Céline Keating : On Literature and Activism


I grew up in a working-class community in Queens, New York. My parents, sister, and I lived in a small apartment that was part of a complex that sprawled over what was once farmland. I mourned the loss of land and trees that seemed to disappear daily into sprawl, I mourned the loss of friends who moved further out on Long Island, and I mourned my father, who died when I was ten years old. I longed for escape, and lived in my imagination and in those of the authors whose books I loved. In a sense it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that fiction saved my life. I believe that books save all of our lives. How else to be exposed to the breadth of experience, the diversity of cultures, the history that one gets from books, the exhilaration of entering others’ lives so intimately?  

When I was twelve or thirteen, I discovered the novel The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope, which was set during the American Revolution and told the story of an orphan visited by ghosts from the past. I desperately wanted to own it, but purchasing books was a luxury. So I did the only thing possible. Over the summer, while my mother went to work each day, I sat home and copied the novel, longhand, on ruled paper. By writing out the story, sentence by sentence, I absorbed the author’s rhythms, pacing, and plotting. In a sense, I was teaching myself how to write fiction. And because I felt a deeper connection to the characters and their world as a result, I became interested in history and politics.

In college I became involved in the antiwar and feminist movements, which further broadened my perspective of the world. After graduating with a B.A. in political science, I went cross-country to California, where I was a volunteer with Cesar Chavez’ farm workers’ union, and then returned to New York to do community organizing in Astoria, Queens, while earning a Masters in Urban Studies.

But while my education and experience was geared toward activism, the lure of books, paper, and words was equally compelling. I found work in publishing and, unable to shake the desire to become a novelist, went to City College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing

So these are the compelling themes in my life: fiction and politics. Each informs the other.


“Love,” photo by Andrew W. M. Beierle © 2010