I love January best.
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.