Episode 6: Paula Moya

[L]iterature is one of the best venues to explore complicated questions. Because you can really get into the weeds of these issues, and we need deep thought, and we need non-binary, non-simplistic thinking now more than ever. It’s binary thinking, simplistic thinking, good-bad kind of thinking that is getting us into trouble right now. . . . We need to be able to learn to think more complexly, and literature trains us to do that.
Paula Moya

In our sixth episode, we got to speak with Professor Paula Moya, the Danily C. and Laura Louise Belle Professor of the Humanities at Stanford.  

Transcript: Episode 6, Paula Moya

We spoke with Paula about how literature can both reflect and shape the social schemas through which people perceive the world and process their experiences.

For an example of literature’s power to capture and even predict high-stakes social phenomena, Paula highlighted an eerily prescient passage from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents (1998), about an intolerant presidential contender named Jarret, with a familiar slogan:

from Parable of the Talents (1998)
by Octavia Butler

Jarret insists on being a throwback to some earlier, “simpler” time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. The current state of the country does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, worshiped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on completing the same religious rituals and stomping anyone who was different. There was never such a time in this country. But these days when more than half the people in the country can’t read at all, history is just one more vast unknown to them.  

Jarret supporters have been known, now and then, to form mobs and burn people at the stake for being witches. Witches! in 2032! A witch, in their view, tends to be a Moslem, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or, in some parts of the country, a Mormon, a Jehovah’s witness, or even a Catholic. A witch may also be an atheist, a “cultist” or a well-to-do eccentric. Well-to-do eccentrics often have no protectors or much that’s worth stealing. And cultist is a great catch-all term for anyone who fits into no other large category, and yet doesn’t quite match Jarret’s version of Christianity.  Jarret’s people have been known to beat or drive out Unitarians, for goodness’ sake. Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. As for the beatings, the tarring and the feathering, and the destruction of “heathen houses of devil-worship,” he has a simple answer: “Join us! Our doors are open to every nationality, every race! Leave your sinful past, and become one of us. Help us to make America great again.”

—Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Talents (New York: Hachette, 2000). Originally published 1998

You can hear Paula reading a longer version of this passage, and discussing what it was like to read it for the first time during the 2016 campaign, starting here.

Later in the episode, we discuss literature’s capacity to promulgate a variety of political sensibilities, potentially authoritarian as well as democratic in nature. Here Paula suggests that novelists such as Toni Morrison and Helena Maria Viramontes manage to realize literature’s democratic potential in a way that surpasses, in some respects, even the achievements of Walt Whitman, the 19th century poet of American democracy.


Here are a few links for exploring further the books and subjects in the episode:

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Sula by Toni Morrison

Their Dogs Came With Them by Helena Maria Viramontes

The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literary Criticism by Paula Moya

Learning From Experience: Minority Identities, Multicultural Struggles by Paul Moya


Paula Moya on the phrase “Make America Great Again”