How to Portray Nonviolent Struggle in Fiction: An Interview with Rivera Sun

By Gabriel Ertsgaard

Rivera Sun is a change-maker, a cultural creative, a protest novelist, and an advocate for nonviolence and social justice. She is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection, The Way Between, and other novels. She is the editor of Nonviolence News. Her study guide to making change with nonviolent action is used by activist groups across the country. Her essays and writings are syndicated by Peace Voice, and have appeared in journals nationwide.


GE: Over the past decade, you’ve written numerous novels that feature nonviolent campaigns. Could you tell us a little bit about your background, both in the arts and in activism, and how that has led to the work you’re doing now?

RS: I was working as a dancer and theater in Santa Cruz, CA, when the Occupy Protests erupted. The local protest encampment took place right across the street from my house. That was kind of my initiation into activism. The Occupy Movement was wild and fantastic—and it made me curious about what structurally lay behind it in terms of organizing work. As I learned more, I wove it into my fictional writings. I think one of the most helpful things I ran across was the work of Gene Sharp.

Gene Sharp codifies power and struggle in a digestible and understandable way that can feel really empowering. His work supplants the narrative of how change happens that we inherit from our culture. In the US, we tend to believe that if we just shout loud enough, change is going to happen. But Sharp articulates why we might need to non-cooperate with the system, or intervene and get in the way, not just make our voices heard. 

At that point, I started to write novels that are based on nonviolent struggles. I try to make those as representative as possible of the movements we see globally in terms of how actions are portrayed, the sequencing of tactics, the strategies that are used, etc. That in turn led me to become a better activist. As I went on book tour with the novel, I also arranged trainings in strategy for nonviolent movements. The two have just kept blending together over the past ten years.

Beyond writing my novels, I’ve done a lot of work with various projects on translating nonviolent struggles into popular education. This work includes essays, short stories, and social media efforts. This also includes editing Nonviolence News, which collects and shares 30-50 stories of nonviolent action each week.

GE: What have you learned through your own writing process about how to craft stories of nonviolent struggles?

 RS: My first novel, Steam Drills, Treadmills, and Shooting Stars was about coal and climate change. At that point in my evolution, it definitely hinged on the “if we shout loud enough, change will happen” mentality. It was while writing The Dandelion Insurrection that I discovered Gene Sharp. In the novel, I had posited a hidden corporate dictatorship. I realized very quickly, that while I could invent the terrible scenarios of that speculative fiction novel, I didn’t really know how to get my characters out of their predicament. 

So, I actually Googled “how to bring down dictators nonviolently.” Four million hits came up! I learned about hundreds of types of nonviolent action, the strategy behind successful campaigns, and so much more. I realized that dozens of nonviolent revolutions have happened since I was a child in the 1980s. Ultimately, I rewrote Dandelion Insurrection to incorporate what I was learning. It was a much better book because of this. The portrayal of nonviolent struggle had teeth in it. It was accurate. It was powerful. It blended protest and persuasion with non-cooperation and intervention. Where there were strategic missteps, I held the characters accountable.

Nonviolent struggle requires sacrifice, but it has tremendous power and potential. It’s also a science as much as an art. There are reasons why it works. If novelists and writers portray it that way, we are doing ourselves and our societies a service. We’re helping to illuminate for the average reader what goes into a nonviolent struggle.

GE: Are there any unique pitfalls that writers need to avoid while writing stories featuring peace skills and nonviolent action?

RS: Compared to other fiction, we have an even greater task in making sure that we’re not writing in a preachy or didactic way. Nothing turns off the reader faster than that. We also want to be careful not to replicate the prevalent misconceptions about nonviolence. When I looked for other people’s writings that might show some nonviolent struggles, I found an over-portrayal of massacres. They’re very dramatic. There’s nothing more heart-wrenching in a fictional setting than to have protesters getting massacred by the opposition group. But we know from the study of nonviolent and violent conflicts that you’re ten times less likely to get killed in the context of a nonviolent struggle. So as writers, we want to make sure that we’re portraying these things as accurately as possible. 

