Congratulations are in order for past contributor E.J. Levy, whose newest book, The Cape Doctor, was released this summer. E.J. was kind enough to send us her own description of the book, found below.
I’m delighted to have had my debut novel, The Cape Doctor, out from Little Brown on June 15th, after nearly a decade of work. The book is inspired by the life of Dr. James Miranda Barry–born Margaret Ann Bulkley circa 1795 in Cork, Ireland–a brilliant, irascible, dandified, army surgeon who advocated for the rights of the marginalized and was the first person known to perform a successful caesarian in Africa; Barry was caught in a sodomy scandal with the aristocratic governor of Cape Town (then the Cape Colony) in 1824, and eventually rose to the level of Inspector General, only to be discovered after death to have been “a perfect female” and to have carried a pregnancy late to term.
In the 150 years since Barry died, the doctor has been celebrated as both a feminist icon (as the first female-born person to receive a medical degree in the UK, 50 years before Elizabeth Garrett Anderson would, and 35 years before Elizabeth Blackwell would earn her degree in the US) and more recently as a trans icon. Both are valid interpretations in my view. I agree with biographer Jeremy Dronfield (author of Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time) who has said that he sees validity in both a feminist and a trans reading of Barry’s life, but he rejects any effort to impose one interpretation to the exclusion of the other or to present one as definitive. Mine is one reading of a richly ambiguous historical record of the fascinating and courageous life of Margaret Bulkley and James Barry. In writing the book, I was aiming for something like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando–in which the protagonist changes sex over centuries–but I think I’ve ended up with something closer to Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield.
I have changed Barry’s name to be clear that mine is a work of fiction. But it has felt at times more like a seance. I first learned of Barry on a trip to Cape Town; as we traveled around the city and into the countryside, I felt a little possessed by that spirit, as if Dr. Barry was whispering in my ear; I’m delighted that others have a chance to hear that same voice now.
I’m gratified that Booklist has given The Cape Doctor a Starred Review, calling it “Remarkable…Absolutely superb… beautifully written…In sum, an unforgettable work of art that deserves raves.” The book was also named among Barnes & Noble’s “Best 100 Books of Summer” and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.
I hope The Cape Doctor helps bring wider attention to and awareness of the remarkable life of both Margaret and James.
Jane Zwart teaches at Calvin University, where she also co-directs the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, The Poetry Review (UK), and TriQuarterly, as well as other journals and magazines.
Jane’s Poem, “Still Life With”, originally published in Basalt:
Still Life With
There is nothing with which
you can still life.
Even so, the painter strives
in his atelier to ransom hams
and greater his art
who can garnish the dish
with a blood-sozzled fly.
Less stunning are the lobsters
and fish in sequin sheaths
is the unplucked duck
that dangles on the wall.
There is nothing with which
you can still life.
Even the veriest vase
is subject to cracks
as sure as silver ewers cloud
and handmade goblets drip
glass is viscous,
who waits and waits.
There is nothing with which
you can still life.
Even the twin halves
of fruits ferment
and peaches’ cheeks
as the jowls of a gran
who takes her dentures out.
Art cannot halt
this lavish thing
With life still so unsated
and so corruptible,
can still it,
shifty iridescent life.
Jane’s Poem, “Rarity”, originally published in The Shore:
My sons, given crayon bins, mine for the rarities: cadmium
red and razzmatazz. Given a baseball diamond, they kneel
in a kibble of limestone, each sifting for chipped jewels,
each sure to come home with his fist of small stones, asking
to be told they are gems. Already they have learned to want
what is scarce.
I want to draw such afternoons
a corral of colored wax. I want to rake a moat around them,
to defend as an island this trove of gravel, this now.
Jane’s Poem, “I read that the moon is rusting”, originally published in Wilderness:
I read that the moon is rusting
My son defines time--its river, not its measure--
as the way one event changes into another.
I am letting what my son knows of time
climb and turn a laddered wheel in my mind.
I am letting the river run the mill that changes
one kind of unknowing into another.
. . .
Once a student told me that her mother kept
vases of flowers long past their prime.
She thought them still beautiful, wizened tulips,
their petals knuckling into pecans.
. . .
I read that the moon is rusting. Here on earth
a breeze kicked up by passing cars
fans a dead katydid. Invisible thumbs shuffle
her wings’ gauzy underthings.
. . .
One event is turning into another. My son grows
tall but is still young enough to trail
a hand, offhandedly, in the current that carries him.
There is so little we can demand from time
but I would ask to be like a tulip, like a katydid,
like the henna-chinned moon:
one of those who, done or undone, changes next
into another kind of wonder.
The following is an interview conducted by Superstition Review‘s Poetry Editor, Carolina Quintero, on April 27, 2021. It regards Jane’s poetry, looking specifically at both her process and inspirations.
Carolina Quintero: Hi, Jane! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview with me. It was such a joy reading your poetry. You have such grace with your word choice and craft… Motherhood is a frequent theme in your work. How has your writing evolved through motherhood?
Jane Zwart: Early on, having kids meant I wrote fewer poems, but that was a matter of time and mental space, not any shortage of material. On the contrary, the raw material I found for poetry multiplied wildly when my boys were born. Of course it did. Babies are fragile enough that you can see the miracles pulsing under their skin and gripped in their tiny irrational hands. As for toddlers, they tutor you in the ways language works and breaks, its patterns and exceptions; in picking up syntax, they are full of defiance and delight, and that’s a good thing for a writer to steep in. So I did, when my boys were little, rake in so many gems. But most of them I had to store for those years, that season. Which is why I labeled a folder “poem crumbs” and stuffed it with notes, giving myself something to mine when they got bigger, more independent. I’ll add this: as Wendell (11) and Ambrose (7) grow older, I find whole lines of poetry in things they say. I borrow their wonder. And their tenderness toward the world heightens my tenderness toward the world.
CQ: Your poetry is dense with imagery and concise with word choice. What is your process like to achieve these traits in your work?
