I first read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience when I was a junior in high school. It electrified me. I remember writing in my journal “After reading Thoreau, I realize I don’t have to listen to my mom or society to know what’s right. I have to listen to my heart.” Those two simple sentences were my own small act of civil disobedience, my first step toward acting consciously with my heart (although when my mom read my journal and confronted me, I apologized. I backed down. I wasn’t quite ready to walk my talk.)
I slowly started to put my body on the line in college, protesting the sale of fur at a local department store, marching to urge the university to divest from South Africa. I began to understand the power of bringing bodies together for a common cause, the power of individual voices joining together in chorus to inspire change.
Since then, I have marched to end war; I have stood in silence with other women in black to give voice to women around the world affected by violence; I have organized candle light vigils and helped create women’s conferences dedicated to peace. I am a shy person by nature, but when I do something in service for the greater good—whether disrupting a congresswoman’s speech (http://www.codepink4peace.org/article.php?id=1880) or performing guerilla dance theater at my local Occupy movement—I feel brave.
Writing makes me brave, as well. As a writer for the women’s peace organization CODEPINK, I use words to inspire our list to get on the street, or call their representatives, or find creative ways to foster change in their own communities. And my activist self leaks into my fiction—I don’t want to use my fiction as a soapbox, but I do want to use it to illuminate injustice and offer hope. When my first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, I felt even more of a responsibility to continue to address important issues in my work, and show ways that people have banded together to create change. In my novel Delta Girls, farm workers gather to demand their rights; in my first novel for young people, My Life with the Lincolns, my main character and her father get deeply involved in the Chicago Freedom Movement--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s only northern civil rights campaign, which demanded free and open housing and an end to slums.
Joan Baez’s phrase “Action is the antidote to despair” has been coursing through my mind lately as I witness the explosion of the Occupy movement. People are taking their despair and turning it into action, bringing their diverse bodies and voices together to advance change. I am thrilled beyond words to see this happen—it gives me renewed faith in the power of the people, renewed faith that we are indeed the ones we’ve been waiting for. And it encourages me in my own small acts of civil disobedience.
I’ve been feeling quite a bit of despair lately as a writer—I recently learned that the forthcoming paperback edition of My Life with the Lincolns has been canceled because of disappointing hardcover sales and lack of pre-orders for the new edition, and then an exciting potential ghost writing opportunity fizzled out; both bits of bad news made me question my continuing viability as a working, published writer, especially given how the economic crisis and changing reading habits have affected the publishing industry. But action truly is the antidote to despair; I decided to take matters into my own hands, and now I’m going to release my dusted-off 2002 National Novel Writing Month novel, The Book of Live Wires (the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds) as an ebook this November. This is a small personal action that pales in the face of larger social movements, but it was inspired by those social movements, inspired by Thoreau and my young realization that I need to listen to and act from my heart, this time without apology.
I look forward to seeing where the power of the people, through both individual and collective civil disobedience, will take us next.
Causes Gayle Brandeis Supports
CODEPINK: Women for Peace, The Afghan Women's Mission, 826LA, WriteGirl, Camel Book Drive