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Imagine All the People: The Case for Utopian Writing in the Age of Trump
It is the worst of times and it is the worst of times. It is the age of foolishness, as well as the epoch of incredulity, the season of Darkness, the winter of despair. We have four long years before us, we have nothing before us. We are all going direct to Hell. In short, the current period is so far unlike the previous that even the politest progressives will insist on the country being regarded, in no uncertain terms, as fucked.
I could go on.
I could go on about the president with the orange face in Mar-a-Lago, the suite of white supremacists in the Oval Office, the bombs dropped on Syria and a frantic free press, but I’m a hopeful person. If I wasn’t wildly hopeful, I wouldn’t be a writer—a fiction writer—and, as such, a disciple of imagination. My profession is based on asking what if? And this line of questioning, I believe, is essential in a time of terrifying what ifs? It may be the year of Our Loss two thousand and seventeen, a year in which moral revelations are conceded to a Canadian Prime Minister and George W. Bush manifests unexpected charm, but neither a foreign official nor a war criminal will save us. Imagination might.
Would the election have tipped another way if we had thoroughly visualized the frightening repercussions of losing? Would we have campaigned with greater passion? Knocked on more doors? Tried harder to convince our wayward uncles that building a wall was not only racist, but pointlessly expensive? Perhaps. But forecasts for the future go both ways. Democrats also failed to imagine, for voters, what winning could mean. As Masha Gessen explains in The New York Review of Books, “They offered no vision of the future to counterbalance Trump’s all-too-familiar white-populist vision of an imaginary past.” Trump doled out a twisted nostalgia, a vengeful fantasy fueled by fear. The Democrats promised the continuation of an unsatisfying reality.
Those of us committed to a progressive future must take our present anguish as a call to imaginative arms. We need imagination to not only predict and circumvent the worst possibilities—the sabotaging of healthcare, education, the planet—but to realize alternatives to catastrophe. This is where artists become indispensible. In the bid for public opinion, creativity is currency, inspiration imperative. For writers: Our trade is in rendering the unreal real. We are world builders, after all. And while literature highlighting risks, dangers, impending apocalypses is important (a thousand bows to Margaret Atwood) I would like to make a case for the opposite: for literature that chases utopia. How will we build a better world without first picturing what that world looks like? And who better to do it than writers—the people who ask what if?
Such imaginative work is not without precedent. Utopian literature and progressive undertakings have often emerged in symbiosis. Take the organizational wonderland of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887, which spurred a wave of socialist clubs in the late-nineteenth century. Or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s book Herland, which offered a feminist utopia five years before U.S. women achieved suffrage. Or, in a more contemporary sense, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which outlines an “Earthseed” religion that continues to inspire social movements. These literary utopias are not necessarily timeless nor universally appealing—from the historical vantage point of 2017, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 can be read as a blithe portrait of a totalitarian state—but they represent efforts, nonetheless, to imagine alternatives to unsatisfying realties.
Literature can serve as a testing ground, an opportunity to mix ideals with practicality, to experiment with the alchemy of human ambition and human fallibility. In literature, Utopia can come to life. When Sir Thomas More coined the word in 1516, he used homonymic Greek roots often interpreted to mean both “good place” and “no place.” Utopia is a pun, a paradox by definition. It has always existed most comfortably, most fully, in the airtight space of a book. Whether or not a fictional paradise is precisely replicated in real life—and whether it should be replicated—that fictional construct can still introduce new ideas, new norms, new possibilities into the broader public sphere. It can serve as a lodestar: a means to nudge the glacial heft of social consciousness away from utter collapse.
We must nudge—and push and tug—if we are going to shift civilization’s doomed course. “To think about the world only as it is, amounts to a formula for collective suicide,” warns Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. “We need, rather, to envision what it might be.” Literature is a means to envision what the world might be. How, for instance, might a civilization evolve to meet and mitigate the worst effects of climate change? How might a character look past her individual identity toward awareness of global interconnectivity? In a society largely dismissive of the arts, it can be easy to forget, as writers, what we actually do: create culture. And it is our culture that needs the most reinvention if we are to face the challenges of an evolving world. If our narratives endlessly reflect the status quo, reinforce existing hierarchies—or worse, play into a nostalgia for an oppressive past—then we write our own destruction.
Instead, let us make our highest principles our most urgent stories. In the blitz of depressing newsreels, the grim shadow cast by our current administration—adept at distraction, gaslighting, peddling fear—now is the time to prioritize ideals, even as the world around us shudders and spins. We must prioritize, at all costs, the dignity of human beings, the right to free expression, the sanctity of our natural resources. “Ideological capitulation and despair are not the answer,” writes Julia Mead in her article on the renaissance of the New Left for The Nation. “The antidote to radical exploitation and exclusion is radical egalitarianism and inclusion.” Let us, in our stories and novels, construct that fair and egalitarian world. Let us offer up clear-eyed alternatives to despair. Let us make the most of literature’s expansive reach, its prophetic possibilities, its power to shape the broader cultural consciousness. Facing the future means facing darkness, but it also means dreaming, giving weight and respect to the imagination. It means writing our way toward hope.
Allegra Hyde is the author of Of This New World (University of Iowa Press), which won the 2016 John Simmons Short Fiction Award. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, as well as support from The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, the Jentel Artist Residency Program, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission. Currently, she is a Lucas Artist Fellow at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California.
Photo: Edward Stojakovic/Flickr