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Literature Can Be A Powerful and Essential Tool for Social Evolution

By California Humanities Board Member, Alex Espinoza

I was raised in an environment where books were rare and precious commodities. The only books we carried around were those assigned to us by our teachers. We didn’t read out of pleasure at my house. The only time I ever saw my siblings crack open a book was when their teachers assigned homework. So, it’s a bit anomalous that I, the youngest of eleven children, born into a working class family and raised in a suburb of Los Angeles, a suburb surrounded by factories and plants, would end up becoming a writer and an avid reader.

The first book I remember reading for actual pleasure was Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. A children’s story, it concerned a widowed field mouse named Mrs. Frisby, her ill son, Timothy, and a group of highly intelligent lab rats that, through scientific experimentation, had acquired the ability to read and write. I recall being so engrossed in the story that I faked being sick just so that I could stay home from school to finish reading it. I was also a big fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, where readers were asked to make choices in plot that would determine the fate of the main character, which was always assumed to be the reader. It was where I first learned the importance of plot and structure and about the second-person point of view. There were so many other books, too, so many authors—S.E. Hinton, Judy Bloom, and Donald J. Sobol, whose Encyclopedia Brown detective series was popular among us boys in my sixth grade class.

In junior high school I discovered Stephen King, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie, whose Ten Little Indians I read and reread until I could almost recite the whole book, word for word, from memory.

In high school English, there was Hawthorne, Woolf, Shakespeare, and Dickens. To this day I count Mrs. Havisham as one of my all-time favorite characters in fiction. And because this was during the 1980s, when all we were listening to back then was British New Wave music, I fell in love with all things English. I had this crazy idea of moving to London to meet Morrissey, the lead singer of one of my favorite bands, The Smiths.

My first attempts at writing were stories that always took place in England, Spain, or France. But it was mostly England. There were always long descriptions of fog and cemeteries and castles and moors, even though I really didn’t know what a moor was. My dialogue contained lines like, “Doest thou love me?” or “We shan’t be late, dear wife, for I fear we shall miss the boat.”

I grew up thinking that the kind of lives worth writing about were those being lived by people who dwelled in cozy English cottages or castles or among the streets of London and Paris and New York City. Because the novels and stories I read never portrayed the lives of people like my parents or my siblings, people who lived in working class neighborhoods and struggled to get by. There were never people of color in the things I read. I didn’t encounter writers of color until I was out of high school. And suddenly the realization that I too could write stories and novels about people like me seemed possible. Here was a literary canon of African America, Chicano/a, and Asian American writers that I never heard of.

These books and stories gave me the permission to imagine a different life for myself and for the people around me. In these books and stories, people like me weren’t criminals or degenerates or troublemakers, which was how the media regularly portrayed us. In these books and stories, people like me were portrayed nobly and respectfully. I knew then that I what I wanted to do more than anything was to write.

This is why the act of exposing aspiring writers and scholars to the works of authors of color becomes so important. These authors allow us the opportunity to imagine ourselves differently. These authors give us the chance to recognize that we are capable of producing art rather than simply being passive participants in the process. This is how I see literature as an act of revolution and a tool of social change that is so powerful and absolutely essential to our evolution.

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