JZ: Well, thank you. The images come to me first, almost always, and I suppose that’s why the poems are, as you say, “dense with imagery.” Sometimes that density occurs collage-wise, through a bunch of images testing their angles and echoes against each other. But sometimes in a poem, a single image grows dense; the poem stuffs and coats the picture or object with so many hints and arguments. And this will sound foolish, but for me the process behind wielding imagery is looking and thinking. I owe my art history professors, Henry Luttikhuizen and Charles Young, a huge debt of gratitude for training me to do just that: to look and to think. I’m also indebted when it comes to word choice. To my parents, who filled our house with shelves and shelves of words. To other poets, who have sent me to the dictionary but who have also let me fall in love with perfectly ordinary words transfigured by their neighbors on the page. And to Roget.
CQ: What inspired you to write about time and its unpredictability?
JZ: The easiest way to answer this question would be to name writers I love who capture the way time snags, how the past and future breathe down the neck of the present, how history loops. I think of novelists first: Toni Morrison, W.G. Sebald, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, Virginia Woolf, David Mitchell. But of course the answer is also subjective, and for me it has to do with the awful mortality of all these people I love, the shortness of a life–which I hold in tension with the belief that our souls are not mortal but, rather, each breathed by God into the little husk of a self. I use poetry, then, to adjust my grasp on time. A poem slows time, a little, but it is also a way of loosening my grasp on the perishable world of people and things that I tend to hold too tightly. After all, to write something is to relinquish it as well as to preserve it.
CQ: What are your poetic influences as of late?
JZ: Amit Majmudar. All of his books–What He Did in Solitary is the most recent–have influenced me. Or at least I hope they have. Amit balances wit and weight so deftly; with him, “the work is play for mortal stakes,” as Frost put it. Amit, though, has also influenced me more directly–an immense kindness on his part. Over the past couple years, he and I have “mirror-written” a great deal, taking turns conjuring titles for which we both then improvise a poem, swapping them when time’s up. Put simply, Amit has taught me to write to fill in a given shape. Before, I always waited on the poem to sprout on its own. But there are many others, too. For instance, I love Catherine Pierce’s work so much that it borders on covetise. And her new book, Danger Days, has more or less converted my husband into reading contemporary poets to whom he is not married–no small feat. Who else? Well, Danusha Laméris’s Bonfire Opera is vivid and heartbreaking and heartmending, and having finished it, I still keep it in my bag for good company in long lines. And I return to Christian Wiman and Naomi Shihab Nye and Wisława Szymborska’s poems (Szymborksa’s in translation) again and again. Finally, I cannot wait to be further influenced by Kasey Jueds’s new book (I loved Keeper), Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell, and W.S. Herbert’s Dear Specimen.
CQ: What advice would you give to young writers?
JZ: Read. Read the dead and the living. Read in translation. Read the work of writers who make you feel less lonely and of writers who feel like absolute strangers. Pay the world around you the sweetest, fiercest attention that you can, and take notes. Write. Write hoping that you outgrow your art again and again. Write as if you were unafraid. Write as if you were patient. Find your kin. Review books. Send fan mail. Register for the workshop. Attend the reading.
CQ: What are you currently working on in your writing?
JZ: I keep writing poems, and I keep writing book reviews. I keep trying to figure out where to prune for clarity’s sake and where to embellish for beauty’s. I’m also trying to find a publisher for my full-length manuscript. The odds are always so slender, of course, but perhaps this latest incarnation of the thing–which the brilliant poet W.S. Herbert reordered for me, schooling me in manuscript construction along the way–will be lucky. I do think a little luck is a must.
Brittney Corrigan is the author of the poetry collections Navigation, 40 Weeks, and most recently, Breaking, a chapbook responding to events in the news over the past several years. Daughters, a series of persona poems in the voices of daughters of various characters from folklore, mythology, and popular culture, is forthcoming from Airlie Press in September, 2021. Corrigan was raised in Colorado and has lived in Portland, Oregon for the past three decades, where she is an alumna and employee of Reed College. She is currently at work on her first short story collection and on a collection of poems about climate change and the Anthropocene age.
Brittney’s poem, “Whale Fall”, originally published in Thalia:
The ocean’s innumerable tiny mouths
await the muffled impact like baby birds.
Sediment clouds up at the deadened
settling, and the flesh is set upon. How
the weight of loss can be beautiful
in its opening. Luminous worms undulate
like party streamers as isopods
and lobsters arrive to feast. This body
holds an ecosystem unto itself: species
found nowhere else but here, cleaved
to the sunken remains. Sleeper sharks
move in slow and gentle, ease
the messy carcass to gleaming bones.
And then, how the skeletal rafters
of grief fuzz and bloom. How sometimes
the coldest depths allow for such measured
undoing. All the while hungry lives
swarm and spread, come to stay.
Limpets attach to the unhidden core. Sorrow
in its abundance crushes, cycles, feeds.
How the body rests, rich in what sustains.
Brittney’s poem, “Iteration”, originally published in Feral:
after the Aldabra rail
One flightless bird evolves twice, before and after extinction.
Collective bodies remember what it is to feel safe.
You remember this, too. Before the world came lapping.
A coral atoll—lagoon brimming with black-tipped sharks,
no people—flourishes. Giant tortoises wander between
turquoise worlds of sea and sky. The birds have no
reason to fly away. A body with no enemies simplifies.
There was a time when you didn’t need wings.
Nothing is wasted. The birds push their long, ruddy necks
through the coastal grass. Nothing chases them down.
There was a time when you never looked behind you.
The first time the ocean takes the island, every species on it
goes extinct. A mass drowning. Thousands of years later,
the water recedes. Fossils and sand surface; flora blooms.
The bird’s white-throated cousins land on the shores.
There was a time when your throat was open to the sky.
The bird evolves again. Again relinquishes its wings.
Again has no enemies. Again is a singular kind of being.
You can do this, too. Sharks circle but can’t cross land.
Bodies remold. Bodies wingless. Bones tell stories. Versions
of stories. You recolonize your body. What it is to survive.
