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Can writers change the world? Wil Haygood, Margarita Engle and Henry Petroski respond

With the National Book Festival fast approaching (Sept. 25 on the National Mall), we have asked participating authors to ponder the power of their pen. In this age of maximum distraction when reading -- and the influence of books -- often lose out to texting, tweeting and other semi-literary activities, we posed the question: Can writers change the world? We're providing answers from a range of Festival contributors -- historians, novelists, childrens writers -- over several days. Wil Haygood, Margarita Engle and Henry Petroski offer today's perspectives.

Wil Haygood is a biographer and a writer in the National section of The Washington Post. Known as an exquisite stylist, Haygood is the author of "Sweet Thunder:The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson," which Gerald Early described in The Washington Post as "certainly one of the best biographies of a boxer ever written."

Here is Haygood's response:

When I think of this question, I think of James Baldwin. Can writers change the world? Baldwin apparently thought so. Witness his works -- "Notes of a Native Son," "The Fire Next Time," all those beautiful and trenchant essays that he turned out in the Sixties. He let his words beat to the rhythms of his heart. The prose -- novels, plays, nonfiction -- had passion. He journeyed into the Kennedy White House to tangle with Jack and Bobby over civil rights. He rolled into Hollywood to tangle with the power brokers who cast the movies. He waded into the deep South with his elfin self to tangle with the mean forces of Mississippi and Alabama. Foreign governments the world over -- in France, in Turkey -- saluted his bravery. To this day, for those who constantly contemplate who we are, how we got from there to here, he remains required reading.

-- Wil Haygood will speak in the History & Biography tent on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 12:20 p.m.

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American author of young adult novels in verse. Her 2008 book “The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom ” won a raft of awards including a Newbery Medal. Her latest book is “The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba.”

Here is Engle's response:

Words transform us with their unique ability to evoke empathy. A poem, story, or essay can help us understand what it feels like to be someone else. Throughout Latin America, there is a long tradition of poetry as social conscience. Beginning with the medieval Spanish Inquisition, one form of tyranny after another imposed drastic levels of censorship, often leaving metaphor and simile as the only safe ways to communicate.
Cuba’s abolitionist poets provide a glowing example of veiled pleas for justice.

Outsiders who enjoyed the freedom to write journalistic prose also played a key role in Cuba’s abolition movement. Fredrika Bremer, the subject of my novel in verse, “The Firefly Letters,” was a Swedish suffragist who traveled to Cuba in 1851. With the help of a young African-born translator, Bremer interviewed slaves. Her letters and diaries helped Europeans understand the suffering associated with growing the Caribbean sugar that sweetened their tea. Meanwhile, back in her own homeland, Bremer’s novels about the daily lives of rural Scandinavian families helped Swedish women obtain partial voting rights as early as the 1860s. Long before the Internet globalized writing, Bremer’s words of empathy reached far beyond the printed page.

-- Margarita Engle will speak in the Teens & Children tent on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 1:10 p.m.

Henry Petroski is a professor of civil engineering and of history at Duke University whose literary skills can make a pencil or a paper clip fascinating. His latest book is "The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems."

Here is his response:

Writers certainly can change the world. In the fields of engineering and science, the likes of Galileo and Einstein changed the way we look at the universe. Galileo got in trouble with church authorities for writing about what he saw through his telescope rather than quietly accepting the conventional wisdom that the sun revolved around the Earth. When his observational support of the heliocentric view of the universe got Galileo banned from writing further about the heavens, he turned to more mundane subjects, like the design of beams that form the basis for engineering structures ranging from ships to bridges. With the 1638 publication of his "Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences," he changed the way structures were designed, from a method that was geometry-based to one that was strength-based. It was Galileo’s insight into the fundamental role of the strength of materials that forms the basis of engineering design today.

Einstein’s early-20th century writings on such topics as relativity and the equivalence of matter and energy revolutionized again the way the universe and its contents were viewed. The novel ideas contained in such writings as those of Galileo and Einstein fuel not only scientific revolutions but also the way we view the world and remake it through the engineering of new devices and systems.

Henry Petroski will speak in the Contemporary Life tent on Saturday Sept. 25, at 3:15 p.m.

By Steven E. Levingston  | September 21, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Tags:  Wil Haygood's Sweet Thunder: Margarita Engle's The Firefly Letters; Can writers change the world?  
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