The week after the election, I was scheduled to guest lecture for the course in which I was serving as a teaching assistant during the fall semester. The topic of the course was the anthropology of mental health, and the week’s theme was “Culture and Depression.” That I was to lead a discussion with my undergraduate students on culture and depression the week after the election of Donald Trump felt uncanny. I returned to graduate school in the fall of 2016 after a mental-health leave during which I sought treatment for anxiety and depression, among other health problems. In the aftermath of the election, I find myself contending with questions about the personal and the political. To what extent is my health—mental, physical, emotional—tied to the political realities of my time? Is it possible that I am transitioning from a deeply private experience of depression and anxiety into a profoundly public one? How does this relate to my teaching and research?

About a month later, I found myself around a bonfire while on holiday in central Rajasthan, India when one of my Indian travel companions casually mentioned the election. Even though most of those in my company were supporters of the current Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi—who oversaw a state-sanctioned genocide of Muslims in my family’s home state of Gujarat in 2001—I offhandedly mentioned being equally terrified by Trump’s America and Modi’s India. I thought about what it means to have friendships with people who support regimes you not only disagree with, but that terrify you.

Some time after this conversation, I reread Ashis Nandy’s essay “Obituary of a Culture” (2002), published in India Seminar just months after the 2001 genocide in Gujarat. Although we have yet to see such violent persecution of marginalized groups in the United States, Nandy’s essay is a reminder of what can be lost in the face of oppression: vibrant middle-class cultures and civilized public life are replaced by justifications for crimes against humanity. While understanding that what lies ahead is an imminently dangerous future, I argue that finding joy and pleasure—not only in reading but in our whole lives—is an equally radical act.

For this, I have turned to the literary prose of Teju Cole and Zadie Smith. On the one hand, Cole’s “Migrants Welcome (2015),” published in The New Inquiry, simultaneously warns against passivity, calls for mobilization, and prompts us to move through the world graciously. On the other, Zadie Smith’s lecture “On Optimism and Despair” (2016), which she gave while accepting the Welt Literature Prize in Berlin on November 10, is an ironic reminder that even in such ideological times, “individual citizens are internally plural: have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities.” Since childhood, I have found solace in words during times of despair—whether they are personal or political—but these writers remind me that rather than offering conclusions literature, ethnography, poetry, and prose illuminate what is possible at times when it feels impossible to imagine a brighter future.