Brittney’s poem, “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit”, originally published in The Wild Word:
The night a neighbor girl knocks on our door,
baby rabbit in the bowl of her hands, I place
it in a darkened box of straw, know it won’t
make it to morning. My grandmother’s tradition
for the first day of each month: stand at the edge
of the bed upon waking, make a wish, yell
Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit! and jump. Tiny rabbit
body in my palm, soft and cold and still.
Rabbit sitting on the moon, pestling herbs
for the gods. A chant of white or grey rabbits
to ward off smoke. The Black Rabbit of Inlé:
his taking of this small life, his taking of my
grandmother when I was still small. I must
give this little un-rabbit back to the ground.
Oh, to be so frightened that your heart cannot
go on. But first, I must wake my young child.
On this first of the month, I ease tangles
separate through my hands. Sense something
quivering just beneath what’s real as I leave
the room. From down the hall, I hear
the bedframe sigh. Little undone heart cupped
in my hands. Little voice shouting a herd
of rabbits onto the floorboards. I hop
from foot to foot as they run past.
The following is an interview conducted on April 28, 2021, by Superstition Review‘s Poetry Editor, Carolina Quintero. It is in regards to Brittney’s works, writing process, and inspirations.
Carolina Quintero:Hello, Brittney! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview with me. I really enjoyed reading your poetry. You have such a passion for animals and our environment and you put their importance into beautiful words. I also thought it was really striking and genius how you connect animal life to human life…Your writing frequently involves animals and the environment. What experiences or special interests have driven you to center your writing around this topic?
Brittney Corrigan: I’ve been drawn to animals and the natural world since I was a small child. I grew up in the gorgeous landscape of Colorado where my family spent a lot of time in the mountains and generally outdoors. And when I wasn’t playing outside or surrounded by a zoo’s worth of pets, I was watching episodes of Wild Kingdom. For years I wanted to become a marine biologist, drawn to the ocean and its creatures from my land-locked home. Though I’ve always felt connected with and protective of the environment, living in Oregon for the past three decades—with its wild coasts, wild animals, and wildfires—has strengthened that affinity and resolve. As the realities of climate change have made their way into my consciousness over the years—from my founding of an “environmental action club” in high school in the 1980s, to my love for the flora and fauna of the place where I live, to raising up my children in a world fraught with natural disasters and extinctions—I wanted to move toward action to preserve this planet and the life forms with which we share it, beginning with bringing awareness to these issues through my writing.
CQ:Your poems carry thorough knowledge about animals and ecosystems. What inspires you to learn about this?
BC: Voracious curiosity! I subscribe to countless email newsletters that showcase all things weird, wild, and wonderful (such as Atlas Obscura and National Geographic), and I love listening to podcasts of that ilk, as well (such as RadioLab and Ologies). I keep a running document of links to articles and oddities I find particularly fascinating that I come back to time and again to mine ideas for my work. In both my science-oriented poetry and my short fiction, the research is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I love diving headlong into educating myself about a place or a species that I haven’t encountered before or that I just want to learn more about. In a high school English class, my teacher once presented me with a quote by Henry James: “Be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” I carry that desire to notice, explore, and elucidate the world around me into my writing life.
CQ:What advocacy do you hope your poems will achieve? What audience do you hope your poems will reach?
BC: By bringing the plight of various ecosystems and species into my work, I hope to make what can seem like an overwhelming problem to tackle both particular and personal. I think if folks feel connected to the natural world and its creatures in specific, tangible ways, they will want to help and make change in small, meaningful ways. I hope that my poems reach folks of many interests, backgrounds, and generations and move them to learn more, and to do more, to combat climate change, extinction, and the effects of our current Anthropocene age.
CQ:What are your poetic influences as of late?
BC: My current favorite poets are Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Ada Limón, Ross Gay, Natalie Diaz, and Camille Dungy. I’m also enjoying reading essays on topics of extinction and the natural world by writers such as Michelle Nijhuis, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Elena Passarello, Linda Hogan, and Alexis Pauline Gumbs.
CQ:What advice would you give to young writers?
BC: I would say start with what you know and move outward toward your passions and ideas or topics you want to find out more about. First write for yourself, and then, when you are ready to share your writing with others, find your people. Seek out your fellow writers and readers with whom to share your work. Find a group of folks you trust and can share your roughest drafts with, and also find the mentors whose feedback will help your writing become stronger. And don’t be afraid to write outside of the boundaries you’ve been taught or the parameters you’ve been given. Break the rules and bust the genres open.
CQ:What are you currently working on in your writing?
BC: I recently completed a manuscript of poems about climate change, extinction, and the Anthropocene age. I’m now exploring those same topics in my first collection of short stories. As to poetry, I think science, ecology, and the natural world will always find their way into my work. I’m not sure exactly what’s next, but I’ve no doubt it will reveal itself to me, like bright animal eyes blinking out of the dark.
On March 15, past contributor, author of nine books (poetry, fiction, and nonfiction), Daniel Olivas, was invited on to the Beckett’s Babies podcast. Within the podcast, the group discussed topics such as Daniel’s play, Waiting for Godínez, being selected for the Playwrights’ Arena 2020 Summer Reading Series, Daniel’s first memory, how he has been selected for Circle X Theatre Co.’s inaugural Evolving Playwrights Group where he is adapting his 2011 novel, The Book of Want, with a planned Zoom reading in 2021, among a variety of other matters.
The interesting thing about getting old is watching it unfold. This is applied science: biology in action, psychology and sociology revealed in real time as I experience the changes in my body and brain. I can react to others’ responses or my own, or I can step back and withhold all judgment. I’m both participant and observer.
I’ve written about aging, about post-seventy tattoos and half-marathons, physical decline in spite of excellent health, dwindling opportunities and increased invisibility, a thicker skin and fuck ‘em attitude about things that used to bother me. The challenge, though, as a writer, is to make this process and my experiences appealing to readers young and old. The former may be inclined to glaze over and think, what has this to do with me? B-o-r-i-n-g. The latter might appreciate commonality, feel less isolated in their own experience, or they might choose to avert their eyes, say I’ve got my own shit to deal with, she doesn’t know the half of it.
