Social Activist Fights Foolishness with Fiction

Social Activist Fights Foolishness with Fiction December 1, 2013

The Fiery Alphabet is a thought-filled adventure story by Diane Lefer, who is a novelist, playwright, short-story writer, recipient of several literary awards, and long-time MFA instructor, as well as a passionate activist for social justice.

Lefer sets the novel during the European Enlightenment, but, alas, not everyone is allowed to express equal enlightenment. Daniela Messo is an 18th century freethinker. We meet her as a child with prodigious math talent, living a secluded life with her father in Rome. Patronized by smug visiting males, fearful of being branded a witch, she is vulnerable to anyone more worldly than she is. She becomes attached to an oddly attractive swindler, and their adventures throughout Europe have the feel of historical reality.

Lefer begins The Fiery Alphabet with a “translator’s preface” mixing fiction (about finding lost documents) with genuine acknowledgments, setting the stage neatly for a believable novel. I interviewed her by email as she was ending a month-long social justice theatre project in Northern Ireland.

Diane Lefer Q&A:

Q: Diane, I thoroughly enjoyed the way The Fiery Alphabet immersed me in a much earlier era and made me wonder what it would have been like to be a freethinking female back then. What made you write this novel at this time in your life?

Can I rephrase the question? Why is it that this novel was finally published at this time in my life? I finished writing The Fiery Alphabet in 1986. At the time I had an agent and she began sending the manuscript around, getting responses like, “Daniela is a passionate woman but her passion is, alas, for learning.” Some editors said her situation wasn’t believable and people couldn’t relate to it. After my agent developed Alzheimer’s, I found myself with no access to mainstream publishing.

Every now and then I’d do some revision until, in recent years, many small independent presses opened up. Maybe I was just lucky to find Jessica Knauss at Loose Leaves Publishing but I also suspect that we’re at a point in history when the story resonates with many people. Women throughout the world, including the U.S., are very much under attack from fundamentalist religions. At the same time, a popular TV show like Bones proves that Americans can be intrigued by and get to care about an intellectual atheist woman. So maybe there’s a more receptive audience today.


Q: Would you share something about your writing process with us? Do you dip into and out of a flow state? How do you mix your bill-paying jobs, your social activism, and your writing of fiction?

I don’t see how I can be a writer if I’m not also engaged in life, and so I don’t write every day. I’ve never subscribed to what I think of as the macho notion that if you’re a writer, you put your ass in the chair every morning and write. I’ve created so much over the years that I know the work will get done, and so I don’t stress out over it.

There are times when family and friends get my undivided attention. Over the summer, I offered writing workshops to men on parole who’d served between 25 and 40 years in prison. I put together a book of their work and distributed it free in the community. When I really want to dwell in my own imagination,  I do try to reserve uninterrupted blocks of time.

While writing The Fiery Alphabet I immersed myself in the 18th century. Then I spent a month in Turkey after which I was fortunate enough to have a 3-month residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico, which is itself an otherworldly and timeless place. My first six weeks there, I stayed inside my adobe house living in my imagined world of centuries past. Except for courtesy words at the grocery store, I didn’t speak with another human being. I wrote for hours every day and was sublimely happy. Then one afternoon I stopped at the director’s house to pick up a package. It was just a little after noon and we started to talk and we talked without stop till the sun came up the next morning. That was certainly taking things to an extreme, but I do I swing back and forth between solitude and society.

My process has changed a lot since the computer. I revise more. I move stuff around. I fuss over each word because making changes is so much easier. But staring at the computer screen also damaged my eyes several years ago. I was working on a novel and at the same time my gainful employment required computer work. I was at the screen for maybe 15, 16 hours a day. I didn’t know to take breaks or look away from the screen and one day all the focusing muscles in my eyes just quit. All I could see was black spots and blur for eight months. No writing, reading, driving, and I had no idea if I’d ever see again.

Here I am now at the screen, but if I overdo it, my right eye remains weakened and I can run into trouble. I often write in fragments now, or pieces of a quilt that have to be joined.

I have had all kinds of jobs, including factory work, picking potatoes, years of secretarial work, teaching, freelance writing. Activist projects and theater projects get me out in the world, involved with other people, and away from that dangerous screen.


Q: You’ve said you never felt a spiritual hunger, when reality itself is awe-inspiring enough. That’s my stance. As a child, I spoke to God in my head (I’d been sent to a Jewish Sunday School for years), but I spoke the same way to the first star to appear each night. Usually asking for world peace. Comment?

Susan, I love what you just said! Of course one little girl alone can’t bring world peace but there’s hope, I think, in sending the desire to something outside of oneself, and to a star that other people see too. There must be a basic human need to look outside ourselves when we feel helpless. To connect. Characters in books have been my companions. Music heals, either through its sheer beauty or—especially when you’re a teenager—the way the lyrics can let you know other people have been just as sad, have loved as hopelessly.

