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Three female authors show us how writing can turn adversity into beauty

Meghan Collins Sullivan

What does this perilous time of disease and destruction ask of us as readers and writers?

Three new books spotlight the power of the written word to foster creative responses to confinement and oppression — and to inspire deep change within us.

Azar Nafisi's Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times, Elena Ferrante's In The Margins: On The Pleasures of Reading and Writing and Anna Quindlen's Write for Your Life are all about the transformative possibilities that underlie political, social and personal crisis.

Nafisi, best known as the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, warns readers that America might well be on a slippery slope towards an autocratic government, such as the Islamic regime in her country of origin, Iran. Her book shows the power of great works of literature to resist the dictatorial impulse of today's American politics. She proposes that we read dangerously — authors whose works challenge comforting clichés and attempt to change the world. Readers will find here incisive analyses of Salman Rushdie, Zora Neale Hurston, David Grossman, Elias Khoury, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others — authors whose writing is an act of surviving trauma.

Read Dangerously is a passionate book. Nafisi frames the interpretations as a series of letters addressed to her deceased father, who was imprisoned for four years by the Islamic regime for insubordination. She pulls the reader in with the intensity of her expression and direct address to her father, homing in on personal reminiscences of oppression to consider large questions: How should we act in the world? What should our attitude be to our enemy?

Nafisi gets to the heart of these questions with her analysis of Grossman's writing on the dehumanizing effect of war. "Story gives the enemy a voice, forcing us to confront him as a human being, to look him in the eye," she writes. "And through this process, we restore our own humanity." Her emphasis on the value of literature in teaching us not just how to change the world — but also ourselves — imparts a sense of urgency to the role of reading in the midst of today's disconnect and dysfunction.

If Nafisi celebrates reading as a way to challenge political tyranny, Ferrante, the elusive and anonymous Italian author of the Neapolitan Novels, documents her struggle as a female author grounded in the male literary tradition. In The Margins comprises four essays that were presented in 2021 as lectures by an actress and a scholar, now translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Ferrante lets readers in on her practice, articulating how she works, her literary influences and battles to find space to be free.

The essays read often like mystical ruminations on literary conception, inspiration, authorial voice and presence. Yet Ferrante also offers tangible reflections on craft such as a list of five fundamental discoveries she has gleaned from her reading of literary works.

At the heart of the essays is a preoccupation with artistic freedom. The motif of the cage repeats throughout. In the opening essay, "Pen and Pain," Ferrante recalls her anxiety as a child to contain her writing within the margins of her notebook. The sense of margins enforcing unbreachable boundaries remains etched in her sensibility. "For a woman who has something to say, does it really take a miracle — I said to myself — to dissolve the margins within which nature has enclosed her and show herself in her own words to the world?" she writes. Reading Gaspara Stampa as a young woman taught Ferrante how to break free of the male literary tradition.

The essays are at their best in conveying a sense of the impetuosity of Ferrante's search for a literary form that can capture the truth about feminine experience. This impetuosity is her defiance against compliance. "I developed a first person narrator who, excited by the random collisions of her and the world, deformed the form that she had been laboriously given, and from those dents and distortions and injuries squeezed out other, unexpected possibilities: all this as she made her way through a story that was increasingly uncontrolled, may be wasn't even a story but a tangle, in which not only the narrator but the author herself, a pure maker of writing, was enmeshed," Ferrante writes. For her fans as well as for the common reader, the essays offer an insightful glimpse into the making of her novels and a practitioner's view of craft.

Anna Quindlen's Write For Your Life stands in a sharp contrast to Ferrante's essays. Where Ferrante's author is always under erasure, Quindlen emphasizes writing as an expression of the authorial self. The book exhorts ordinary people to take up writing — journals, diaries and letters — to ward off the numbness and loneliness induced by recent political events and the Covid pandemic. Its concern is not the making of art but documenting everyday life as a way to bear witness to traumatic times.

Write for Your Life is an inviting book, and readers will find its door welcomingly ajar. It argues that ordinary writing is as important as professional writing by novelists, academics and historians. Anne Frank's diary, The Freedom Writers Diary led by the educator Erin Gruwell, the Work Progress Narratives created to reflect the lives of enslaved people, and other examples bolster Quindlen's claim: Writing is restorative in that it connects us to our deepest selves and to others. It also releases us from the shackles that chain us to oppressors.

"It is mainly in stories, memories, anecdotes, everyday experiences that the true place of women, people of color, immigrants, all those who had no seat at the tables where the big decisions were made, will not only be told but be as central they actually were in day-to-day life," she writes.

Quindlen writes with a raconteur's brio, and she is good on the ways formal education stifles creative self-expression. But some readers may feel that Write For Your Life fails to say anything more complex than that we will regain our humanity if only we sit down to write. Still, the book shines with the author's confidence in the transformative potential of writing.

Nafisi, Ferrante, and Quindlen vigorously assert that reading and writing can pull us out of our mess. They show us ways the written word can help us turn our present adversity into something beautiful. In their hands, reading and writing are our panacea, worth celebrating.

Sharmila Mukherjee is a lecturer in English at the University of Washington, Seattle.

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Sharmila Mukherjee