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Porter
Culture

3 authors on the power of the written word in 2020

Illustration, Maggie Stephenson

In the midst of a monumental year of global events and personal reflection, three writers with recent acclaimed releases – each of which delves into social commentary – share their thoughts on these change-making times. By KATIE BERRINGTON

Lifestyle

Zalika Reid-Benta

“Right now, I’m just trying to adjust to the new realities of our world; still trying to get accustomed to the fact that I have no idea what the future of this pandemic is, while navigating and learning about – and reacting to – realities and injustices like police brutality, systemic racism and institutionalized rape culture,” says Zalika Reid-Benta of her experience of 2020 to date. “I suppose, on a less bleak note, I’m also re-realizing how much writing keeps me grounded.”

Reid-Benta’s debut book, Frying Plantain, is a collection of short stories set in Canada, following the experiences of a young girl, the daughter of immigrants, as she grows up from a child to university student.

“I wrote the kind of book I would be able to relate to, and so I wanted Black girls, Black Canadian girls, Black Canadian Caribbean girls to feel seen and truly represented,” recalls the author of her intentions when writing. “I didn’t want to explain Jamaican-Canadian culture, I didn’t want to explain mother-daughter relationships, I didn’t want to explain bullying or growing up. I just wanted to show it through a specific lens in a specific neighborhood of a specific city and went on faith that the adage of universality through specificity was true.”

The power of literature is multifaceted and myriad in the perspectives it offers, she says. “It was writer Teju Cole who tweeted, ‘Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three’ – so whether a book is fiction or non-fiction, fantasy or ‘literary’, it will depict experiences or emotions or motivations that are simultaneously relatable to some readers and vastly different to others.

“In times of crisis, books can either be a mirror held up to the world – as corny or cliché as that sounds – or a portal to escapism, depending on what a reader is looking for. But, either way, it can be something that someone finds solace in.”

In times of crisis, books can either be a mirror held up to the world… or a portal to escapism, depending on what a reader is looking for
Zalika Reid-Benta
Deepa Anappara

Deepa Anappara

“I don’t think anyone could have imagined having a novel out in the midst of a pandemic; it’s a strange situation,” says Deepa Anappara, who released her debut book, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, earlier this year and has since been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020. “My novel is important to me; at the same time, it is also true that I have spent most of this year worrying about my family – they live in India, I am in the UK, and the distance serves to amplify my anxieties.”

India is the setting of her moving and evocative novel, in which three young friends venture into danger to search for a missing classmate. The story and its characters came from Kerala-born Anappara’s 11 years spent as a journalist in the country.

“It was while working as a reporter in India that I learned about the widespread disappearances of children in certain neighborhoods, and also realized that the perspectives of children, and their families, were missing from news reports,” she says, reflecting on the experiences that led to her literary debut. “When I was writing Jai, the main narrator of my novel, and the characters of the other children, I relied on my memories of the interviews I had done as a reporter; I tried to capture how the children presented themselves to me, often full of humor and swagger.”

Anappara believes that the power of good reportage – even in these times when newspapers and magazines are shutting down – still has tremendous impact. “I believe truthful and balanced journalism is vital, not just at the global level, but also at the local level. Without it, there is little to hold those in power accountable, and such lack of accountability can only be detrimental in the long run.

“In comparison, any change that can result from fiction, I imagine, is often incremental. I don’t think literature, art, needs to have a purpose – though I would describe my own writing as deeply political.”

I believe truthful and balanced journalism is vital, not just at the global level, but also at the local level

Jenny Offill

In Weather – the follow-up to Jenny Offill’s 2014 bestseller, Dept. of Speculation – the author tackles issues of climate crisis and political turmoil in an anxious narrative of modern life.

Though only just over halfway through, 2020’s cataclysm of events have had a profound impact, bringing personal and global issues into sharp focus. “It has taken fuzzy ideas like ‘interconnectedness’ and made them feel startlingly real,” Offill reflects on how the past seven months has altered her perception. “Both in the pandemic-related concerns of contamination and isolation, but also in the bigger questions of how to act collectively for equity and justice brought to the forefront by the BLM protests.”

She hopes that these reflections will make for long-lasting change, on an individual, societal and national level. “The pandemic has made apparent how frayed and, at times, non-existent the safety net is in America,” Offill says. “If we want anything good to come out of this tragedy, we will use what we have learned to repair it and create more services to help people who have been pushed aside or overlooked.”

As for the involvement of the arts, the author believes that they serve a key role in desperate and defining times. “James Baldwin said it best: ‘Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion.’”

If we want anything good to come out of this tragedy, we will use what we have learned to repair it and create more services to help people who have been pushed aside or overlooked
Jenny Offill