A primer on literary activism ahead of UNLV’s upcoming forum

José Orduña, left, and Douglas Unger.
Photo: Laurel Fantanuzzo and Aaron Mayes / Courtesy

What is literary activism? Besides the exact name of the February 28 open forum with UNLV professors and authors Doug Unger and José Orduña? Thirty years ago, it encapsulated a movement pushing alternative ways to print literary works. But Unger defines it two other ways: One describes the act of writing a book on a subject of importance, typically resulting in the writer himself becoming a public advocate for that subject. And then there’s the second: the promotion of the literary arts—or, as Unger puts it, “Making sure literature—and the reading of serious writing—maintains a cultural place in American society.”

Notable titles: Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle famously inspired changes in food safety laws. Another recent UNLV discussion participant, Lisa Ko, found herself being repeatedly asked to speak on behalf of immigrants following the publication of her 2017 novel, The Leavers. Unger himself was the recipient of media and public discussion invites after addressing the plight of family farms in his 1984 debut novel, Leaving the Land. And Orduña’s 2016 memoir The Weight of Shadows is also centered around immigration and assimilation.

Prominent issues: Immigration (as mentioned above), human rights, class struggles, racism and diversity, to name a few. “It’s an occasion to provide marginalized voices of all kinds a chance to speak, be activists and [have] their spaces,” Unger says.

Advocacy in action: Unger’s passion to maintain ongoing translation of world literature (despite diminishing publisher interest) resulted in his joining the executive board of Words Without Borders, which has not only published some 2,400 works of contemporary literature from 132 countries in 112 different languages, but, thanks largely to Unger, has spun off an education component.

What to expect at Wednesday’s forum: A deeper, contextualized dive into the concept—and Unger’s official introduction of Orduña as a faculty member. “I’m looking forward to this event as a time for me to say, yes, I’m Doug Unger, you guys know who I am, but this guy, this is an important writer, we’re lucky to have him, and we’re going to talk about advocacy.”

What Is Literary Activism? February 28, 7 p.m., free. UNLV’s Beverly Rogers Literature and Law Building, Room 101, 702-895-5542.

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