Keeping Hearts and Minds Alive

(Susan’s Acceptance Speech for The Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement)

I am deeply grateful for this honor. I want to thank those of you who have created this award and the organization that supports it, including independent book sellers and publishers, and especially Joyce Jenkins, without whose longtime efforts many of her fellow writers would lack the palpable sense of community that is so evident here today.

I am also grateful for, in fact I feel indebted to, Northern California’s rich and diverse community of writers and readers, one that was here before I was born, nurturing Gertrude Stein before she went off to Paris, Jack London and John Muir, when they weren’t in the wild, providing a retirement oasis for M F K Fischer, giving birth to the Beat Generation, sheltering The Color Purple, premiering “Angels in America,” and through it all earning a reputation for rebellious creativity if not a playfully attractive wickedness. It is a community I cherish.

I have just finished writing my first novel, called The Ice Dancer’s Tale,  and am about to complete a book length poem about the Mississippi River but what I want to talk about now is my first full length work of prose, which I wrote while I was living in Berkeley, where I still live. This book, called Woman and Nature,  is coming out in the fall in a new edition, and thus in a new introduction, I tell what today may seem like an antiquated tale, namely how starting in 1974, I wrote this book by hand, using a fountain pen, in a dozen or so spiral notebooks, transferring it afterward to typescript on a manual typewriter.  Unbelievable as it may seem, there were no computers then.

For a long time I resisted the technological revolution, as some call it, but finally, to the consternation of a few remaining Luddite friends, I relented and now I am grateful for my computer, the internet and even email. Nevertheless, though I have benefited from them, I have not come to praise the accomplishments of Silicon Valley, but to praise literature instead.

At a celebration of books held by book reviewers this may seem redundant. But sadly, it is not. In the last decades I have seen the heady excitement, which in the past might have greeted the appearance of a new voice in literature, gather steam around every innovation among gadgets and each minute improvement in software and operating systems.  While public discourse seems more and more shallow, often with a menacing shadow of hatred, society seems more intensely focused on the machines that deliver messages, rather than what those messages tell us. As part of this phenomenon, the range of what is called “content” seems to have narrowed so drastically that literature occupies a smaller and smaller place, relegated to the margins of an increasingly flattened intellectual domain in a society that regards data, far too often collected for the purpose of calculating profit and loss, as the only legitimate form of truth.

I could talk about art and literature being excised from school curricula, or how there is so little financial support for writers today; I could describe the way this city is losing its writers and artists because they can no longer afford the rents that the authors of software and codes with their often bloated salaries can muster.   

But I would rather speak for a moment about the irreplaceable qualities of literature, an ancient form of human culture that mirrors a unique aspect of human consciousness. Computers may count more quickly than we can but in other ways compared to human capacity this invention is retrograde. Take for instance the latest innovation called quantum computing which boasts that it has moved beyond binary thinking by taking into account superimposition and entanglement.  This is certainly good news but sorry my friends working in the world of cyberspace, this ability has been around for a long, long time. Though it goes by many names [from ambivalence to complexity].  In literature we call it nuance.

Literature is not just a softer more appealing mode of expression. It is a distinct and necessary mode of consciousness, tangling and untangling thought and feeling, unearthing the significance of sensual experience, describing local scenes while at the same time, seeing beyond boundaries.   Storytelling, metaphor, the music of rhythm and rhyme, as entertaining or pleasing as they may be, are not simply decorative. Through fictional or real characters, while a narrative asks readers to imagine other lives and other circumstances, it cultivates understanding and calls up empathy. Metaphor, in which one thing stands for another, while, to quote Ovid’s Metamorphosis, “bodies become bodies,” gives us an immediate and visceral sense of the way that all life is connected. A connection we hear in the voice of the storyteller, which creates a resonant field, a sound that enables listening, not just among readers but in writers, who understand that whatever or whomever we speak about, will speak to us.  And finally music, as through the repeating lines of shamanic chants, the spare lyrics of Sappho and Lucille Clifton, the melodic lines of Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, the music of literature opens the listener to deeper channels of knowing, including the wisdom of the natural world.

In my introduction to Woman and Nature, I list the many voices and events that helped to shape that book, ending with a  brief passage, which I will read now, that describes my greatest influences, experiences I was to reclaim from my childhood, “…what I had learned in the High Sierras, gazing up in wonder at trees that reached so far above me they expanded my imagination, diving into an ice cold, turquoise pool, jolted to sharp awareness, stretching out on the surrounding boulders, sculpted by time, warm with the sun, and comforting beyond measure, transfixed by an orange moon nearly as large as the sky as it rose over a dark ridge, staring into a sky blazing with stars that gave me the feeling there would always be more in the world than I knew or could explain; at the edge of the Pacific ocean, carried by a wave, the sensation unique, not like anything else I had ever felt, filled with a knowledge even today I cannot put into words; standing in the stillness of the Mojave desert, silence not a concept, but palpable, a force. And as a very small child, in the still unsettled San Fernando Valley, gazing at a field of grass moving in the wind, falling in love with this dance, which seemed to make sense of everything in the chaotic world of my childhood. In the end, … all this ..has stayed with me, guiding me, becoming me. “

Can it be a coincidence that at a time when polar ice is melting and so many species are disappearing, literature too would be endangered.   I thank you for this award. And, let me also thank the many here today who are doing so much to keep human hearts and minds alive.