Five Who Spoke Truth to Power
I'm not sure what started me thinking about writers who had the moral courage to stand against the prevailing winds and say what was going wrong in their countries. Maybe it's our nervous time. Or the upcoming election. Or the fact that we had Chinua Achebe here at Book World a few weeks ago. He was being honored at our celebration of the 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking novel, Things Fall Apart. That book, you'll recall, was a harrowing story about the ways colonialism can corrupt all it touches- the colonizer as well as the colonized. It was the first truly important work by an African writer, although it wasn't written in Achebe's native Ibo but in a spare and eloquent English. He wanted to be sure that when he spoke out against colonialism, the colonizers would hear it.
I began thinking of other courageous writers whose books pointed to inconvenient truths. Here are a few. I trust you'll come up with many more.
1. Natan Sharansky in "Fear No Evil."
At the height of the Cold War, Natan Sharansky was arrested by the KGB and falsely charged with spying for the CIA. He was sentenced to 13 years in the Gulag and released 9 years later, in exchange for a KGB operative being held in the United States. This is the story -- told with remarkable calm and wit -- of that hell in captivity and of the Soviet's brutally efficient machine for crushing political dissidence.
2. Sor Juana InÃ©s de la Cruz in "Respuesta a Sor Filotea" ("Reply to Sor Filotea").
She was a very pretty, quick-witted Mexican girl, educated in the vast library of her scholarly grandfather. When he died, she shuttled herself off to a Carmelite nunnery, holed up in a room and wrote. There she produced music, poetry and very clever invective against the establishment, but when these began to be quoted by the intellectual elite, her bishop (under the name Sor Filotea) demanded that she give up her books and tend strictly to her prayers. This long, passionate response to her boss argues brilliantly that if women are not educated and valued for their minds, future generations will suffer. And that was in 1691!
3. Richard Clarke in "Against All Enemies."
It took guts for this former chief counterterrorism adviser to tell the truth about his experiences in the White House: that the president had asked him to find the link between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks when it was clear that there wasn't one. Speaking out on the day of the book's release in 2004, he said, "Frankly, I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11."
4. Ralph Ellison in "Invisible Man."
This extraordinarily bracing novel about an unnamed black man in 1940s America opened a nation's eyes to its rampant racism. Not only was there a Southern variety among whites who had long subjugated the Negro, Ellison seemed to say, there was also a Northern variety among whites who considered themselves enlightened. Invisible Man was a brilliant slap at America's smug complacency as well as a brave novel that took on a myriad taboos.
5. Gao Xingjian in "Soul Mountain."
Gao already had a reputation as a dissident when he undertook this novel. He had been writing plays that openly attacked the Chinese government and producing them in the heart of Beijing, at the People's Art Theater. Misdiagnosed with cancer in 1986, he set out on a 10-month trek along the Yangste River, the result of which was this remarkable book that gave the world an unprecedented portrait of China's disadvantaged minorities -- victims of a bitter prejudice. It was released in 1989 , the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
-- Marie Arana
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