How Literature is Changing The Lives of Marginalized Groups

“Literature is not a luxury,” says Angela Naimou, echoing Audre Lorde’s famous words. She believes that creative and powerful literary works have always come from writers across various situations, including those in harsh conditions that may seem like difficult spaces for the making of literature.

Naimou grew up in southeastern Michigan with her Iraqi family as a part of an immigrant community. She came to Clemson in 2008 and currently teaches postcolonial and world literature, a senior seminar about literature across a bordered world, and a creative inquiry course. 

Naimou has a passion for reading literature from around the world. “I’m curious about how writers represent a political or a historical imagination of the world, and how they try to challenge it, alter it or rethink it.”

When asked how literature affects our lives, Naimou said, “In literature you have the exercise of imagination and an intimate relationship with art and language. In other parts of the world, for example in the Middle East, people will recite poetry as a part of public demonstrations, protests and revolutions but also as a part of pop songs.” 

Naimou gave Behrouz Boochani as an example. He is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist who wrote the book “No Friend but The Mountains” while imprisoned by Australia in the immigrant detention facility at Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Boochani wrote about the horrible conditions at Manus Island through Whastapp messages by mobile phone. The book was then translated by Omid Tofighian in collaboration with Boochani. It went on to win top literary awards from Australia and receive a wide international readership. Boochani received asylum and continues to be active in artistic collaborations.

Words have power in all literature, including written law. Naimou recalls her early years of drafting her dissertation, when she came across Robertson vs Baldwin, a U.S. Supreme Court case of West Coast seafarers imprisoned in 1897 because they tried to break their contracts to fight for better working conditions. The judges sided against the seafarers and racialized them to make them appear as unreliable, non-white actors who could not be responsible for their own money. 

The court decided the seafarers were so essential they were not allowed to stop working, supporting forced labor when legalized slavery “had been abolished.” The judges based this decision on their prejudices and interpretations of the 13th amendment. 

Law changed the seafarers’ lives forever and continues to affect marginalized groups today. People like Boochani recognize the importance of law and that it can be used unjustly, so they use literature and art to make their voices heard and to change legal systems.

Naimou has begun participating in local efforts to help provide welcome and support for resettled refugees in Clemson. Last Spring, she and her Creative Inquiry students introduced the Every Campus a Refuge initiative to the University by hosting Dr. Diya Abdo, founder of ECAR at Guilford College. ECAR partners with refugee resettlement agencies to host refugees from all over the world on campus grounds and support them in their resettlement. The program is just starting, but Naimou said she “hopes it will have a lasting and meaningful place for people in the campus and the broader community.”

Naimou is making positive changes at Clemson through ECAR, an initiative that students should take a look at if they are looking to make an impact. She also encourages everyone to read works by diverse authors because consuming literature from different sources is a simple yet powerful act that can change the world. 

By: Rachel Harley

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