That means digging into the science of how nonviolent struggle works. At this point in time, I feel like every writer should update themselves with this knowledge. If we were going to write a book about 18th century New England whaling culture, we’d research what kind of ships they’re sailing on, how many masts they have, what it smells like on the ship, etc. We need to bring that same rigor and critique to our portrayals of conflict.

GE: What advice do you have for crafting compelling, nonviolent characters in fiction?

RS: Often, stories of nonviolent struggle focus on the people on the podium or with the bullhorn. But you have to use your imagination to find other heroes. Who is there risking arrest? Who is making the sandwiches? Who is funding the movement? Who are all the characters making this happen? One of the core things about nonviolent struggle is that it’s participatory. It takes lots of people. It’s not just a single, powerful leader waving their magic wand and making things happen.

It takes a lot of courage to be involved in a nonviolent movement, and for writers, that’s golden material. How does someone who isn’t very courageous step into their courage? How does someone who thinks they’re courageous get tested? How do you talk about digging for our deepest human values in the context of very difficult struggles where people have done wrong, and people have been harmed? We’re not all saints in nonviolent movements. That tension in characters makes them interesting.

One of the cool things about nonviolence in real life is that it’s a much more inclusive form of conflict management. Violence often prioritizes the able-bodied, the strong, and the young over anybody else. In nonviolent heroism, you have much more space for people of varying physical abilities, varying ages, and varying backgrounds. They’re all going to bring their life experiences to how they approach struggle.

GE: We’ve discussed The Dandelion Insurrection. What are some other examples of how nonviolent action is featured in your work?

RS: For the past seven years or so, I’ve been working on a young adult series called the Ari Ara Series. This is set in a completely made-up world. It’s classic fantasy in many ways, but I’m not hinging on war and violence as the conflict method. I’m trying to show that nonviolent action and peace skills can replace those. 

This is a genre that’s completely happy with magic, dragons, and unicorns. But when you look at its motifs of conflict management, they’re often using some very unimaginative, uninventive methods: picking up a sword, fighting in a war. My question to myself was this: Is fantasy fiction still compelling if you take that violence out and replace it with nonviolence and peace skills? What I found with the Ari Ara Series is that yes, it absolutely works. In fact, it may be even more compelling as fiction.

In that series, I’m drawing on examples of peace work such as Bacha Khan’s 80,000 person peace army or Gandhi’s Shanti Sena network that grew out of the Indian self-rule struggle. I also draw on the idea of peace teams, like what Nonviolent Peaceforce does. I weave in some ideas that come more from the “peace” side of “peace and conflict studies” than from the “nonviolent action” end of the field. The field of peace and conflict studies is really a continuum—or maybe even an ecology—of tools and practices. Sometimes, there are spots where different approaches are not super-compatible, but it’s very minor compared to the ways in which they work together to resolve conflict without violence or the use of war.

In my writing work, I try to include a range of peace skills, because if we can’t imagine it, we can’t use it. In our society, we have a complete failure of imagination around conflict skills. That’s why, in fantasy, sci-fi, and movies, we see the repetition of “might makes right”—with war as the theater upon which we prove our valor and violence as how we save the day. This is a tragedy, because we are now more articulate about the skills of peace than ever before. But if our storytellers don’t start portraying these skills, how will popular culture, and thus the populace, learn to integrate them as naturally a breathing? This is what I’m after. This is my mission with my work.



Gabriel Ertsgaard is the Interviews Editor for The Peace Chronicle and Copy Editor for the literary journal Drifting Sands. He earned his Doctor of Letters from Drew University with a dissertation on environmental themes in a medieval legend. He has taught college-level English courses in the United States and China. His criticism, poetry, and fairy tales have appeared in over a dozen publications.