Early this calendar year, as President Trump signed his first executive order on immigration and news outlets released a deluge of information about its more devastating effects, I finished two books on the same day. One was Mark Twain’s controversial classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I was teaching at the time; the other was Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 science fiction novel Left Hand of Darkness.
On the face of it, these two books have little to do with each other, let alone with contemporary immigration laws. But I’m struck by how similar—and how relevant—they are nonetheless. Their shared themes provide a counterpoint to what I saw every time I turned on the news or scrolled through my Facebook feed. Both books’ protagonists are befriended by people they’ve been taught to view as alien, other, or lesser. And both learn—painfully, and incompletely, but they learn—to see past these preconceptions and fully value the humanity of these others who have become their friends.
Huckleberry Finn’s titular protagonist is probably one we’ve all already heard of. Huck Finn and his journey down the Mississippi with the escaped slave Jim are still read in high school classrooms across the States—well, read or banned, depending on the year—and that tells me Twain’s novel has a significant place in American culture as well as in American letters. The story not only leads readers on a physical journey, but also traces Huck’s moral growth, a process that’s funny and deeply profound at the same time. All along Huck and Jim’s journey, Huck encounters different examples of the “sivilized” society his guardian, the Widow, tried her best to fit him into. He meets two upstanding, well-to-do families who try their best to kill each other based on a decades-old feud with a forgotten origin. He meets a pair of conmen who call themselves the “king” and the “duke,” and who exercise malevolent and absolute authority over Huck and Jim as they run con after con. In the last part of the novel, he stays with Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle, who feed their slaves well and read the Scriptures with them—but who are still convinced they can, and should, own them. Each example is an opportunity for Twain to satirize the slaveholding South: how ironic, we realize, it is to believe a society can consider itself to be civilized while it simultaneously uses and trades other human beings as property.But we are called to enter into the suffering of others—to acknowledge where those who bear the image of God are suffering and to ameliorate that suffering if we can.
Huck recognizes this irony, and he has an epiphany about “sivilized” society and his and Jim’s places in it. All along their journey, Jim has been the father figure Huck never had. His own father, “Pap,” was an abusive alcoholic whose boot prints, with their cross in the left boot heel, Huck knew and feared. Jim’s company on the raft, as the pair whiled away time shooting the breeze and sailing through landscapes Huck describes as beautiful and serene, is a peaceful contrast to the violence of feuding families or the threat of con men. But Huck has been brought up to believe that slavery is biblical, that he’s done wrong by helping Jim because he’s effectively stolen Jim from the widow. Worst of all, he believes his actions damn him: “people that acts as I’d been acting about [Jim] goes to everlasting fire,” he thinks in chapter 31, deeply conflicted, struggling with his firm belief that choosing to save Jim means choosing hell.
But then he remembers Jim: “I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.” Huck knows he’s “got to decide forever, betwixt two things,” and he chooses hell: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” he says to himself, “And, for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again.” Readers see how terribly ironic Huck’s choice is: it is his culture’s attempts to moralize slavery that are damnable, and his choice deliverance. Huck makes a profoundly counter-cultural choice because he realizes Jim is human, and Jim’s humanity and dignity matter more than the approval of “sivilized” society, or the Sunday school lessons Huck never really paid attention to anyway.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, too, we meet a man who rejects societal approval in order to affirm and connect with an Other. The Left Hand of Darkness is likely not as familiar a book as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, unless you’re a classic science fiction junkie; when I tried to summarize the plot for some of my students, they looked at me like I was a bit crazy. The book’s protagonist, Genly Ai, is the ambassador from a federation of planets called the Ekumen, and he is tasked with bringing the people of the world Winter into this federation. Ai is male, from Earth. The people of Winter have only one gender, and only develop male or female primary sexual characteristics once a month during a mating period called “kemmer.” Ai’s diplomatic mission is hampered by this alienness. The people of Winter, too, aren’t sure how to relate to him, often referring to him as a “pervert” because he is, to them, permanently stuck in mating mode. And for nearly three-fourths of the novel, this lack of understanding leads Ai through a host of diplomatic near-disasters, starting with the exile of a top diplomat who’d worked with him, and ending with Ai’s imprisonment at what’s called a Voluntary Farm, near a vast glacier.
