Despite Trump, “The Land Holds Us Still”

Utah desert

Utah desert


Today is the one-month anniversary of the most terrifying electoral victory in my lifetime. As a life-long Democrat I’ve had many disappointments, but this is the first time I’ve worried about the very future of the republic and of the planet. Donald Trump is not your ordinary Republican.

I share today what two authors had to say about Trump’s victory the day after it happened. Terry Tempest Williams and Zadie Smith remind us that literature steps up in dark times.

Although best known for her creative non-fiction, Utah nature writer Williams turned to poetry to process the election results. With recent news that Trump will be nominating, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, one of the major foes of President Obama’s climate change policies (Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt), we have more reason than ever to heed Williams’s call for resistance:


By Terry Tempest Williams

November 9, 2016

It is morning. I am mourning.
And the river is before me.
I am a writer without words who is struggling to find them.
I am holding the balm of beauty, this river, this desert, so vulnerable, all of us.
I am trying to shape my despair into some form of action, but for now, I am standing on the cold edge of grief.
We are staring at a belligerent rejection of change by our fellow Americans who believe they have voted for change.
The seismic shock of a new political landscape is settling.
For now, I do not feel like unity is what is called for.
Resistance is our courage.
Love will become us.
The land holds us still.
Let us pause and listen and gather our strength with grace and move forward like water in all its manifestation: flat water, white water, rapids and eddies, and flood this country with an integrity of purpose and patience and persistence capable of cracking stone.
I am a writer without words who continues to believe in the vitality of the struggle.
Let us hold each other close
and be kind.
Let us gather together and break bread.
Let us trust that what is required of us next will become clear in time.
What has been hidden is now exposed.
This river, this mourning, this moment — may we be brave enough to feel it deeply.

Novelist Zadie Smith is British and so saw a foreshadowing of Trump’s victory in her country’s referendum to leave the European Union. In a talk given on November 10 upon receiving the Welt Literature Prize, she responded to people wondering whether she believes in the multicultural optimism expressed in her debut novel White Teeth (2000). While acknowledging that “the clouds have rolled in,” she observes that this is a salutary reminder of how progress works:

Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited. Neither my readers nor I am in the relatively sunlit uplands depicted in White Teeth anymore. But the lesson I take from this is not that the lives in that novel were illusory but rather that progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive. 

Her novelistic explorations of human drama reveal to Smith that, while the struggle is difficult, we sell people short if we think we are doomed to perpetual ethnic and cultural conflict:

My business, such as it is, concerns the intimate lives of people. The people who ask me about the “failure of multiculturalism” mean to suggest that not only has a political ideology failed but that human beings themselves have changed and are now fundamentally incapable of living peacefully together despite their many differences.

In this argument it is the writer who is meant to be the naive child, but I maintain that people who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. 

At the moment, to be sure, a very worrisome conductor is mounting the American podium, and he is teasing out white supremacist and neo-Nazi notes. That means that novelists like Smith must look to their own conducting:

At this moment, all over the world—and most recently in America—the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind…But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

If you are Terry Tempest Williams, you turn to the balm of nature’s beauty. If you are Zadie Smith, you remind us of the vibrancy of multicultural harmony. These are strong foundations from which to push back.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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