Resistance Bookshelf is a new series for the MFA in Creative Writing Program, in which faculty and students share their reading lists and advice for being aware of and learning to fight fascism and forms of political oppression. Inspired by the political climate and decisions of the Trump administration, it will be a collective, specialized reading list of works by novelists, poets, short story writers and others, of whatever period, all of whom made the choice to address political oppression by imaginative, literary means. It will be ongoing, and it will be open to contributions by both students and faculty.
The first post in the series comes from Patrick McGrath, Creative Writing Program faculty and accomplished author, who first proposed the idea of the Resistance Bookshelf. Below, his thesis for the series, and his bookshelf.
From Patrick McGrath: In imagining this creation of a collective, specialized reading list, I thought at first such a project might be called Imagining Fascism. Honor Moore suggested Imagining Resistance. We could run the two together with a comma in between, but a lesser mouthful might be: Writing Resistance. The Writing Program team suggested it be a Resistance Bookshelf, to match our own bookshelf of MFA published authors, and here we are.
What purpose will the Resistance Bookshelf serve? To enable us more fully to educate ourselves in the history and politics of oppression, so as to recognize and resist it in our own times. And at the same time to become more aware both of the possibilities of literary expression of these ideas, and the mechanics: The craft of the thing. And of course to indulge the pleasures of good writing. We take it as an article of faith that the writer’s imagination is the best possible tool for this kind of work.
Any novel, short story, poem, collection, anthology, or memoir that you believe engages this theme in literary form, head on, and full throated, can be submitted. A paragraph to explain why this work must be included in our master list of works of resistance should be attached.
Patrick McGrath’s Resistance Bookshelf
Mephisto by Klaus Mann, Penguin Books
These are writers of the 1930s, a period in Europe when fascism is very much in the ascendant. Klaus Mann’s Mephisto is the story of an actor desperate for success who is first seduced, then corrupted by a high official in the Nazi party, “a stout giant” of immense political power. This character, based on Hermann Goering, can fulfill the actor’s wildest dreams. He does so, at a price. The actor is morally destroyed. This story plays out against the horrors of Hitler’s prewar Germany. The vulnerability of the individual in a fascist state is depicted here in such a way that the possibility of resistance becomes problematic.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, Harvest
A more complicated story is told here. This is not one of Orwell’s great anti-Soviet novels. It is instead the account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Arriving in Barcelona as a journalist in late 1936, he finds an Anarchist revolution underway. At first he doesn’t altogether understand what’s going on, but he “recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” He enlists, and goes to the front to fight the fascists attempting to overthrow the democratically elected Spanish republic.
What’s of interest here, beyond the writer’s experience on the front lines, is the deadly predicament in which he later finds himself. He is back in Barcelona, where a power struggle is developing between Communists and Anarchists within the antifascist movement. This is no simplistic depiction of Resistance, for what Orwell describes is an apparently black-and-white conflict between the enemies of a republic and its supporters becoming mired in violent internal struggle, largely fomented by Stalin.
The resistance depicted need not be seen to succeed. More important perhaps is that a clear picture emerges of the forms and methods of political oppression which endanger the citizen’s civil rights, liberty, and life itself, by means of violence, propaganda, exclusion and persecution.
The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter, Virago
The spirit of Resistance burned very fiercely indeed in Angela Carter, an English feminist, novelist, essayist and short story writer, who challenged everything and died too young in 1992, her work far from complete.
Through her reading of the works of the Marquis de Sade, Angela Carter arrives at a blistering critique of sexual archetyping and the social formations that arise from it. In the process she turns on its head conventional thinking about pornography, patriarchy, pleasure, work, violence, crime, pain, justice and much else. First published in 1979, the boldness and vigor of these essays continue to astonish and amuse. She can refer to culture as “an imaginary brothel where ideas of women are sold.” She can say of one of Sade’s great anti-heroines, Juliette, that “she lobs her sex at men and women as if it were a hand grenade.” At a time in America when, incredibly, old white men continue to legislate what women may or may not do with their bodies, Angela Carter’s arguments remain potent and relevant and subversive; essential reading still.
The Face of War by Martha Gellhorn, Atlantic Monthly Press
“I see war as an endemic human disease, and governments are the carriers... [Citizens] must be infected with hate and fear before they catch war fever.” Gellhorn’s career as a war correspondent began in Spain, in 1936, and continued through WW2 to Vietnam and into Reagan’s bloody adventures in Central America. This collection of her war journalism is a sustained illustration of both the horror of war, and of those responsible for that horror. In her conclusion she writes about Chernobyl, and the damage done by its radioactive dust as far away as Scotland and Wales. She moves on to America’s nuclear arsenal, and its vast stockpiles of “super-Chernobyls.” At a moment in our history, late February 2017, when an unstable and unpredictable American president seeks to shift $54 billion into military spending, at the expense of programs relating to education, the environment, science and poverty, to contemplate war is to gaze into the abyss. Martha Gellhorn, who died in 1998, writes: “There has to be a better way to run the world and we better see that we get it.”
If you would like to contribute to the Resistance Bookshelf, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Resistance Bookshelf Contributions.”