Nothing Is Wasted: A Radical Bookseller’s View of Hope

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EVENT: ‘Citizens of Everywhere’ at the Bookshop on Tuesday 20 June brings together Shami Chakrabarti, Lauren Elkin, Tom McCarthy and Eloise Todd to debate the future of citizenship in Britain, Europe and beyond. Book tickets here.

The University of Liverpool’s ‘Citizens of Everywhere’ multidisciplinary project aims to generate dialogue and response to recent political shifts in Europe and America through a series of public events, commissioned pieces of writing, workshops and creative engagement with schools. In this piece, originally posted on the project’s blog, Mandy Vere, bookseller at News from Nowhere, reflects on the importance of bookshops and booksellers in creating a space for debate.

What is the role of a bookshop in these troubled times? One author recently showed an astounding misunderstanding by asserting that a bookshop’s stock should present opposing views, that for a bookseller to choose their stock implies censorship of the books not chosen.

Baa humbug. An independent bookseller will rightly seduce the reader with their individual passions and quirks. A radical bookseller will choose books to help further progressive thinking and action.

There is a common assumption that a bookseller is very knowledgeable. Our knowledge may be wide but it is necessarily surface. It is our customers who read in depth, whose knowledge goes way beyond ours. But a bookshop may enable a challenge not only to the dominant discourse in society but also to the received wisdom of our own thinking. So, while local history is central to News from Nowhere’s stock, an international consciousness is vital to understanding Liverpool’s history and present, whether it be the shameful legacy of the slave trade as the bedrock of this city’s prosperity, or the nature of our mixed origins – of our Irish, Somali, Yemeni, Welsh, Chinese heritage.

Liverpool knows all about being ‘citizens of everywhere’, but we can also be forgetful; newer immigrants are not immune to rejection. The Roma women who sell the Big Issue on bohemian, multicultural Bold Street have been assaulted with words, fists and paint. Black Liverpudlians wage an ongoing fight to be visible, acknowledged and respected, not to mention employed, housed and decriminalised. We all struggle to be intercultural, we divide easily into tribes: Liverpool and Everton, North End and South End, Corbynistas and moderate Labour, Scouser and immigrant.

Rebecca Solnit encourages us not with bland optimism but with a hopeful perspective on struggles for change. She reminds us that a cause is rarely won in its entirety in a short period but that every action and movement, every collaboration and alliance, is a part of the long struggle for justice:

Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective, and remembering this is reason to live by principle and act in the hope that what you do matters, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious.

Gandhi’s work against apartheid in South Africa, and later the end of empire in India, was influenced by the suffragette movement he witnessed in London, and he in turn influenced the US civil rights movement. We build on our foremothers’ failures as much as their successes. Solnit reminds us above all that nothing we do is wasted. Providing the long view, encouraging a wider perspective, is always useful. A radical bookshop does this with its choice of stock, its melding of history and present-day struggles, its visions of future possibilities in fiction and nonfiction, its poetic explorations, its uncovering of alliances.

In 1847, sixteen years after the Choctaw Indians were forced off their land and onto the Trail of Tears, they heard of the plight of the Irish during the famine and sent $170 to ease their suffering. Today environmentalists are joining with Native American peoples to resist the North Dakota pipeline. The film ‘Pride’ documents the support lesbians and gays gave to the miners’ strike, in turn inspiring that Welsh working class community to return that support.

There are times to take a principled, uncompromising stance, to defend a bottom line fearlessly, and we do this on picket lines and marches, in slogans, in anecdote, in song. There are other times to encourage space for debate, to tread a fine line open-mindedly, and we may do this better through books, through texts which question and allow room for argument, through the imagery of a poem or the nuance of a novel. Other times both are necessary. ‘Ochi!’ was the cry as we supported Greece in its struggles against the corporate economics of the EU; we campaigned against the TTIP trade deal; but as our own EU referendum approached we argued that this was not the time or manner to abandon it. Fierce arguments raged in News from Nowhere.

Dogma is a poor path to liberation. No-platforming of fascism should not mean silencing of progressive voices. There must be space for debate when rights appear to clash. There must be room in our social justice and liberation movements for uncomfortable truths.

At the same time, while acknowledging the complications of our many journeys, the pull to see those closest to us as our worst enemies must be resisted. The laughter of those in power rings loudest when we have each other by the throat. The longer view is not only wise but necessary.

On hearing an underground broadcast from the ANC in South Africa: ‘Amandla! Ngawethu! The struggle continues and victory is certain!’ I wondered how they could have known that they would win, during the darkest times of apartheid? And yet, how could they not? But this was no blind optimism, this was a message from deep within the fire of struggle. Solnit again:

Optimism assumes that all will go well without our effort; pessimism assumes it’s all irredeemable; both let us stay home and do nothing...Think of hope as a banner woven from gossamer threads, from a sense of the interconnectedness of all things...Of an indivisible world in which everything matters.

Join Shami Chakrabarti, Lauren Elkin, Tom McCarthy and Eloise Todd to discuss the fluctuating political landscape, and how we make sense of it all, at the Bookshop on Tuesday 20 June. Book tickets here.

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