Since Baby Boomers entered their seventies they’re writing about aging too, as if they discovered it, expressing the indignity of it all, their painful joints or purported joys, or just plain denial as they grasp at perpetual youth, pronounce seventy to be the new fifty. But I got there first by a few years, and I intend to stay in the conversation. If all else fails, I’ll beat them to eighty and have new stories to tell before they catch up again.
There is a fish in the mirror, this very first line in the “This Mournable Body,” a novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga, distorts the reality that what you see out there, probably and/or actually, is not what it is; and opens up the truth that the “coolest cruising” of our expectations and the arrival of our promised land are always either suspended or ebbing.
This Mournable Body (Graywolf, 2018 & Faber & Faber, 2020), one of the shortlisted fiction for the 2020 Booker Prize, is the last installment of her trilogy, Nervous Conditions (1988), which was enlisted in the list of BBC’s top 100 books that shaped the world, which she wrote at the advent of Zimbabwean independence but its narrative line was set during the colonial Rhodesia in the early 1960s when the nation and the land were going through the identity crisis, a story of Zimbabwean girl’s, Tambudzai Sigauke, enlightenment with that “it’s bad enough . . . when a country gets colonized, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end” and she started her struggle in pursuit of hope to liberate herself, at first, from the circle of poverty, darkness of ignorance and injustice of patriarchy; then to explore her identity as a colonized black African, in a broader sense, “the crisis of personhood” as Ms. Tsitsi Dangarembga said in an interview with Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
As a very practical woman and properly conscious about the reality of the world Dangarembga had changed her territory of creative endeavor from literature – a psychologically charged and solitary work process for which she needed 400 dollar and a room of her own as Virginia Woolf prescribed – to film which requires a more physically engaged schedule, and took her eighteen years of seclusion, subsequently, to publish the second part “The Book of Not” (2006), set in the turbulent times of the Zimbabwe’s war of emancipation in the late 1970s when Tambu had gone through a feeling of indignant displeasure of the image of her sister Netsai’s dismembered leg and the encounter of uncle Babamukuru’s twinge spinal cord encamped with bullet “so to the scars of war were added the complications of Independence” in her life.
As Nervous Conditions, the title was scrounged from the preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961)- a refutation of colonization and an anatomy of dehumanization – written by Jean-Paul Sartre, is an archetype of Old Colonialism, “This Mournable Body” is the kaleidoscope of New Colonialism, the title is also sprung from the essay “Unmournable Bodies” (2015), a subjective reaction to the Occidental lamentation over the slaughtered journalists of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical Parisian journal, by Teju Cole who commented in conclusion “that incontestability, that unmournability, just as much as the massacre in Paris, is the clear and present danger to our collective liberté.”
Tambu, in Nervous Condition, equated education as the emancipation from poverty but when she was in Sacred school she saw the hidden perpetrator- her blackness as a source of her wretchedness whereas, in This Mournable Body, she equates the independence or decolonization as the flowerbed of personhood but at the different stages of her career she experiences tones of “fresh humiliations” of old bondage and gets the taste of “losing hope” of new freedom as an effect she realizes that the rejection of the dignity of personhood, in the political logic, is the root of her domestication and dejection.
The novel represents the ceaseless conflict between our expectations and reality both in an individual and the national level either parallel or reciprocally. In childhood Tambu thought her high achievement lay in the sacrifice of Shona, her indigenous language, in the name of imperialist language and education would give her prosperity and lofty social status. But her education seems to be a raucous failure when she writes a letter, in chapter 6″ to her cousin Nyasha, a film maker in Germany as a fictionalization of Dangarembga’s real life, “to break away from the implacable terror of every day” in Zimbabwe and tears it up thinking that “if you cannot build a life in your own country, how will you do so in another ” and she submerged into a more screeching misery that “the vegetables become too disgusting to eat, as first cooking oil then salt fall off your shopping list… Every minute of each twenty -four hours taunts you with what you are reduced to.” Surprisingly, Tambu, in chapter 11, sets her foot on the “new realm of impossibility” when her cousin returns Zimbabwe “in spite of her degree, in Europe” radiating the failure of continental dreams with such “liminal complexity.”
Tambu used to think that breaking the colonial servitude and racial segregation would give her the possibilities to devour her personhood, however, in her antique age after leaving a stagnant job at the advertising agency and taking an unbalanced refuge, constantly in the fear of deportation, in a hostel for young women in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, then she rents an economical cottage “to live” from a white widow. There she comes to learn (in chapter 7) that “the moon shadows have edges sharp as knives” in a close conversion with Christine (the niece of the white widow) that the independence she had got through her “fruitless war” with “full of lairs” is shining with “false hope” as like Tambu’s “worthless education intensifying” her ludicrous miseries and distresses. In chapter 12 where Tambu hears Mainini, her war veteran aunt’s testimonies of disappointments and violence that have been popped up from colonial war and domestic riots:
“Yes, sometimes we wondered why we went to war when we came back and everyone was shocked and began to hate us. … Mainini pauses, remembering her little son whom she had left to fight in conviction that her risk was the down payment on a better life for both of them. … When the Rhodesian soldiers came, the young boy ran back to kraal… in order to prevent the Rhodesian butchering the entire herd. Instead, the soldiers drove bullets through the boy’s back… ripped his stomach open and spread his intensities on the sand that was mixed with cow dung.”
