After months of involvement with SURJ and Charlottesville Resistance Choir, author Adam Nemett saw the statue debate become a community catalyst during the events of August 11 and 12, 2017.
“I have tremendous respect for the anti-racist and anti-fascist heroes that were out there on the streets putting their bodies on the line to protect our community when the police refused to,” he says. “That experience showed how much needs to be improved here, but it also showed that there’s a lot of resilience in Charlottesville.”
Nemett notices how people band together in the face of potential disaster because he’s a longtime student of the subject. After graduating from high school in Baltimore, he went to college at Princeton during what he describes as a “pretty heavy” time. “1999 was Columbine, 2000 was the Bush/Gore election, 2001 was 9/11, and then the war that followed,” he says. “I feel like it was a period where we [as Americans] went from this naiveté, or feeling of pure safety and security in this country, to something a bit darker.”
Against this backdrop, Nemett took writing and religion classes while building something new on campus: a student organization that hosted parties and events showcasing diverse forms of music. “There was no one else that was going to come in and create the kind of social life that I and a lot of other people wanted,” he says. “So we all just said, ‘Well, let’s do it. Let’s us do it.’”
The group’s grassroots approach, taking one slow step after another, created a “mini-movement” with nearly 600 members at Princeton. Eighteen years later, MIMA Music has morphed into a global non-profit organization, one that provides innovative music education to kids and adults in underserved areas.
When Nemett started the Charlottesville chapter of MIMA two years ago, he drew on those same community-building skills, knowing “if you put in the hours and do the work, something cool can happen.”
His novel, We Can Save Us All, is a testament to his dedication (it took 12 years to write and publish), as well as to Nemett’s observations of how people behave during periods of upheaval. The story centers around a group of Princeton students leading a movement across college campuses while the world teeters on the brink of apocalypse: climate disasters create a global state of emergency and America is perpetually at war.
Those speculative aspects that “felt really far-fetched 12 years ago,” Nemett says, “now feel really realistic. Especially in terms of this very charismatic but very unhinged leader figure coming to power at a dangerous time, and other apocalyptic phenomenon going on around it. Unfortunately, the world caught up to the book a little bit.”
Crafting disaster while watching the world follow suit has been a jarring experience, he says. “Some of the book was based on 1930s and ’40s Germany. I’m Jewish and I’ve always been horrified and fascinated with how something like that could happen. In the beginning, it felt like light years in the past, and it was hard to imagine something like that could ever happen again.”
Writing the book became a thought experiment of sorts, a way for Nemett to challenge his own complacency around systems, institutions, and norms he felt could come crashing down at any minute. “What kind of organization might I have wanted to start if my issue hadn’t been ‘there’s not enough good music to listen to on campus,’ but ‘Oh, God, the power’s been out for three weeks’? What would happen if a new student movement rose up around this very dark period where the future was uncertain, and what would that look like?”
Officially out on November 13, We Can Save Us All has already garnered critical praise and landed on numerous top 10 lists. At a time when life imitates art—climate disasters loom large and political upheaval fuels fear—you might expect such a book to feed your anxiety. But after dancing with disaster for more than a decade, Nemett says he came away with a real sense of hope.
“We think of dystopia, the apocalypse, and the post-apocalyptic world in this very cinematic, Mad Max hellscape way,” he says. “Everything is terrible and everyone’s trying to kill each other over cans of soup.”
But, he says, the mob riot mentality doesn’t bear out in real life. “Historically, all the way up to Hurricane Katrina, the people on the ground do an amazing, beautiful job of banding together and creating these improvisational, mutual aid societies. The danger comes when the state or the elites or the media just want to portray it as a dog-eat-dog scenario.”
Which leads Nemett to another thought experiment. “What if it wasn’t dog-eat-dog?” he asks. “What if this destructive period is building something very progressive and evolved—a model for how civilization and communities can and should exist in the future? Maybe it looks very different. Maybe it’s simpler, harder, and there’s less comfort involved. But it might just be more human, more spiritually satisfying, and more uplifting in the long run. If we can keep our heads during these tough periods and work to help each other.”
Adam Nemett will read from and celebrate the launch of We Can Save Us All on Thursday at New Dominion Bookshop.