When I work with people who’ve survived trauma—torture, rape, civil war—what comes up again and again is their feeling of being abandoned, entirely alone. They talk about how they survived by holding onto an image—sometimes a loved one, sometimes a continued commitment to an ideology, sometimes to their idea of god. Without something to hold onto in memory or imagination, your very identity can dissolve when the ordeal is terrible enough.

So I respect people who believe in God as long as they respect me back. Fundamentalist religion of any stripe is a source of so much hatred and oppression, but as an activist, I often find myself working alongside progressive priests, nuns, and pastors, and I appreciate how their religious faith motivates them and gives them fortitude. I studied with Rev. James Lawson (who trained Martin Luther King, Jr., in nonviolent action). He’s a devout Christian, but I didn’t hide my atheism. I was glad he once said to me that many others, including artists and scientists, have a kind of faith as meaningful as the faith of religious people.

A few years ago I was invited to offer workshops at a theater festival for peace in a region of Colombia where people were caught in the crossfire of the civil war. The 10-day event was inaugurated by the diocesan bishop. Instead of the kind of invocation we’ve come to expect at public events in the U.S.—imposing God, almost always the Christian God, on everyone—this high-ranking representative of the Catholic church gave a speech that respected the values of everyone present. He never mentioned God or Jesus Christ but instead said that Art expresses the most profound understanding of the human spirit.


Q: The romantic element of The Fiery Alphabet is strong.  Does that come from your life?

Obviously this isn’t true for all women, but I always had the idea that Marriage = Death. I would have made a good mistress, except I refused to get involved with married men. I’ve had temporary relationships, some very happy, some not so. In fact what made me start writing The Fiery Alphabet was a doomed love affair with a man who liked to think of himself as very spiritual—which too often relieved him of all responsibility to the people around him.

Like Daniela, I’ve been called a witch—and not as a compliment. Funny how quickly some men jump to a supernatural explanation when you’re just being observant and intuitive. I naively thought my lovers would want to be seen and understood and I didn’t understand how some men might feel exposed and their privacy disturbingly invaded.

Over the years, I blunted those abilities. I guess I thought it was safer. I still accessed intuition when writing, but I shut down a bit in my personal life. This last month in Northern Ireland, however, reminded me that when working with vulnerable communities, you need to be intuitive with individuals but also observant and perceptive about what’s happening all around you in the room. I want to regain all my faculties! What do I care if people call me a witch?!

But honestly, I think the relationship I’ve had that most expressed unconditional love was with my cat. So many people insist there’s no morality without god. Where do they get that? Every religion and every nontheistic philosophy has an equivalent of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you (to which I add, unless you’re a masochist). Empathy is biological. My cat understood. She would tear paper and fabric apart with her claws but would never use them on a living thing (or me). OK, she did at first when she was a kitten. When I cried out in an imitation of cat-pain, she got it and never used her claws on me again. It’s because of her that I started rejecting the label “secular humanist.” I can’t attribute more value to human beings than to cats.


Q: What’s your activist priority currently?

Thank you for asking. Much of my activism these days is on the page or in provision of direct services. Recently I’ve concluded I simply don’t have time to go to every march and every protest, though I do show up whenever the immigration rights movement wants warm bodies on the street because that cause is very close to my heart.

I never wanted to work in prisons but somehow that’s what I’ve been doing. It began when a young man I know was involved in a teenage incident in which no one was hurt or injured in any way and yet, at age 16, never in trouble before, he was tried as an adult and sentenced to 35 years to life. This threw me into the world of criminal in/justice and the system of harsh punishment and mass incarceration in the Land of the Free. As a taste for anyone who’s interested, a long essay I once wrote about the juvenile in/justice system was published by Connotation Press.

In Northern Ireland, I was working with a nonprofit, ImaginAction. We offered theater workshops for community organizations including for men in maximum security and also for young men in youth prison who had refused to participate till then in any educational programs. To vastly oversimplify what we do, I’ll just say theater improvisations become a rehearsal for life. We invite people to explore problems and issues they are faced with by creating scenes for each other. As one man said, seeing other people’s problems made him feel empathy in a way he hadn’t before. Then we invite participants to reflect on what they’ve seen and improvise alternative scenarios. Improvisation shows you can change the script. People who can’t envision any other path than the one they took can begin to explore other choices.

What I’m most interested in now is reaching young people before they end up in prison. Zero-tolerance policies and harsh school discipline—suspending kids for tardiness and minor infractions and sending them to court—just means they fall further and further behind and end up dropping out (or being pushed out). This has created what we call the school-to-prison pipeline.

Besides collaborating occasionally with community-based activist organizations such as the Youth Justice Coalition, one way I’m addressing this is to contribute a chapter to a book coming out next year about mass incarceration in America. I’m covering different approaches that have been used successfully in different cities to keep kids in school and prepare them for graduation, not incarceration.

I have to say there are writers whose work has nourished me, but it’s the activists who’ve most inspired me.

Check out The Fiery Alphabet.

Diane Lefer’s site and her blog.

Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry

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