Tracey Stevenson, her previous employer, appoints Tambu in her ecotourism enterprise named Green Jacaranda Getaway Safaris in the farmland targeting the European audiences and prospects. In the thriving time of their tourism venture, then President Robert Mugabe’s “government at independence transformed much of the settlement into a home-ownership area” and “the trouble with the inheritance laws in the country” pushes them to find a new spot in the Tambu’s homestead and again she hears a hyena’s laughing sound of the downfall of her economic security and mental discomfort in her head on; and the narrator says to Tambu: “The tourist brochures you composed said your country’s village women rub their cow pat floors until they shine like the cement floor. The brochure lied. There are no shines in your memory. Your mother’s floors are never shown with anything. Nothing ever glittered or sparkled.” These lines utterly open up the very naked lies of history that the liberators assured her the Promised Land but Tambu feels there is no true freedom she ever gets, only she has just transferred from colonial captivity to democratic domestication.
This “uneasy conscience,” Sartre commented in the preface, in “the system which depends on overexploitation, as you know, would be ruined.” You will see the similar kind of reverse colonization or the revenge of the past in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace in the post-apartheid South Africa. Who to blame elite settlers or “colonized minds?” The undisputable answer is not near to get.
Tambu falls into the crisis of personhood, as like an assessment test, in the chapter 8 & 9, she becomes the person she was not and “exhaustion propels [her] over the border of the wakefulness into a sleep from which [she] half hope [she] will not wake.” She feels an agony at her biology class at A level towards the older students who “were toddlers at independence” but have the privileges of manicures at the luxurious saloons and this tardiness make her to punish immorally and almost kills Elizabeth and she falls into a mental breakdown. At the clinic she expresses her embarrassment to Dr. Winton said: “I don’t have the things that make me better. I want to be better. I want the things that make me.” In an “anguished composition” of shame and sorrow Tambu feels a “weakness of contrition,” consequently, to deplete her tormentation, she seeks retribution from Elizabeth’s family by paying her medical bill to recover in chapter 17. But shockingly in chapter 18, Tambu deceives her sense of personhood spending all the savings for Elizabeth to her long cherished manicures and pedicures, to the cinema complex on Robert Mugabe Avenue, for enjoying the weekends in Harare Gardens and for “occult and spiritual divining” at Queen Victoria library. The reader will taste another intense degree of downslide of Tambu’s morality in chapter 19 where she makes a transaction with her mother by promising a leg for Netsai, her sister, “as a kind of barter for the programme” of the finest organic tourism spot for the Westerns as if Tambu “bloated tongues spill onto the earth” where her “umbilical cord is buried.”
From the ebbing, the first part, to the arrival, the last part, most of the pronounced characters either young/old, black/white or central/peripheral are women and their contributions to creating and developing a nation and branding and uplifting the spirits of the traditions and cultures of a country which are very much unique in recent literary landscapes. Dangarembga shows us how Zimbabwean war-women like Christine, Netsai and Mailini have been bearing all the sufferings and the nightmares in their lives as the narrator says:
The women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before… it is rumored the blood stopped flowing to their wombs the first time they killed a person. … so that the ancestors tied up the nation’s prosperity in repugnance at the awfulness of it, just they had done to the women’s wombs.”
As like the representation of the spirit of Zimbabwean women, as Tambu boastfully says, they “shriek with grief and throw themselves around. They go to war. They drug patients in order to go ahead.” The reader will gradually come to feel the psychological tenacity a woman can go through in a life. To visualize these coarse episodes of women psyche, Dangaremga flares up some motifs of an army of crawling and creeping ants and spiders over her neck and across her skull; a growling and laughing hyena into her head and her flowing womb down her hip bones.
This Mournable Body was a title of a fiction until 28th of July 2020 but it is not a fiction anymore after 31st of July 2020 the day she has been arrested by Zimbabwean security forces only because she has violated the law against anti-corruption demonstration in protest of detainment of the Zimbabwean journalists who are reporting, gathering and protesting the President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government policies that pushing the fledgling country in the full destitution; and the authority has called the demonstration a ‘planned insurrection.’ The novel is real now like her own life when she has, on the same day, tweeted: “Friends, here is a principle. If you want your suffering to end, you have to act. Action comes from hope. This the principle of faith and action.” And the tweet notifies us that literature is a political act itself as well as an artful product; and journalism is not a crime. The trilogy is a perfect blending of facts and fiction, Dangarembga has been carrying Tambu on her shoulder for thirty years, correspondingly, Tambu has been growing with her woes in pace with Zimbabwe’s cry of despair. Moreover, the narrative view of the second person merges the characters and readers with such a dexterity that will push you to feel as if it is your own private story. This Mournable Body is a phenomenal tour de force of human freedom and dignity, of women solidarity, of reality and its desperation, is a canonical and sublime knowledge of Zimbabwean history.
Lynn Sloan is a photographer and the author of This Far Isn’t Far Enough, a story collection, and Principles of Navigation, a novel, chosen for Chicago Book Review’s Best Books of 2015. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Shenandoah, American Literary Fiction, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and included in NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally. For many years she taught photography in the MFA program of Columbia College Chicago, where she founded Occasional Readings in Photography and contributed to Afterimage, Art Week, and Exposure.
Patricia Ann McNair has managed a gas station, served as a medical volunteer in Honduras, sold pots and pans door to door, tended bar and breaded mushrooms, worked on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and now teaches in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. Her acclaimed short story collection Responsible Adults was released in December 2020 by Cornerstone Press. McNair’s The Temple of Air received Southern Illinois University’s Devil’s Kitchen Readers Award and the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award. And These Are The Good Times was a Montaigne Medal finalist. She lives in Chicago with her husband, visual artist Philip Hartigan.
This interview is with past contributor, Patricia Ann McNair, conducted by Lynn Sloan, on March 1, 2021. It is in regards to Patricia’s new story collection, Responsible Adults.
Lynn Sloan:Patty, I’ve enjoyed and admired your work for years, so it’s a real treat to have a chance to ask you about your writing and your new story collection, Responsible Adults. Great title. It’s the title of one of your stories, but what it suggests, a bad situation where a sound, responsible adult is needed, can be applied broadly to this entire collection. Reversing those two words of the title to adults responsible also works. In these stories, it is usually the adult, the one in charge, who is responsible for the harm done. When in the process of pulling together this collection did you choose this title?
