“What are we going to do?” Cooper said to his wife. They were lying in bed at sunrise, when they liked to talk. His hand was on her thigh and was caressing it absently and familiarly. “What are we going to do about these characters? They’re on the street corners. Every month there are more of them. Kids, men, women, everybody. It’s a horde. They’re sleeping in the arcade, and they’re pushing those terrible grocery carts around with all their worldly belongings, and it makes me nuts to watch them. I don’t know what I’m going to do, Christine, but whatever it is, I have to do it.” With his other hand, he rubbed his eyes. “I dream about them.”
“You’re such a good person,” she said sleepily. Her hand brushed over him. “I’ve noticed that about you.”
“No, that’s wrong,” Cooper said. “This has nothing to do with good. Virtue doesn’t interest me. What this is about is not feeling crazy when I see those people.”
“So, what’s your plan?”
from “Shelter” by Charles Baxter
These are the facts:
36.2 million Americans - including 12.4 million children - don’t have access to enough healthy food to thrive. They are food insecure and at risk of hunger.
In Minnesota, an estimated 1 in 10 children lives in poverty and 1 in 3 qualify for free and reduced lunches.
Since 2000, food shelf use in Minnesota has increased by 70%.
I know people are struggling right now. Hell, we’re struggling. But this is the truth: I can’t imagine having to put Stella and Zoë to sleep hungry. I can’t imagine telling them that there is no more food in the house, that there is nothing left to eat. I can’t imagine listening to them cry because their stomachs are empty.
But it happens every day across the country. It happens every day in Minnesota.
In 1984, an organization called Share Our Strength (SOS) was started by Bill and Debbie Shore with the belief that “everyone has a strength to share in the global fight against hunger and poverty, and that in these shared strengths lie sustainable solutions.” Working with Share Our Strength, creative writing programs at universities across the country began to give readings to benefit the fight against hunger. One night a year, hundreds of writers shared their words and raised money for Share Our Strength.
Twenty-five years later, there are only a handful of writing programs still hosting readings to end hunger. Some still raise money for SOS, some raise money for local food shelves. But for the most part, these readings have disappeared.
Charles Baxter, author of novels Feast of Love, Saul & Patsy, The Soul Thief, and numerous collections of stories (and whose writing I’ve discussed here and here), was the national Co-Chair for the SOS reading initiative at one point, and he wants to continue the fight against hunger here in Minnesota with the second annual Benefit for Hunger Reading at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 27th at the University of Minnesota Coffman Memorial Theater.
Host Charles Baxter will be reading with Michael Dennis Browne, M. J. Fitzgerald, Ray Gonzalez, Patricia Hampl, and Madelon Sprengnether, all University of Minnesota Creative Writing Program faculty.
It’s free, with a suggested donation of $5 (or more or less, whatever you can afford to give), which will benefit the Second Harvest Heartland foodshelf.
I’m pleased to say that Charles Baxter is here at Mother Words today to talk a little about the benefit reading:
KH: Can you tell me a little about Share Our Strength (SOS) and the involvement of writing programs across the country in the fight against hunger?
CB: I don’t know whose idea it was to come up with autumn harvest readings for hunger relief, but I DO know that at one time there were upwards of eighty readings nationwide for this particular cause. And there was even an anthology of stories, the proceeds from which went to SOS. (These anthologies are titled Writer’s Harvest and are available, used, from Amazon.)
KH: Can you talk a little about why this issue is important to you?
CB: In my third book of stories (A Relative Stranger), there’s a story called “Shelter,” about homeless people. For some reason—who knows why?—I’m particularly disturbed by the sight and the fact of homeless people and people who are hungry. There’s so much wealth in this country, you’d think these problems wouldn’t exist at all. But they do. The main character in “Shelter” is named Cooper, and even Cooper’s wife isn’t sure why he is bothered so much by the existence of misfortune in others. Sometimes I think: well, it could have happened to anyone; it could have happened to *me*.
KH: You mentioned that a few creative writing programs are still doing benefit readings to help end hunger, but that the coordinated effort has dissolved. What made you want to renew it here in Minnesota?
CB: A couple of years ago, I was constantly angry at the state of affairs in this country, and I realized that I could remain angry or I could DO something.
Hunger in this country is a huge problem, but people don’t like to talk about it. In Minnesota, more than half the people who benefit from food shelf donations are children, 15% are senior citizens, 35% of Minnesotans report that they or someone in their family has visited a food shelf, and 15% of Minnesotans report that they or someone in their family went to bed hungry during the previous month.
Part of the problem with the readings in the 1980s was that all the money went to the national organization, which then distributed the money to places in the US where hunger or malnourishment were worst. But this reading will benefit local organizations.
On the 27th, I’ll introduce the event, speak about 2nd Harvest Heartland, and introduce the speakers, each of whom will read for about 5-7 minutes. We’ll also have a speaker from 2nd Harvest Heartland. My goals are to raise consciousness of this problem among the U of MN student body, and to raise money for hunger relief.
KH: I’m curious about the connection between art and social justice. What obligation do you think we have as writers to make a difference in the world, either through our writing or other community service initiatives?
CH: Well, that’s a tricky question, because I’m not sure that artists are obligated to do anything, as far as their art is concerned, except to create the best art they can. But as human beings, we are all obligated to each other, and if I can use what I can do, or show, as an artist to raise some money for a good cause, then that’s what I’ll do. If you’re a bricklayer, your only obligation is to do a good job, but in the rest of your life, all the great wisdom literatures say that you should practice charity in your life and hospitality toward the stranger. Artists don’t have any greater obligation than anyone else, but they surely don’t have a lesser obligation, either.
Thanks for talking with me, Charlie!
If you’re here in the Twin Cities, you can come out to this wonderful reading, and have the chance to put food in a child’s stomach. If you are outside of Minnesota, maybe you could think about donating to your local food shelf or to Share Our Strength.
So, what’s your plan?