Your English teacher and your local librarian are as important in a crisis as a fireman or an ambulance driver.
That’s the message to be found inside three recent American memoirs, each written by authors whose lives were saved by literature.
In these times of austerity and repeated threats of shutdowns and sequesters, it’s not easy to be a teacher -- especially one who doesn’t teach chemistry or calculus. In the face of reduced budgets, public and school libraries scramble to serve the young people that depend on them.
Thankfully, the three writers I’m thinking of found the teachers and the libraries they needed, despite growing up in different parts of the U.S. during similarly austere times -- in the post-tax-revolt era of the 1980s and ‘90s.
Reyna Grande, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, had many things stacked against her growing up in Los Angeles. As she recounts in her memoir, “The Distance Between Us,” her father was a man of violently shifting moods, and slowly consumed himself with drink. She lived in a community where teen pregnancy, gang violence and a general sense of hopelessness robbed young people of their futures.
What saved young Reyna? A strong-willed and protective older sibling -- and the teachers who asked her to write essays in her elementary and junior high school classes.
“In my writing, you couldn’t hear my accent,” Grande writes. She dreamed of winning school essay contests, and eventually did win one, which gave her a sense of achievement and her own power that no one else was able to provide. Just as important, she read books (given to her by the librarian at the Arroyo Seco branch of the Los Angeles Public Library) that transported her to other places.
The “Sweet Valley High” series of young adult novels took her to a world where “there were no alcoholic fathers, no mothers who left you over and over, no fear of deportation.” The novelist V.C. Andrews took her to rural West Virginia, and an existence even harsher than her own.
When Grande got eyeglasses, one of her relatives said to her, mockingly: “Now you look like a librarian.” But to Grande being called a librarian was a huge compliment. “It only made me love books even more,” she writes.
In Philadelphia, MK Asante grew up with educated parents but a life tinged by violence. After his brother ended up in prison, as he recounts in this memoir “Buck,” Asante was drummed out of private school for being angry and disrespectful, and then transferred to a public school that “looks just like jail.”
Asante was saved, in large measure, by the unfailingly patient teachers at an alternative school who make storytelling and the self-revelatory practice of writing the core of their curriculum.
“I stare deep into the blank page and see myself,” Asante writes of his teenage self. “I feel something I’ve never felt before: purpose. I don’t know what my exact purpose is yet, but I know it has something to do with this pen and blank page. I am a blank page.”
In literature he sees lives like his own. At one point Asante had driven across country with a friend to see his incarcerated brother. When a teacher gave him Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” it was as if he were reading about himself. The young man who failed in two schools was suddenly memorizing passages from the novel: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time ...” Asante, who had once sold drugs for large sums of money, was transformed into something else: an intellectual and an artist.
Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for her second novel, “Salvage the Bones.” In her third book, the memoir “Men We Reaped,” she recounts the tragic events that predated, and that in some ways gave birth to, her career as a writer.
She grew up in Southern Mississippi. Her mother and father separated, and she was fated to a childhood colored by poverty, strife and absence. One after another, her brother and five other young men close to her died untimely deaths. She helped raise her young siblings and survived a harrowing near-rape in which her little brother came to her rescue.
In her lopsided wooden house, books awere young Jesmyn’s refuge. Ward writes: “I think my love for books sprang from my need to escape the world I was born into, to slide into another where words were straightforward and honest, where there was clearly delineated good and evil, where I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home to live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens.”
Between them, Grande, Asante and Ward have published 10 books and received many awards and recognitions for their work. But you don’t have to become an author to have your life saved by literature. The stories of these three writers are simply emblematic of the larger role literature, reading and writing play in our culture, for countless young people.
Give a boy a book, and he is transported to a larger world that’s like his own and that validates his struggle to become a engineer or an entrepreneur. Ask a girl to write and you give her a sense of herself -- and perhaps the germ of an idea of the woman warrior or scientist she might become.
For that reason, if there’s a fight to be made for the literary arts, for libraries and for the humanities, sign me up for it.