Patricia Ann McNair: Hello, Lynn, and what a pleasure to talk with you as well! I think you are exactly right that these stories and the situations the characters find themselves in ache for the intervention of a responsible adult. That was something that became clear to me as I started to put these pieces into a binder to see what they might look like as a collection. I hadn’t finished the story that the title Responsible Adults comes from quite yet, and in a way that has never happened before, the title for the collection came to me before I had a story for it. I just liked the sound of it, Responsible Adults, especially as I thought of it in regards to the relationships in the stories. “Who is responsible here” can have a different meaning from “Who is responsible for this?” One implies a sort of blame, an insinuation of guilt, the other assumes that someone is in charge. Each of these ideas speaks to my stories in some way, so, yeah, the title stuck with me. And then I had to find one of my unfinished, untitled stories that might make use of those two words as well. A sort of backward approach for me; I usually like to find a title that has surfaced organically in a story and can do double duty for the collection. But this time the title asserted itself into and onto the book.
LS: Most of your stories involve parents and their children. Though swift and taut, almost all of your stories cover an arc of many years, even when the present moment of the story lasts only a few minutes. In “Good News or Money,” an adult daughter calls her estranged father and leaves a series of phone messages. In “Responsible Adults,” the narrator says, “Time was something stretchy to me, long and short, short and long.” Can you talk about time in your stories?
PAM: I have always admired the kind of story that makes the reader feel as though the world of it existed before the first line, and will continue in some way after the last one. So as a writer, I need to establish a sort of continuum of time in the pages. Funnily enough, I usually do that through breaking the chronology of the story. A character—if we are trying to make them human—in any given moment has other moments behind them, and more ahead (usually, that is, unless we are talking about Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” for instance). I like to visit those moments that are outside of the story, as a character would. “Good News or Money” features a seventeen-year-old girl who carries a lot of crappy memories that she is unwilling to let her father forget, so she excises them in her phone message. The story is meant to read as though it were happening in real-time, pauses and interruptions and all. And time is something stretchy to me, too, perhaps in this historical moment it is to all of us. In “What Girls Want” I especially jump around in time, in narrative distance, and this is partly because of the way the narrator is willing—and not—to admit their involvement in things, in the lives of others. His self-awareness evolves, his confessions are difficult and sporadic, his culpability spans years.
LS:In several of these stories, the relationship of care or responsibility is outside the family—a cop in “Serve and Protect,” and a teacher with her own troubles who faces a difficult teenage student in “Regarding Alix.” You teach writing, you’re a professor, you know the complications and limits of responsibilities of a teacher. Did that make this story easy to write or hard?
PAM: “Regarding Alix” is one of the more autobiographical stories in the book (although all of them have some part of me, some memory or observation or emotional tug of mine). In that sense, it was easy to write because of the closeness I had to the situation of teaching a group of teen-aged writing students at a boarding school. It was right after 9/11. During, really; our first day of the semester was September 11. Making that setting and using that tension—the overwhelming sadness and worry we all felt—apparent on the page was not too difficult. But I am interested in this idea of the responsibility of teachers, perhaps especially right now while we all have to renegotiate the way we teach and interact with our students. There was some of that when the towers went down, too. So much was out of our control, out of the control of our students. It is amazing to me that we survive these things, but we usually do. This current crisis is ongoing, and every day we hear about how students are suffering, struggling. And I can’t help think about us, too, the teachers. We are expected to be the responsible adults here, some would say we are paid to be. And yet, as in “Regarding Alix,” we are not always fully equipped to make things better. I think I veered away from the heart of your question there. Easy to write, maybe, but hard to do. Hard to shoulder my (our, their) responsibilities and to admit my (our, their) failings.
LS: One of my favorite stories is “What Girls Want” in which the dad blows up a suburban version of the American dream during an afternoon barbeque, alienating forever his wife and young daughter. But it’s his relationship to a neighbor kid, the boy who asked him, “What do girls want?” who later exposes the irrevocable damage the dad has done to himself. I loved this. How did you decide to use a secondary character in such a pivotal way?
PAM: Some years ago I saw a man I had known in college on the train. He, like I, was nearing middle age, and was a very different human than he was when I knew him. He had been an odd and sensitive kid in college; the man on the train was out of it, rocking and smiling and overdressed for the summer day in a heavy coat. He was a bit of a mess, actually. I carried that image with me for a long time; I saw him more than once, he didn’t remember me, I could tell. I looked for him whenever I was on that line at the end of the day. I suppose I knew I wanted to write a story about someone like him. Someone who gets lost as they become an adult, who migrates quite a ways from the nerdy, weird, interesting young person they were. The first draft of “What Girls Want” started with my recreated character on the train, but that wasn’t working. I needed to explore how he got there. I imagined him as a child, as someone that was both smart and annoying, in that way kids can be especially to some unaware adults. So I had to create a flawed, unaware adult. From there I let the character—Gregory—be more of a wrench than the gears of the story. His role was to mess things up for the main character—or at least to give the main character someone to blame for the things he messes up. The heart of the story is the stepfather/daughter relationship, and Gregory provides a sort of triangulation that pulls at that, creating an uneasy balance.
LS:People act badly in your stories and they harm others, others who rely on them. While your sympathy, and ours, is with the harmed, you also make us understand the anguish of those who cause the damage. At what point in writing do you explore this side?
PAM: God, we all make mistakes, don’t we? I don’t know about you, but every time I do something stupid or harmful (usually without intention) I hold so much guilt about it! I try not to be afraid of admitting when I mess up, but I also want to figure out why I do, and maybe try to explain it to whomever I have messed up against. I know I start making a story with an awareness of trouble, of bad behavior. That trouble happens before I can figure out much else, but it is never enough on its own to make a very good story. The people I know, the people I grew up with, the adults who were responsible in my life (and weren’t) are multifaceted. They misstepped, they fell and hurt themselves, maybe fell on someone else in the process. But that doesn’t always mean they shouldn’t be able to try to get up and step again. Even as I make my way through this answer, I am aware that there are folks I really do believe don’t deserve a second chance or our understanding. People who were recently in charge of so much, did so much damage. Some part of me does not believe that they are capable of change or betterment or even self-reflection. But in the everyday way of things, people screw up, and in my fiction, I believe it is important to consider why that might be, or what the consequences of the bad behavior might be on the doer, or how they might change because of it. In fiction—maybe more than in life, is this true?—the bad guys need to have more depth than just their badness. In fiction, characters must suffer their wounds. We, their writers, and they, the characters, owe that to the readers.
