a “children’s book,” but Madeleine L’Engle’s fantasy novel (set to be released as a film in March!) takes us almost immediately, in chapter four, to face The Dark Thing, the Shadow over the universe, the origin of love’s opposite, which is not hatred, but indifference. Meg Murray, that awkward, brainy, girl protagonist that so many of us grew up loving precisely because she was awkward and brainy and a girl, finds herself swept along on a quest to find her father, who, in his experimentation with space and time travel, has been pulled onto the “dark planet” of Camazotz, a planet that has “given up.” When the three celestial beings Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which help Meg, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin “wrinkle” to Camazotz, the children find a planet that looks quite a bit like earth—sunshine, neighborhoods, flowers, trees—except all the people have been frightened into behaving and speaking in identical ways. When the children reach IT, the brain at Central Central Intelligence, they are informed that “our decisions will be one, yours and mine. Don’t you see how much better, how much easier for you that is?” (135). Again, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, an authoritarian force has decided what is best for the whole; the individual must be terrified into total submission so that power can reign.
In A Wrinkle in Time, the shadowy Thing wants, above all, for the universe to submit, in fear, to a regimented sameness unmistakably reminiscent of the fascist governments that rose and fell in L’Engle’s youth. Those who fight against that consuming shadow, in L’Engle’s telling, can only fight successfully with light and love. As in the Star Wars stories, the dark side only grows stronger when the warrior (Luke or Rey or here, Meg) throws hate and fear at it; it is love, that very human possibility, that mystery that is both individual and wildly collective, that blares light into the dark spaces.
But how does that philosophical truth help someone like Offred, trapped as she is in her tightly controlled world, where even suicide’s escape is denied her? How does it help all the people in both books who have already been defeated, or tortured, or killed? How does the “fight darkness with love” argument help young African American males targeted by police brutality and by an unjust prison system? How does it help immigrants terrified that they will be deported and separated from their families? How does it comfort LGBTQ+ people afraid to kiss their partners in public, or to come out to their families or in their places of work? How does it help us all, in this January, with this president and his supporters?
I think of how that message has evolved for my daughter. When Mitike was younger, she was satisfied with the reassurance, emphasized by her favorite children’s books, that love will always triumph. Now, one week away from age eleven, she holds a more nuanced opinion. She still believes that, eventually, love will triumph, but she understands this is a long view, a dream, a vision for a world we have not yet reached. This MLK Day, we read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” together, because I wanted her to hear more of the details of what Civil Rights activists faced and of what kinds of direct action they were willing to take in order to force negotiation and change. I’ve begun to think that we will be defeated by a constant message of love and hope if we do not also develop tools we can use to build our way there.
Ultimately, that’s the message of both The Handmaid’s Tale and A Wrinkle in Time: the journey through the darkest times will be difficult, sometimes unbearable, but the tools of resistance will maintain our hope for a better world. Consider: Offred writes her story in a diary she hopes others will find someday (and, because the book exists, we know someone did find it). Consider: though the Shadow threatens the whole Universe, Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace fight it with their own specific story of love, and though they cannot defeat the Dark Thing, they push it out of their own tiny corner. Consider Star Wars, or superhero movies like Wonder Woman or The Avengers: evil exists, but it will not triumph while there are people—even just a few people—willing to insist on light, their teeth gritted, their bodies straining, their hearts full to breaking.
Every time seems fraught. This one, with an impulsive, racist, unstable president, presents its own new glimpses of the Darkness. We must search for guides. Margaret Atwood and Madeleine L’Engle are two of mine.