…if girls and women had THE POWER?
Naomi Alderman’s 2016 novel, The Power, suggests, sadly, pretty much the same.
My sabbatical project centers around reading speculative fiction that wrestles a bit with the question of gender and oppression (or the absence of both) in the future to tease out imagery and wisdom that might inspire the creation of communities where gender-based violence is no longer the norm. I spent the spring exploring reviews on the internet, ordering books, going through my own bookshelves and narrowing it down to 12 intriguing novels. This sumptuous stack of books sat on my dresser for weeks before my sabbatical began–and then the day came when I had to make a very difficult decision: which to read first?
I chose Naomi Alderman’s book because I had “found” it on President Obama’s 2017 list of “songs that got me moving (and) stories that inspired me,” published January 2, 2018. What can I say, I miss the man. I miss the entire Obama family. I miss feeling inspired by Presidential speeches. I miss genuine debate over what constitutes progressive policy, and candid conversations about vision versus pragmatism. Picking up a book that President Obama recommended felt like a hopeful way to begin this project.
It turned out to be the perfect choice. My takeaway from The Power, in addition to a small crush on Roxy: it is imperative that we create a vision for the world without violence and oppression, a world centered around love and justice and future generations, and that we make it real for people. We must find ways for all kinds of people to get a glimpse of the possibilities of this world–to see it, smell it, touch it, hear it, and begin to know it. More people must believe a just and loving and equitable world is possible. More people need to have a sense of the practical ways that we might build such a world. More people must be prepared to bravely act in the direction of love and justice and equality as opportunities for change present themselves.
In The Power, the opportunity for change that presents itself is a biological change that first occurs in girls and then spreads to adult women–a change that gives them greater physical power than men*. Bridget Read, of VOGUE, describes the beginning of the story beautifully:
“Alderman knows exactly how seductive this idea is for those of us on the losing side of the world’s prevailing gender hierarchy…” “…we can see ourselves in a multitude of familiar situations with dangers and threats that, instead of submitting to, we’re able to repel.”
It is, indeed, seductive. Well crafted and familiar characters invite us to bask in the warm glow of how such power might feel. For those who have experienced the violence that accompanies oppression, it feels pretty good.
As the story continued I wanted to reach out and grab some of the characters, to say “wait, think about this, it doesn’t have to be this way.” A series of terribly disturbing things begin to happen. As women around the world experience their power and begin to live into that power, they choose to adopt the behaviors and values of the patriarchal power structure they grew up with. They may pause for a moment or two to debate an ethical question, but ultimately they re-create what they know. Through it all, the girls, the group of people where the power originated, are nearly invisible.
Reviewing the book on Medium, Michael Burton observes, “We want to believe, so deeply, that power is and can be used for good.” Which takes me back to thinking about President Obama. One man who briefly held the position of “most powerful person in the world.” A man who clearly practices powerful love in his life and in his leadership. A leader who demonstrated both the possibilities and the limitations of our yet to be realized democracy. Not a stretch to understand why a book that explores the complexity of power through a well-told and thought-provoking story made it onto his reading list.
Naomi Alderman did something very important with this book for those of working to bring about real change in how power manifests in the world. She reminded us that the answers will not come from seeking power within the structures we are trying to change. Change requires a clear and consistent challenge to abusive power.
Audre Lorde said it well in 1979 when she said, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The Power is a cautionary tale about what happens when women use their power to simply move into the master’s house. Later in that same essay, Lorde posits, “In a world of possibility for us all, our personal visions help lay the groundwork for political action… In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.”
Our vision and our actions must be brave. Again, Audre Lorde, “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.”
When we are brave, when we find our way to common cause with other survivors, we find the energy to look up and look out to the future and we can see the possibility of a world in which all of us, in all of our glorious difference, can flourish. We discover the power of love. The redemptive power of love. It takes faith to be brave. It takes introspection and meditation to see and understand ourselves and others. It takes strength to look up and look out with others. It takes curiosity and generosity to create a beautiful and joyous future vision. It takes practice to do each of these things well. This sabbatical has been a gift of time to explore the practices that nurture faith, meditation, strength, curiosity and generosity.