LS: As a writer who is always reaching for the next challenge, what comes next?
PAM: Well, immediately what comes next is surviving this semester of remote instruction. While I am teaching, it is hard for me to sink into the work I want to do, the writing of things other than assignments in a learning management system, comments on student work, complaints in my journal. This has always been the case for me, not just during this pandemic. But! But in just a few weeks I will turn my attention back to the work of a novel-in-progress. I am working on a story that takes place in a lake community in the seventies. There is infidelity, race issues, abortion, nosey neighbors. A sort of wet Peyton Place, you might say. Thank you for asking!
To order your copy of Responsible Adults click here. Also, be sure to also check out Lynn Sloan’s website as well as Patricia’s website, Twitter, and past work in Issue 3.
Following is an interview conducted by Superstition Review‘s Poetry Editor, Erin Peters.
Jaclyn Youhana Garver is a freelance writer in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She writes fiction and poetry, and she has been featured in Narrow Road, Poets Reading the News, and Prometheus Dreaming (forthcoming). Her work has also been chosen by the Wick Poetry Center as a Traveling Stanza selection.
A COLLEGE GIRL MAKES WARDROBE DECISIONS BASED ON THE POSSIBILITY OF A RANDOM TSA SCREENING
White kid gloves / cinched waist / her perched hat the
precise plum match to her two-piece suit / a corsage
(seriously, a goddamned corsage)
/ a Cherries in the Snow pout / a blushing visage
coral or rose / a fur, perhaps, in beaver or lamb.
Pajama pants, peppered in cartoons / flip flops
with jewels that stud the thongs / pigtails
(seriously, goddamn pigtails)
/ a gray T-shirt that boasts,
“Journalists do it daily.”
Don’t look at me, Terry, standing in line. I know
you’ve a quota to meet, so many at random
searches to complete to assure you don’t permit on
the plane any drugs, bombs or hydrogen dioxide.
(Water, Terry, I’m talking about water.)
It doesn’t matter, though. You’ll search me nonetheless,
just like that agent last time and the agent who’ll be next.
And anyways, I’ll stick with PJs and pigtails, my sandwich
board to shout I’m threatening like sidewalk chalk, an eagle scout, freckles, and winks, but apparently, the extra melanin
in my skin, a gift from my father, means you must pull me
from the line, away from my friends—none of whom you
also select at random, I see, goddamn it, Terry—so you
run the backs of your Caucasian hands along my Persian arms,
my cartooned inseam, my Assyrian torso. Then you make me move
my Iranian pigtails from my Middle Eastern shoulders.
You look so bored, Terry, and I wonder if you notice:
We’re quite the chatty portrait of our country tis of thee.
Interview With Jaclyn:
The setting of your poem is very specific and relatable for people who have travelled in American airports. What inspired you to write about the experience of a TSA screening?
This summer, I found a photo of myself at an airport in 2004, with two college friends, on the way to a Society of Professional Journalists conference in NYC. For the three or so years after 9/11, I began to be “randomly” searched on every flight I boarded. Seriously. Every flight. I thought it would help if I dressed in an unintimidating way. I remember I did this each time I flew, but it was wild to see photographic proof, especially compared to two other young adults who were dressed in, you know, normal airplane-appropriate clothing. Finding the photo, seeing how 21-year-old me felt like she had to dress, seriously pissed me off.
You’ve spent an impressive amount of time working for daily newspapers during your professional career. How do you feel this writing experience impacted you creatively?
I can’t even imagine writing creatively without my journalism experience. Writing for a daily newspaper made me completely deadline-focused. If a journalist doesn’t finish her story on time, there could an actual hole in the newspaper. Plus, the piece needs to be done well and accurately, often in hours or less—journalists don’t have days and days to perfect a piece of writing.
I adore the saying Done is better than perfect. Writers, especially creative writers, can get stuck in this I can’t show this to anyone because it’s not perfect hole. Then nothing ever gets finished. Writing for a daily newspaper was a wonderful way to keep from being too precious about my words. What I write matters, and it’s important to me, but once I turn in a story, it’s on to the next thing.
Writing for daily publication also gave me tough skin. I adore editor feedback and love seeing how subsequent drafts improve. Similarly, I also trust my gut. Writing is a wonderful mixture of both subjectivity and objectivity, even in poetry. My newspaper experience gave me an almost scientific approach to being creative.
What audience do you hope to reach through your poetry? Why is this audience meaningful to you?
As a reader, the best feeling is “Oh my goodness, you too? I thought I was the only one.” As a writer, then, that’s who I want to reach—anyone who has felt like me, to help them feel less alone. Strangely, the opposite is true, too: It’s such a rush to be told “I never thought of it in that way before.”
Those audiences are meaningful to me because it means we have a shared experience. Especially in 2020, feeling a connection—to anyone, even some writer you’ve never met—is vital.
How has the global pandemic impacted your creative process?
The pandemic hasn’t impacted my creative process so much as it’s impacted my creative output. I’ve written poetry since I was about 12 and I had a writing minor in college, so writing creatively has always been a part of my life. However, the pandemic made me itch to do more. I answered that by enrolling in a poetry class. The instructor helped me figure out what was missing from my poetry unlike any writing teacher I’ve had before. After the class, I asked where she was teaching next, and I signed up for that class, too. She helped me see where and how my work could be improved, which simultaneously showed me how to edit my own work.
This year has been hard, and there are a few things I can point to and say “That, specifically, made things a little easier.” Writing poetry is one of those things.
What is the most important piece of advice you have received as a writer?
