Literature: the necessary bread

Posted: September 5th, 2014 | Columns, Featured, Out on the Page | No Comments

Caleb Rainey | Out on the Page

As a director of a literature foundation and as someone who studied literature relentlessly in college, you would think that I had an unwavering belief that literature is an essential feature of a life well lived and is certainly essential to social change. But even I have doubts.

Caleb Rainey

Caleb Rainey

I wrestle with nagging thoughts like “No one reads anymore,” or “Fiction is frivolous and non-fiction and facts are what matter,” or “Do novels or poetry really have anything important to contribute to society other than just entertainment?”

These thoughts are among many others that nip at my heels whenever I begin to feel insecure about what I have dedicated my life to. I can only imagine that these doubts and insecurities are 100 times worse for actual writers who are hoping their work means something.

But these thoughts and worries do not happen in a vacuum. Rather they are part of a culture that I think is becoming rabidly anti-intellectual and anti-art and one that is also obsessed with “fact” or completely “objective” truths. I have gotten into heated debates with other young activists, where I have to argue once again that working in the field of literature is a legitimate and essential part of making our world more livable. But I still have nagging doubt. As a result, I will occasionally take my doubts to books and “ask” the author to demonstrate to me yet again why literature matters, why it can literally change the world, and why I should care so much about it.

This Labor Day weekend I had the pleasure of reading Julia Alvarez’s “In The Time of the Butterflies,” a book of historical fiction that restores the revolutionary Maribel sisters to memory. But it was the postscript in the novel that really spoke to my belief in the power of literature, however shaky that belief can get at times.

In the postscript Alvarez writes, “For I wanted to immerse my readers in an epoch in the life of the Dominican Republic that I believe can only be finally understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination. A novel is not after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart.”

And further on she writes, “A reading, thinking, empathetic citizenry is a lot less likely to be controlled or hoodwinked. ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else.’ And I can’t think of a better way to pass on that freedom than to make that someone else a reader and put a good book in his or her hands.”

Alvarez is spot on with her assertion that history and politics can only be truly understood in one’s core through an emotional connection to the issue or moment. Literature helps to build that connection and allows us to travel into various human hearts and gain a sense of empathy that would be inaccessible to us if we just operated under “cold hard facts.”

Indeed, even politics is dependent on stories. Politicians are experts at using stories to prove why healthcare reform or immigration reform are needed or not needed. Few people respond passionately to facts and numbers. Many of us need to feel an emotional connection to an issue before it really resonates with us. This is especially true when the issue at hand does not directly impact us. As LGBT people, we work tirelessly to convince the heterosexual majority of our equal humanity and human worth. We do this through studies, impassioned political speeches, and protests that resist homophobia or transphobia in all its forms. And all of these methods work. They all have a place in the activist arsenal.

For many straight people, however, LGBT issues are difficult for them to access. They may not know anyone who is LGBT and they may be in an area where there is no LGBT culture to really speak of. And a speech or study may very well not engage them to become social change makers in their communities, but a story can.

Progressives often forget that literature has been at the forefront of social movements for centuries. It was books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that helped shift the minds of middle class white women concerning slavery. It was books like “The Color Purple” that brought the plight of poor southern black women, particularly black queer women, to the fore.

Books have shifted how generations perceive race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. Literature reaches into the reader’s heart and invites him or her to momentarily leave their world and enter into someone else’s. That someone else may be someone they have been taught to hate or think less of. That someone else may just be someone they know nothing about. And for the duration of that book, that someone else takes center stage and the reader can build a sense of empathy and connection with a person or group of people. This empathy that is gained through the reading experience is then translated into votes for marriage equality in Alabama, votes to protect affirmative active in California, organizing on the border to ensure that all children are safe in the U.S.

This is why literature is not an afterthought or a garnish to social justice organizing; rather it is one of the centerpieces. It is necessary bread. Humans need stories. And stories lead to action, empathy, and sometimes love.

—Caleb Rainey recently graduated with his master’s degree in cultural studies. He is a long-time activist, and the founder executive director of the San Diego Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation. Contact him at

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