Addressing Social Justice in Literature and Art


Recently, in a New York TImes opinion piece, writer David Brooks argued that literature and the humanities had lost its way in that, rather than focusing on the inward person, to “cultivate the human core, that part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul…” (whatever that means), it has begun to focus more on the outward. Instead of focus on “truth, beauty, goodness,” he argues, now the focus has turned to political and social topics regarding class, race, and gender. I read his article and found myself wondering why he cannot see that these inward and outward focuses can be combined, and have been for centuries.

One of my own focuses, as I have navigated the waters of returning to graduate school (English Literature with a bit of Psychology thrown in), is how authors have portrayed women…in particular, the “rhetoric of disempowerment,” as my classical literature professor/mentor has put it. For example, from further back than Shakespeare, I can follow a trail of how the humanities and literature have portrayed the disempowerment of women, especially that of women’s inability to speak for themselves –how they have been silenced politically and socially. Frances Burney, a predecessor and an inspiration for the literature of Jane Austen, peppered her literary form with both subtle and overt commentary about how all of the female protagonists in her novels were silenced, ignored, and controlled by patriarchal society.

More recently, William Faulkner wrote what are considered great works of American literature that focused heavily on an “enlightened” Southern White Male’s views on racism and social class. I’m not a huge fan of 1,800-word sentences, but I have to admit that his works certainly focused on both the inward world of the “soul” and the outward world of race and social justice.  Toni Morrison, one of the great literary novelists of our time, weaves those things together beautifully. Her often brutal (but honest) portrayals of black lives from slavery and beyond have heavily impacted both the literary community and activists for social justice.

Why must it be one or the other? Do authors sacrifice the world of introspective thought and “feeding the soul” when they incorporate the issues of social class, race, or gender?

Paula Moya, Associate Professor of English at the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences, approaches literature as not only a rhetorical, introspective device, but as the perfect medium to approach attitudes about gender, race, religion or social class. I “defected” from graduate studies in Psychology (and many years working in various mental health and special education jobs) to Liturature, and like Moya, I find that literature can go a long way towards transforming an individual’s outlook on the world around her while still retaining beautiful, transformative language and imagery.
I don’t classify my novels as “literary,” per se. Currently, I’m writing for young adults (and those adults who like YA fiction), in the speculative fiction genre. I’m working on the second book of an apocalyptic/dystopian series.  I’m also doing some academic writing and will be writing a graduate thesis soon. My second book will focus heavily on issues such as gender and empowerment – or disempowerment, in a few cases. I’ve had a few people tell me that’s a mistake – that my protagonist’s having a “feminist” idea or three devalues the “literariness” of my work. I disagree, but hey, even if it does, I’m willing to risk it.

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