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Literature is Constantly in Conversation with Politics

ByHelen Elston

Sep 16, 2015

Literature and politics are often seen to go hand-in-hand. Indeed, as any English Literature student will tell you, the historical and political context is crucial to understanding a text (and becomes a kind of laborious equation when attempting to write a passable essay). Yes, we have those concrete and seminal texts that reveal their political context: we have Dorian Gray that exposes the contradictions within Victorian values and morals, and Death of a Salesman, revealing the failure of the ‘American Dream’. Context is always crucial. However, these texts seem separated from our current position in that they do not expose the truths of our society: indeed what is much more provocative is a text that reveals something about our immediate socio-political situation.

I am Malala was one of my books for my holiday reading this summer. Yes, it is heavier and more politically charged than the standard rom-coms that usually comprise my ‘relaxing holiday reads’. However, what it released was a wealth of thought that put into perspective the immediate political problems in the Middle East. Although it has been a full two years since Malala Yousafzai released her enlightening text, it still reveals so much about the unjust treatment of millions of civilians in countries such as Pakistan or Syria. Indeed, to read and experience a story in such an intimate and first person scenario encourages a large degree of sympathetic self-reflection that should be encouraged in such a politically turbulent time.

Moreover, with sympathy comes political awareness and thus progress: a progress sparked by the seemingly innocent act of reading. The power of reading is portrayed beautifully by Yousafzai: her entire battle against the Taliban originates from her challenge of their violent suppression of female literacy. The importance is indeed epitomised by the coincidental dating of the first day of her mother’s education and the Taliban’s brutal attack on Yousafzai. Such events put into perspective the importance of reading: it can be used as both an emancipator and a suppressor. And indeed, not merely an emancipator in relation to literacy, but also an emancipator of the literate: an emancipator that enlightens minds and invites political awareness. Indeed, the beauty of the literature is its ability to provide a source of enjoyment but also act as an educational tool.

What such current autobiographies reveal is the immediacy and deep relevance of these accounts to our political situation. However, it does produce a conundrum: does this require us all to read ‘responsibly’? By this I mean should we select our texts only after considering their educational level? The answer is no; at least that should not be the sole requirement. But what we must consider is how literature provides a valuable tool by which to educate, inform, and encourage thought about the issues in our society. Can we read innocently? Of course, select the Fifty Shades of Grey of the literature world but also appreciate the political power of literature: the power that can inform and entertain simultaneously.

By Helen Elston

Helen Elston is The Student’s Literature Editor and was a Comedy Editor for the Fringe Festival Edition 2015

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