The Right Book at the Right Time
By Susanne Carter
Sometimes the right book appears at the very moment that we need it—bibliotherapy at its best. The morning after the devastating American presidential election, when I wanted to hate every single person in this country who voted for Trump, fantasized about moving to some remote Caribbean island, and wallowed in my own liberal elitist self-pity, a library reserve notice arrived for You Will Not Have My Hate (2016) by Antoine Leiris. This post describes my response to this short but powerful memoir that came along at just the right time for me. In the Writers Notes I discuss how writing openly about emotions and recognizing the power of social media can contribute to literary success.
You Will Not Have My Hate
Antoine Leiris’s wife, Hélène, died during a terrorist attack at the Bataclan Theater in Paris in November of 2015. A few days later Leiris wrote a defiant response to the terrorists, later posted on Facebook and shared around the world, in which he vowed not to hate and not to raise his 17-month-old son to hate:
On Friday night, you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hate….You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have failed. I will not change.
Leiris also wrote that as his son grew, Melvil would continue to defy the terrorists as well. “CFor as long as he lives,” wrote Leiris, “this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom.”
Leiris’s Facebook post gradually evolved into a short but intensely beautiful and honest memoir about coping with grief and learning overnight to become a single man and parent.
Grieving over a lost election can in no way begin to compare to the tragic loss of a spouse in a terrorist attack, but it is nevertheless grief. My grief. Empathizing with Leiris as I read about how he coped following his wife’s death allowed me to relate with his feelings and feel less alone with my own as I mourned for myself and the uncertain future of my country.
Meter Man and Soup Brigade
You Will Not Have My Hate is full of seemingly mundane routines that were forever changed with the death of Leiris’s wife. In my favorite scene, the “meter man” arrives at Leiris’s front door for the monthly reading of the utility meter. The familiar routine is a startling reminder to Leiris that the outside world marches on, even when our own worlds have been turned upside down. He writes:
I thought that if the moon ever disappeared, the sea would retreat so no one would see it crying. I thought the winds would stop dancing. That the sun would not want to rise again. Nothing of the kind. The world continues to turn, and meters must be read.
Silently I move out of the way. Watch him walk ahead of me. He enters our apartment with his big, clumpy boots, his stride of the living. I do not tell him where the meter is. He knows what to do. He has already done it ten times today, maybe a thousand times this week. It’s all he has done his whole life. I watch him work, from a distance. I want to tell him that this is not a good time. He’s not welcome here. He has just screamed into my ears that, in the world outside, life goes on. And I don’t want to hear that. (pp. 58-59)
I felt similarly the first few days after the election as I walked around dazed and confused, suspended in a state of disbelief. How could the sun rise, how could children play, how could anyone ever dare to laugh or smile again after such a travesty? But, sure enough, just a few hours after my country was dealt a devastating blow of its own making, the sun came up, people went to work, children played on the playground, and the world seemed to carry on while I just wanted to crawl under the covers and hide for the next four years.
In another chapter, Leiris describes how the mothers of children at his son’s day care made a “soup brigade” by providing an array of daily homemade soups for his son and him after his wife’s death. But Melvil was accustomed to grocery store food and wouldn’t touch the soup. “I didn’t have the courage to tell them that Melvil never tasted their homemade meals,” he writes. They were carefully poured down the kitchen drain each evening. “We threw out the soup but kept the love,” says Leiris.
An Uneven Journey
Coping with grief is an uneven journey at best, writes Leiris. While one day he is convinced he can survive his grief and raise his son alone, the next he feels like he is drowning in sorrow and can’t go on. In this post-election haze, I feel like I’m on an unpredictable roller coaster of emotions. One day I am convinced I can live with the disappointment, embarrassment, and fear that comes with a Trump presidency over the next 14,088 days. The next day I want to pack my bags for Canada, where they are so lucky to have a young, progressive, liberal leader, or hide in a cave for a while away from CNN, Facebook, and all those reminders that my worst nightmare has come true.
For anyone who is grieving, Leiris’s message to the terrorists—“You will not have my hate”—is both empowering and inspirational. Terrorists may have taken away the love of his life and the mother of his son, but he will not allow that tragedy to change his view of the world or the way in which he lives or raises his son. His words give me hope that I can endure the next four years without giving in to hate.
Leiris’s short memoir succeeds because it is beautifully written and resonates with emotions we have all felt in certain situations, even if we have not experienced a tragedy of the magnitude of his. Whether it is allowing the meter man to do his job, reading a story to his son and skipping the wicked witch part like his mother did each night, or graciously accepting soup that will later be poured down the drain, Leiris explores how loss has reshaped even the smallest aspects of his life. Those of us experiencing feelings of grief for any number of reasons can find solace and kinship in the experiences and intimate confidences he shares with us.
Leiris’s memoir also succeeds because of the power of social media. Both You Will Not Have My Hate and Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth: The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World (2014) (and undoubtedly many other published works) began as Facebook posts. Neither Leiris nor Tirado wrote these posts with the intention that they would grow into full-length books. In this age of social media, however, a thoughtful post has the power to become something much greater. Writers need to recognize and use that potential.
Have you ever seen a post on social media that you thought could become a published book? What was it about?