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If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s the power of stories. The things we tell each other, sharing both our lived experiences as well as narratives from the depths of our imagination, are what make us human. Our entire society is built on stories in some form. We have myths, fables, religion, even historical documents. Written history only exists because someone at some point thought to talk about something that happened and why it was important. And that person told someone, and then that person told someone else, and before you know it, we have textbooks recounting events from hundreds of years ago. We can read diaries from people who died before we were even a concept and imagine living lives that could (theoretically) never be possible today. However, while I knew the importance of stories when it comes to documenting and interpreting the past, I didn’t realize how important they could be for surviving the present day until I enrolled in English 318.
Taught by investigative journalist Will Potter, the class’ impressively long full title reads: How to Live in a World on Fire: Literary Lessons from Times of Political Unrest and Social Change. Technically considered a class in genre studies, it was described in the course guide as a class exploring “how journalists, writers, and artists choose to live a literary life in times of tumultuous, and even dangerous, social change.” As the semester has progressed, however, it’s become clear that the course is more about us, the students, and how stories can help us survive a world that seems to grow more tumultuous by the hour.
Drawing on Potter’s background in journalism, the class tends to feature more historical reporters than anything else. We’ve read about Edward Murrow, the pioneering radio broadcaster who covered the bombing of London during WWII, and we discussed Dorothy Thompson, who once said Hitler posed no threat to the world in an article and then dedicated the rest of her life to making up for that mischaracterization. Basically, we learn about people who were trying to write things down during times where it must have felt like everything was going wrong.
The class started out simple enough. We read Rilke and thought about how important artists can be to the world, and we read Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and talked about the impact both journalism and literature can have on politics. Class period mixed lectures, small group discussions, and self-reflective journaling in response to Potter’s thought-provoking prompts. As the semester progressed, it became clear how well Potter was integrating reading material with politics both old and new. We learned more about the complicated politics of the Spanish Civil War than I ever had in history class, and I thought about whether I would be brave enough to risk crossing the U.S./Mexico border to try and save my child.
Although still an English class, “World on Fire” has made me think about politics in a way I never have before. We’ve talked about the power a single individual can have when they stand against oppression, even if the act itself doesn’t seem to change much. There were class exercises that challenged me to think about what exactly I would risk for my beliefs. Am I passionate enough about writing to distribute pamphlets under a Nazi regime? Would I keep a newspaper running against direct orders from my government? “World on Fire” seems to be helping me grapple with these questions. Besides discussing more historical wars than I would have expected from a genre studies course, the class has come to serve as some form of combined moral compass and long-term therapy session for dealing with the world outside of UMich. As I’ve written about before, I have a hard time with politics. It feels like the state of the world is constantly weighing on me, and it can be difficult to feel that anything I do would actually be helpful in the long run. Potter seems to have expected this from his students, for one of the first things we talked about at the beginning of the semester is how hard it can be to find a balance between “radicalism and grocery shopping.” I left that first class period feeling that yes, we have a responsibility to try to make the world a better place, but I still have the right to make sure my own needs are met. But the question of “How?” still remained.
While I’m still not sure how to do anything as drastic as saving the world, English 318 has certainly been helpful when it comes to saving myself. As it says in the class name, the course is about “surviving a world on fire.” With our class readings and discussions as tools to help us, we’ve spent the semester making “Top Ten” lists for how to survive a world that seems to feel like it’s constantly burning in some form or another. Quotes from everything from novels to newspapers to punk songs get pulled out and used as the basis for some form of “survival tip.” Rilke quotes turn into calls to action for protests and Orwell is used to justify taking a step back and moving to a farm when a break is needed. These lists have offered a space for reflection. I’m able to sit down with these lessons learned through stories and try to balance the urge to burn down every system of power I don’t agree with while also doing things like eating breakfast and doing homework.
Now that we’re at the end of the semester, I’ve been going back through my lists to create a final copy; a single list that will encapsulate all I’ve learned from this class as well as serving as a road map for surviving the future. It’s been strange doing this during the time of COVID-19. My past lists were based entirely on politics. They talked about the importance of community-based organizing groups and getting people to vote. I wrote tips telling myself to reach out to friends when I needed a hug. None of that feels relevant today. While they were massively useful at the time, I feel like I need an entirely new set of tips for navigating the world today. Today’s fire is not the same as last month’s. However, this is not to say this has all been for nothing.
