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 Inés 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

By Christian Pelusi |  April 10, 2008; 6:12 AM ET Marie Arana
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Fantastic! I really like this category.

"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" -- At the time Solzhenitzyn wrote this, the Soviet Union was going through a brief period of enlightenment under Kruschev (sp.?) but the gulag was alive and well. This book caused a sensation.

Is drama included? Because I would say that most of Arthur Miller's best plays are about truth to power, be it war profiteering ("All My Sons") or institutional paranoia ("The Crucible").

Posted by: KLeewrite | April 10, 2008 11:45 AM

Great addition!
I'd also refer you to all the works of Vladimir Voinovich, whom I admire (and whom I edited back when I was an editor at Harcourt Brace and S&S).
Not only is Voinovich stinging in his criticism of the Soviet Union (and now Russia!), he is laugh-out-loud funny.
Some of his works:
-The Ivankiad
-The Extraordinary Life and Adventures of Ivan Chonkin
-Moscow 2042
-The Fur Coat
-Monumental Propaganda

Posted by: Marie Arana | April 10, 2008 8:01 PM

"Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck's novel of class struggle explores the eternal conflict between self-interest and human decency.

Posted by: Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass | April 11, 2008 8:41 AM

And don't forget Chalmers Johnson's trilogy, "Blowback," "Sorrows of Empire," and "Nemisis."

Posted by: Marlene Adams-Phillips | April 11, 2008 1:26 PM

A good start. I add four more:

1) "All the President's Men" by Woodward and Bernstein. C'mon, work there! I know this was sooooo long ago (like, the 1970s) but it's got to count for something besides a good movie.

2) "The Gulag Archipelago" by Solzenitsyn. I say "amen" to the "One Day in the Life..." nomination. But this is a better documented and blistering indictment of the Soviet system.

3) "God and Man at Yale" by William F. Buckley Jr. -- The first shot in the modern conservative movement aainst chic liberalism. He took on "political correctness" before the term even existed.

4) "The Declaration of Independence" -- OK, not technically a book, but in most printings it's a small booklet -- and an eloquent indictment against the terrible reign of King George III. Read it some time from beginning to end (it's even online!) and I'm sure you'll agree.

Posted by: Andrew Blasko | April 11, 2008 7:51 PM

Oh, the Declaration of Independence is a wonderful addition, Andrew Blasko. Thanks for that. And I appreciate the tribute to Buckley, too--though his "truths to power" were quite political in spirit, don't you think?

Here are a few more who spoke truth to power (and whose works were passed down to us in famous words, in no particular order:

-Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (especially Comentarios Reales de los Incas)
-St. Francis of Assisi
-H.L. Mencken
-Susan B. Anthony
-Milan Kundera (especially The Book of Laughing and Forgetting)

Just a few to add to the pot . . .

Posted by: Marie Arana | April 13, 2008 11:03 PM

Okay, before you fade away (and we're off to another of these sadly under-commented but much appreciated postings), how about:
-just about everything that has come out of Africa since the imperial occupation (don't forget the stuff out of the Caribbean), examples: Bernardine Evaristo. Zadie Smith. Carryl Phillips. Etc.
-China has been mentioned. But how about the rest of Asia? Aung San Suu Kyi comes to mind. Her "Letters From Burma" were transforming. They came long after she won the Nobel Prize. Are there Vietnamese equivalents?
-and how about Chile or Argentina? Ariel Dorfman. Luisa Valenzuela. Manuel Puig. Pablo Neruda.
There's more, of course, but that will do for a start.
(And no one has even mentioned Poland.)

Posted by: Dave | April 16, 2008 12:23 AM

Do industry exposes count? If so, how about Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" and Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death"?

Posted by: KLeewrite | April 16, 2008 10:59 AM

I'll add to the above suggestions an author who took on Stalinism way back in the 1930s,wrote against it died from it- Victor Serge, "The Case of Comrade Tulayev." In one chapter, an old Trotksyite sent to jail on trumped up charges writes letters to his family.He knows that Stalin will intercept them and read them, so he purposely swears and curses at Stalin in each letter - thus speaking truth directly to power...

Posted by: Nick Papandreou | May 2, 2008 2:43 PM

Anna Ahkmatova's poem Requiem. Actually pretty much anything of hers.

Posted by: AJ | May 9, 2008 8:26 AM

Your list is interesting, but I take offense to the statement that Achebe's Things Fall Apart was "the first truly important work by an African writer." Important to who? During which time period? Africa is a very big continent and has been around for a very long time. Are you qualified to make such a sweeping statement?

Posted by: JC | May 10, 2008 11:31 PM

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