In college, a journalism professor taught us to let the other person have the last say. When someone reaches out to a reporter to complain about something they wrote, the caller or emailer doesn’t actually care what the writer has to say about it. They just want to be heard (and maybe to be nasty). That knowledge, that someone who has something mean to say isn’t looking for a response, is incredibly freeing.
What are your upcoming projects?
I have a number of manuscripts in the works, but two are currently taking up the most of my time—a poetry book and a women’s fiction novel, which I will be pitching to agents early next year. I also write horror short stories. I love bouncing between genres and working on projects of varying lengths.
Following is an interview conducted by Superstition Review‘s Poetry Editor, Erin Peters.
Paul Chuks is an emerging Nigerian poet, writer and song writer, studying philosophy at the University of Benin, Edo state, Nigeria. He has appeared or is forthcoming in StreetCake Magazine, Kalahari Review, Neurological Magazine, Afritondo,The Remnant Archive and was recently shortlisted for The 49th Street‘s top ten poets in Nigeria. When Paul is not reading or writing songs, he’s critiquing the hiphop game or mimicking Michael Jackson.
To the Man Standing at the corner lifting the placard that said “All Lives Matter” as a protest against Black Lives Matter.
Your ancestors have apparelled in seem like bruteness in the past
But in this one, you are standing in a corner watching black lives evanesce like lights beholding a murky sky.
You think about justice, but your soul is
a leaky faucet, expelling your empathy
into an abysmal pit.
My ancestors’ tears are the ghosts of this poem/appearing as metaphors/telling you to drop that placard, go home & shut your mouth like Trump’s border[s]/because you are slow-dancing with the injustice of their history.
You are sipping our pain into a black-
hole/& our cries go out like a bird’s
tweet against a horrendous wind-
This poem is a scar tissue/like the body of a slave/telling the world/that blacks wouldn’t clamour for their lives to matter if there was fairness/as the world wouldn’t know dryness if there were no tongues.
Interview with Paul:
What motivated you to write your poem as a direct address? What impact do you hope this form will have on your audience?
I wrote the poem as a direct address, because many have allowed themselves to elude the important message of the movement, that is: take black lives seriously as you take others. When George Floyd’s sad situation happened, & the BLM movement kicked off to an almost untamable situation, many on the internet, sewed threads that ran counter to the BLM movement, with the prevalent theme: ALL LIVES MATTER. It irked me because they have not recognized that ALL LIVES MATTER remains a superstition, if a black boy can be shot at, because he reached into his car for his hair-brush, but the officer mistook it for a gun. And the jury acquits the officer on account that he tried to clamp down a druggie. ALL LIVES MATTER is a remark of the ignorant, or the devil, who enjoys the maltreatment of black people.
What has inspired you to write about the Black Lives Matter movement?
I think my biggest inspiration to write about the BLM movement, is the fact that I’m black. I have an ambition of taking a Masters course in America. The moment I get there, I’ll wear the profile of a black boy. I also write about them, because I can feel & perceive their pain. The Injustice makes all of us bleed from sealed places.
What audience do you hope to reach through your poetry? Why is this audience meaningful to you?
My poetry is intended to be variegated with everything possible to make a subject of, so i want the whole world to listen to me, while i play the game of painting pictures with words & inkling of my feeling(s). B: the audience is meaningful because without them, my tag as a poet is a facade. My pets can’t read, neither can the birds that perch on the trees behind my house.
How has the global pandemic impacted your creative process?
The pandemic has not affected my creative process, so far. Rather, my academic life. It has cancelled an academic year, pushing my future farther..all in this transient life.
What is the most important piece of advice you have received as a writer?
My best advice as a writer was gotten from another awesome writer I admire: Nome Patrick. He said: Paul, read more than you write. It was an interesting discussion on the essence of reading and the miracle it does to one’s repertoire. It has worked so far.
What are your upcoming projects?
More & more poetry. In fact, a chapbook is in sight. But for now, more poetry.
When I thought about writing this I was stumped for an opening. What catchy first line speaks to being a writer in these socially traumatic times? Then it came to me. Thank you. Thank you for all the work I know you must have done, all the work I know you must be doing. Thank you for caring about the world even when that caring takes away from the time you have to write the novel, finish the poem or invent a new form we haven’t seen yet. Thank you for even thinking about doing something – that’s actually an active step in socially responsible responses. Thanks for helping where you can, at a foodbank, in a volunteer program, on a political campaign. Or on six political campaigns.
I live in Pennsylvania, where there are always at least six political campaigns that could use my help, my money, my time and my gasoline. I’m nearly 71 so I’m not able to do all the things my younger political friends and allies can, but the one good thing about a state as mucked up as Pennsylvania is today is that there is always a job to do that will fit your skills and energy. So, although there are countless ways you can respond to the social disfunction we call modern American, I want to talk a bit here about political activity.
Full disclosure: I did not come to politics naturally. The hot ticket items of the 70’s and 80’s involved me, the Vietnam War, Nuclear Power Plants, but I was not active in social movements like aiding AIDS victims. I’ve marched on Washington a few times, but I have not marched to end genocide or to change voter laws. I kept many issues at the periphery of my attention and I hoped that someone was addressing those issues. I was a poet. I made art. And art matters. I volunteered in the art field, teaching in schools and running a free writing workshop in my living room for fifteen years. But I was not a political operative.
Then came Trump. When I got past the flattening shock of the elections results, I realized that Pennsylvania put him over the line. The Republicans who crafted his campaign had been smart and sneaky. It was new to me, the way they got him elected. I knew they were able to do it in part because I had been asleep at the wheel. Politics, I’d thought, was not my domain. I was a good enough person doing lots of good things. Other good people were taking care of this political stuff. I thought they did not need me.
So that’s me. If you’re a conservative, you can still listen to (or read) this. Just substitute your values for mine, and consider what writers are called to do when a political crisis of this magnitude overtakes their country and their generation. I will set down a few things I had to do in the past election season, and in my ongoing involvement in politics. