Professor De Robertis Offers 'Radical Hope' in New Book Responding to Election

Thursday, June 01, 2017
Photo of Carolina De Robertis and Image of Radical Hope book cover

Three days after the presidential election, Carolina De Robertis sat at her writing desk, struggling to cope with the results. A novelist and assistant professor of Creative Writing, De Robertis thought of her late grandmother, who survived oppressive regimes in Argentina and Uruguay. What would they say to each other about the prospect of Donald Trump as U.S. president?

De Robertis quickly assembled Radical Hope: Letters of Love in Dangerous Times (Vintage/Random House). It features essays in epistolary form, inspired by James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of Emancipation” and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

The collection of 32 letters includes contributions from Pulitzer Prize winners Junot Díaz, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Jane Smiley as well as Black Lives Matter co-founder and SF State grad Alicia Garza, SF State Professor Peter Orner and writer/television personality iO Tillett Wright. The letters are addressed to ancestors, to children five generations from now, to strangers in grocery lines, to any and all who feel weary and discouraged.

Publishers Weekly states Radical Hope is comprised of “diverse, eloquent and unapologetic pieces that speak to the heart and underline the sentiment that the personal is political. … This collection is a plea to defy the idea that positive change is impossible.”

De Robertis, who joined SF State last fall, plans to donate a small portion of the proceeds of the book’s sales to the American Civil Liberties Union.

What do you hope readers gain from the book?

It may be of use to different people in different ways. I hope that it will be a source of sustenance in a time in which simply digesting the news and staying awake and engaged can be incredibly emotionally exhausting. The temptation in such times can be to shut down, to divest ourselves from engagement.

Some amount of unplugging for our well being, sanity and self-care is valid and needed. However, we can’t afford collective paralysis because we do still need to stay engaged.

I’ve absolutely been so heartened to see the way in which resistance has been working to stymie the very negative actions of this current administration, from judiciary actions — blocking the Muslim ban, for example — to all of the phone calls and letters to senators. The defeat of the [first] health-care overhaul was largely successful thanks to resistance on the ground.

For some people, [Radical Hope] might be a sanctuary, a mirror for the feelings that each person is having, that you’re not alone in moving through your fear or feeling exhausted. For example, Karen Joy Fowler’s piece talks about her feelings — very outraged and cynical and exhausted — and then moves through that to a place of deciding to continue on, in her case, inspired by the water protectors at Standing Rock. ...

When you read Alicia Garza’s letter to Harriet Tubman, it really puts into perspective the power to go on when it seems so profoundly against the odds. Talk about radical. Talk about hope. Harriet Tubman! I wept the first time I read her submission.

What can a Trump supporter gain from reading this book?

Everybody is welcome into the pages of this book. That said, this book is certainly unapologetic in its perspective with regard to the integrity, beauty and power of the people whom Trump has deemed fit to attack. ...

One of the things that a Trump supporter may see in this book, if that person were willing to open it with an open mind and an open heart, is that they would get to hear directly from some of those people whose dignity and worth have been called into question by Trump’s rhetoric. And I think that’s an amazing and powerful thing. It’s a powerful thing that books and literature can give us: the capacity to become close and intimate with people whom we might see as the “other” and who we may not have interactions with in the day to day.

I realize that there many people in this country who do not have a lot of opportunity to meaningfully engage with people who are different from them. This book provides that.

Why not include a letter from a Trump supporter in the book? They have their own form of “radical hope,” I think, too.

I think that there are many conversations that need to be had in our society, in the wake of this election. In this particular book, I found it very important to have the opportunity for progressives to be able to have a conversation with each other.

I think that there’s absolutely room in the world for Trump supporters to speak, and I in no way wish to deprive them of that room to speak. ...

This is an incredibly diverse group of voices. It’s an incredibly diverse group of life experiences. The essays don’t all agree with each other in tidy ways. There are many perspectives in here on what it means to create the society we want, and on what it means to find hope and where we’re going to source it.

It’s already a wildly diverse symphony of voices. I wanted to hold room for all of that diversity, and yet we all have something common in this book.

I found it very important to have a book that affirms some very basic common values. And those common values include that a multiracial, immigrant-welcoming, essentially feminist, queer-friendly and trans-embracing society is a society that makes all of us stronger. On some fundamental level that is a common value that all of our writers have.

Without that common value, I’m not sure that this book would still be the kind of sanctuary that I want it to be for readers.

How does this book help you in your teaching here at San Francisco State and help your students?

The process of creating this book, Radical Hope, will always be deeply connected for me to my arrival here at San Francisco State. It’s been an incredible pleasure to share this journey with my M.F.A. students, who have been very excited to hear about it and have been a kind of company, for me, along the way.

My teaching here has absolutely fed the process of creating this book. As I hear students in the Creative Writing Department reflect on how the change in our society might affect what they write, how they write, and how they define for themselves it means to be a writer, that has also been a real source of fuel for me in shaping this book.

I happen to be teaching a class this spring called The Displaced Person. We’ve been reading a lot of books from all over the world including books written in the African diaspora, from the perspective of immigrant writers, refugee writers and people displaced because of their gender or their sexual identity. That class has been a springboard for approaching some of these issues and points of reflection, in a meaningful way, in the classroom.

De Robertis and nine Radical Hope contributors will read at the Bay Area Book Festival on June 3 in Berkeley. She also has a reading on June 19 at Booksmith in San Francisco.

— Matt Itelson


Photo by Nye' Lyn Tho. Book cover courtesy of Vintage Books.

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