Ai is at his lowest point, drugged and slowly starving in the prison farm, when he is rescued. His rescuer is the exiled diplomat Estraven, whose motives and personality Ai learns he has completely misread from the beginning, stuck as he is in trying to fit the people of Winter into his own lens for what human beings are. “I am the only man [on Winter] that has trusted you entirely,” Estraven tells him, “and I am the only man [on Winter] that you have refused to trust.” Ai can only say, “I’m sorry,” a phrase that is “both apology and admission.” He has let Estraven’s otherness keep him from being Estraven’s friend.
What follows is what I find to be the most beautiful section of the book: the two exiled companions make a months-long journey across the glacier near the prison—weeks and weeks of hard travel in punishing conditions. Like Huck and Jim on their raft, they are separate from the society and civilization around them. And like Huck and Jim, Ai and Estraven learn to recognize each other as humans and friends. For Ai especially, this comes from recognizing that he is to blame for the distance between them, because he had been willing to understand Estraven only on his own terms:
“I saw then again, and for good,” he thinks, “what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. […] For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me entire personal loyalty, and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance.”
Ai had been unwilling, until this moment, to give Estraven that recognition—but he finally does. Just like Huck, something within him had made him keep his distance, had refused to regard Estraven with the same respect and acceptance that Estraven had given him.
Once they both have so recognized each other, Estraven becomes Ai’s friend. And, in a stirring scene made possible only through science fiction, when Ai first speaks to Estraven telepathically, Estraven hears not Ai’s voice in his head, but that of a beloved brother, long dead.
In contemporary U.S. society—as in Twain’s post-Civil War South, as in Le Guin’s 1960s culture war America—our shared humanity is dangerously easy to ignore. As I write this, diverse news outlets, many with criticism and chagrin, have responded to the first and second iterations of Trump’s executive order on immigration and to the wells of dark sentiment that may be feeding approval of it. The Federalist called the initial EO an act that “poisons the well of debate.” The article responds to this poison by deliberately humanizing at least some of those affected: “Reasonable people can disagree about how to handle travel from dangerous, war-torn countries, but a blanket ban that hits U.S. permanent residents, students at American universities, and that separates mothers and their children seems over the top.” An author at Just Security notes that even the revised EO “continues to tell the world that. . . America. . . cannot distinguish between the terrorists and the victims of terror” and thus encourages Americans view all immigrant and refugee Muslims as potential terrorists rather than as potential neighbors.
For many, favorable views of the EO on immigration are rooted not necessarily in policy issues or security concerns but in something darker: a rejection of nonwhite, non-Western peoples as potential Americans. The most recent symbol of this view is Congressman Steve King, whose tweets in support of Geert Wilder’s far-right Dutch nationalism were decried by the New York Times as evidence of a “toxic campaign of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, based on the lie that foreign hordes threaten our existence.” Most worrisome to me is the Christian language King uses to cloak his ideas. When asked in a CNN interview whether diverse Americans, Italian or Muslim or German American, are equal or not “in [his] mind,” King replied: “I’d say they’re all created in the image of God and they’re equal in his eyes,” but that “[c]ertain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will. That’s just a statistical fact.”
King’s statement reads as an attempt to support the status of image-bearer given to every human being, but it simultaneously makes that status separate from a person’s social or political value. And by making them separate, people may feel free to believe that the former has no impact on the latter—my convictions about personhood and the Imago Dei need not, this way of thinking goes, shape and determine how I treat and think about others in my daily life, especially if those others are less “productive.”
This way of thinking can be tempting. Huck Finn was taught it from early childhood. Black people were cursed to be slaves, and to help Jim escape slavery was a sin worthy of damnation. Genly Ai learned that it was a limit on his diplomatic abilities and his willingness to befriend others. So tied was he to his own experience of being human that it took traveling across a glacier, fighting for survival, to get him to recognize humanity in Estraven. It’s a tempting way of thinking about others, but it’s also often an easy one, because to think otherwise takes work and effort and often involves exile from what’s comfortable—exile like Huck’s damnation, like Ai’s perilous journey across a glacier.
But we are called to enter into the suffering of others—to acknowledge where those who bear the image of God are suffering and to ameliorate that suffering if we can. Two are better than one; a cord of three strands is not quickly broken; these cords together can pull a heavier load than any could on its own. We should seek to bear one another’s burdens, to suffer with one another, because we bear the image of a God who took our form, our burdens, and our sufferings upon himself.