This is a revolutionary moment in that everything is changing. But it’s not a revolution, because most of the forces we’re all reacting to (pandemic, injustice, a massive failure to find common moral ground) are not forces put into motion by ideas. They are forces born out of neglect, accident, circumstance, bloated and calcified systems.
The theme of this issue of TLR poses an obvious question: Can literature be a force for change? Can it be revolutionary?
As the events of the last year have played out, in the face of blunt-force real life, literature—books, words, dialogue—has been paramount. But literature, as potent as it is, doesn’t really feel like the thing spawning change. The more that I think about it, the more it seems instead that literature is a force within change. Mirror of the mind, mirror of the time, mirror of the people. Consider the title of the Julie Guez poem that opens this issue, “Still Life with Insufficient iCloud Storage.” The title alone is a miracle of observation. It’s familiar and uncomfortable, deeply wrong, and yet beautiful in its articulation of what’s wrong. Is it also a protest? Or is that too simple a burden for a poem? Literature reflects shifting ideas, but doesn’t (maybe isn’t supposed to) affect shifts. Which does not diminish literature’s power, but it makes it harder to identify revolutionary literature.
Language carries a heavy burden—to heal, destroy, depict, explain, transport, entertain, connect, divide, distract, and describe. I get stuck on that last one. It seems that the vast power of language (all the things it does and can do) emanates from its capacity for description. I describe what I want, what I don’t want, what I see, what’s missing. I describe what I need to express; the better I describe it, the more likely my connection with my fellow person.
That’s a step toward common ground. Common ground is where ideas are bred. Where action follows the heart.
There’s an astonishing story in this issue, “Policarpa” by María Ospina, about a young former revolutionary who’s trying to rebuild her life, working as a supermarket cashier and dictating her memoir to a fancy book editor. The story isn’t revolutionary because the hero was a revolutionary, but because no matter how hard she tries, she can’t get her real story told. The editor keeps crossing things out—because they’re prickly or boring—and adding intriguing fictional details. The truth is not palatable enough, not sexy enough, it doesn’t inspire or redeem. Yet the real story is there. Ospina lays it bare. And there is truth; there is heart. Revolution percolating in unexpected corners.
Literature is disruption, and escape, and contemplation. It teaches. It normalizes. It’s a way of re-seeing what’s around us, reiterating what has been, shifting filters and focus—forging connections. Perhaps too, in the way that a book or poem distills a moment or idea, freezes it in time, and opens up meaning, literature is a way of marking change. And in terms of revolution, change is the only thing that is certain.