Literature saved my life. Not in the way science saved my life when I had Stage 3 cancer. But, nonetheless, literature saved my life.
I wish I could point to a single dramatic moment when it happened—like that moment when I lay on the gurney, my body marked up by the two surgeons who would take me apart and put me back together in their eternal faith that they could give me life.
Watching as they scribbled on my skin and explained to my family and me what they would do in the next six hours as I lay in an anesthetized slumber, I had a fleeting thought about all the times I’d marked up essays and explained what needed to be done to bring the writing to life.
That was nearly ten years ago, and in that time I’ve come to understand that the doctors gave my body life. But it was up to me to live.
I marvel at the advancements in science that have changed the face—and the force—of cancer. But even more, I look at the stars and the moon now with more of a sense of awe. I revel in the feeling of ocean waves lapping across my feet. I treasure the time I spend with the people I love. Like most people who survive a life-threatening experience, I’ve learned the difference between existing and living.
Literature has always helped me live—has always made my life about more than mere existence.
During a childhood marked by poverty, I traveled to other places long before I left the state of my birth for the first time the summer after ninth grade. In a culture where religious practice was limited to evangelical Christianity, I understood the stories of people of other faiths. In a town completely lacking in racial diversity, I talked with writers of other races who spoke to me from the printed page.
Nikki Giovanni dances forth as the most powerful memory. I read her poem “Nikki-Rosa” in a literature class, which begins, “childhood remembrances are always a drag / if you’re Black.” Though I was not black, Giovanni’s images, which could have come from my own early childhood, gripped me. Like me, she had spent part of her childhood in a house with no indoor plumbing, and she took baths in “one of those / big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in.”
I remember closing my eyes after I read the first few lines, picturing the toilet in the back yard of a house we lived in for a few months when my father lost his job, thinking of my own baths in an aluminum tub in front of the open stove in the home my parents rented when Dad got his job back. I opened my eyes and read on to discover that Giovanni and I also had in common that we had a father who drank, a sister we loved, and happy memories of birthdays and Christmases.
But I also learned from Giovanni that we were different and that those differences can loom large and make us angry at people we don’t even know—and maybe especially at people we don’t know. She ends the poem by saying, “I really hope no white person ever has cause / to write about me / because they never understand…”
My blood rushed to my head and I held my breath when I first read those lines. I was furious. I felt as if she had lured me in with the secret story of the childhood we shared and then punched me in the gut. She had hijacked my childhood and relegated me to a world of white people who couldn’t possibly understand her “hard childhood.”
When I could breathe again, I considered what might make her regard white people in such a way. And in the days and weeks that followed, that poem sang in my head, and I began to understand that just as I didn’t know anyone who shared Giovanni’s skin color, she probably didn’t know anyone of my skin color who grew up in a house like her own. And as I read more about her, I came to understand her a little better.
I also began to read more literature written by people of other cultures, and when I moved out of the state and became a teacher in the very diverse D.C. suburbs, I knew my students of color in a way that I would not have without Giovanni and Hurston, Allende and Anaya, and others. And I understood that even the students who shared my skin color were often strangers to me.
Books are never a substitute for experience. But great books can make a person who owns only a library card into a world traveler. Great literature can lure us out of our comfortable co-existence into a jubilant celebration of the life we share on this planet.
Yes, literature really can save a life. And in a time when we’re too often angry at those we don’t understand, perhaps literature can even save the world.
So tell me a story. When has a great writer lured you into life?