Though the class, and these lists, were originally created assuming current politics were the “fire” we’d be dealing with, Potter’s approach has been massively helpful when it comes to dealing with COVID-19. The survival lists have taken on a new meaning. In some terrifying ways they’ve become way more literal than anyone could have predicted when the semester began, but they also offer more than just simple reflection. In combining the books we’ve read with our own personal reflection, these lists serve as a call to action that will hopefully expand past quarantine. “So you’ve decided how you feel,” they seem to say, “but what are you going to do about it?” Each one is a personalized reminder of how stories from the past can inspire new ones for tomorrow.
As I’m going through the stories I felt were important enough to add to my lists in the past, there’s one that I keep coming back to. Even with the prior appreciation I had for stories and the ways we keep repeating them through time, I don’t think I really realized how important written records can be until we studied the Oyneg Shabes Archives. Set up by historian Emanuel Ringelblum, the archives offered a place for Jewish people to record their everyday life from within the Warsaw Ghetto. Diaries were distributed for people to write in, and once full, they would be buried in hidden rooms underground. Getting caught would mean certain death. But still, these people risked their lives to record the trauma they were living through. The motivation came from the knowledge that the Nazis would do anything possible to wipe out all record of Jewish life outside of the ugly characterization they were creating through propaganda. The people in the ghetto knew that if they didn’t find a way to tell their stories, they would be lost forever. So, they wrote, and they collected, and they drew.
Most of the people involved in the archives didn’t make it through the war, and only two of the three hidden rooms have been uncovered. Still, what has been found has been vital towards understanding just how much these people suffered from Nazi brutality. Testimonies of Nazi beatings and rapes are interspersed with pages dedicated to old family recipes, showing just how much suffering became a part of everyday life. Also, among the diaries that were written with the express purpose of documentation are newspapers, letters, and drawings from children. These scraps of life help show the Holocaust as something more than just a death toll, humanizing its victims in a way Nazi Germany never would have allowed.
At one point in the semester it astounded me that people still thought to write things down in a time where every day must have felt like a fight for survival. I don’t think I could have fully understood why someone would risk their life for the sake of a journal, a story. However, that’s changed. While a virus cannot be compared to a carefully planned genocide, the need for documentation feels just as urgent. Thousands of Jews were dying each month due to the ghetto’s horrible living conditions, but the stories they told have lived on. Thousands are dying each day across the world due to COVID, but it feels like we’re still trying to sort out our stories. Whether we like it or not, history is going to get written. Stories will get told, but it’s up to us to make sure they’re true. The President’s speeches are already being recorded, but who’s going to remember what the person on the brink of death in isolation has to say about all this? We’re fortunate enough to live in a time and a country where we won’t be taken to concentration camps simply for writing a diary, and we should take advantage of this fact. Stories are important at any time, but when living through times of crisis, they become vital.
Even with an entire class built round the idea of surviving a political and societal ”fire”, I still feel like I’m going into this whole quarantine thing blind. Like everyone else, my life has been entirely flipped upside down in the past few weeks. I’m stuck in my childhood bedroom in a town I thought I had left behind for good, and the summer study abroad program I’d been looking forward to has been cancelled. Classes feel weird and inconsequential, and it’s hard to feel motivated about doing anything but going into survival mode and frantically planting a garden. Even Potter’s lectures have been becoming sporadic as he deals with his own problems caused by this virus; however, I also know that this class has left me more prepared than I could have expected. I’m already imagining how this event will be viewed as history, and I’m trying to think about the stories that will get told — and the ones that won’t. Who’s responsible for keeping track of those? I’m not a famous journalist who can go and write some book that changes the general opinion, but if anything, this class has taught me the power of the small act. I can’t make headlines talking about politicians, but maybe I can do my own documenting. Whether that’s through starting a public blog or keeping a private diary, I know these stories have value.
So now, as we’re stuck in isolation and turning to the stories that come across in other forms, through TV or podcast, books or Twitter feed, I urge you to think about the power contained in them. Maybe try making your own list; what media have you consumed lately that resonated with something inside you? How can you turn that into a lesson for getting through this moment in history? Is this something you would risk your life to make sure people remember? At the end of the day, stuck inside while the world seems to burn at a terrifying pace, stories are all that we have. They won’t beat science when it comes to survival, but they help create a species worth saving.