Letter writing as a form of activism has experienced a recent boom, especially in the literary world. Think of books such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele: Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, and the forthcoming Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times (coming to bookstores May 2), which was conceived of and edited by the Bay Area’s own Carolina De Robertis.
The essays in Radical Hope are socially conscious love letters written by award-winning novelists, poets, political thinkers, and activists, including Junot Díaz, Alicia Garza, Roxana Robinson, Lisa See, Jewelle Gomez, Hari Kunzru, Faith Adiele, Parnaz Foroutan, and many others. The letters were written along the lines of James Baldwin’s essay “My Dungeon Shook” in The Fire Next Time.
“My Dungeon Shook” was a letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the emancipation. More than 50 years later, Baldwin’s words feel just as relevant: “This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.”
We interviewed De Robertis about literature’s role in activism, the intimacy of the epistolary form, and above all else, how to maintain hope in turbulent times.
You conceived of the idea for Radical Hope three days after the election. What brought about the urgency?
I wanted to respond to all the grief, fear, and outrage I was seeing and hearing, within my own communities and beyond them, as people grappled with a new level of threat to their progressive values and, in many cases, to their lives. I kept thinking about James Baldwin, particularly his letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time, and how the epistolary essay form allowed a brilliant blend of intimacy and sociopolitical rumination. A love letter that grapples with our world, with injustice and visions for change. I hungered to read letters like that about our times, from many perspectives, from the point of view of immigrants, Muslims, women, queers, transgender folks, people of color, straight people, white people, men, elders, young folks, parents, thinkers, poets, dreamers. Such letters seemed like they could be a kind of sustenance.
So I started reaching out to writers. Within ten minutes, I had my first yes—from the legendary Cristina García. And the responses kept flooding in.
What role do you think authors and literature play in the broader scope of activism?
Many writers have been galvanized since the 2016 election, as that’s true for people in the general populace as well—a beautiful thing. That said, it’s also true that many of us within literary communities have long been concerned with civil rights and social justice, both as activists and in the themes of their creative work. This may be especially true for those of us who come from, and write about, historically marginalized communities. And, beyond our own time and place, books and the written word have always played an essential role in progressive change, in resisting tyranny, and in reshaping cultures. This is why, in other countries, including in my native Uruguay, writers have so often been jailed or forced into exile. Words are power. Speech is power. Writing, reading, speaking, and listening are all transformative acts.
This book is a departure from your previous work as a novelist. Can you talk a little about the process of the book coming to fruition?
I’ve been an engaged activist for longer than I’ve been a published novelist—particularly in movements for women’s rights, immigrant rights, queer visibility, and racial justice—so in a way, this project is a merging of my paths, a kind of homecoming. In terms of how the process for this book differed from writing my novels, it’s been an incredible joy and honor to curate a “symphony” of voices that includes so many brilliant writers and leading voices of our time, creating the container for their voices, soliciting the pieces, and then arranging them into a coherent whole, like songs in an album or paintings on a gallery wall.
What do you hope to accomplish with Radical Hope? What’s your ultimate wish or aim?
My wildest hope is, to put it simply, that this book may be of use to people. In an era of increased repression, hatred, and backlash against progressive gains, there are many reasons to feel despair, to become paralyzed or depressed or tempted to give up or tune out. But we can’t afford that. For some the book might feel like a refuge; for others it might be a rallying cry, a beacon, a kaleidoscopic manifesto. All those things, and more, are in these pages; my hope is that people will be nourished in whatever way they need.
How would you define “radical hope”?
Junot Díaz actually defines this for us early in the book by drawing on the words of philosopher Jonathan Lear: “What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” This is something people have bravely done in the face of injustice throughout time. Look at Harriet Tubman, to whom the next letter in the book is addressed (it’s written by Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter). Talk about radical. Talk about hope.
If you had to pick one thing/solace/activity, what would you say allows you to maintain a sense of hope amidst all the terribleness in the world?
What a question! Staying connected. Staying loving. Staying of use. Looking my children in the eyes and remembering that the future is mysterious and still belongs to them—wait, that was more than one thing, wasn’t it?
Have any of the essays surprised you? If so, how?
Absolutely — I’d say almost all of these essays have startled and amazed me, each in a different way. Francisco Goldman’s fierce and penetrating love song to immigrants who endure atrocities to migrate here from Central America and Mexico. Chip Livingston’s inspired letter from his deceased, Native American/Creek grandfather to himself, like a vision channeled from the beyond, full of wisdom and hard-earned faith. Meredith Russo’s blazingly brave unfolding of what it’s like, these days, to be a transgender mother in Tennessee. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s bold vision for how to burst through politics-as-usual and dare to demand the “impossible.” Parnaz Foroutan poetic manifesto that connects her family’s flight from Iran to a bold reaffirmation of this nation as a refuge for exiles. Karen Joy Fowler’s potent road map for shaking off exhaustion and staying engaged. And on and on.
On Saturday, June 3, let De Robertis help you find courage, love, and hope, regardless of your political persuasion at the Bay Area Book Festival’s session “Radical Hope: Staying Awake, Sane, and Engaged in Dangerous Times,” along with Jeff Chang, Aya de Leon, Achy Obejas, Katie Kitamura, Parnaz Foroutan, Francisco Goldman, Karen Joy Fowler, Cherrie Moraga, and Meredith Russo at 7 p.m. on the Alta Stage at Freight & Salvage (2020 Addison St, Berkeley).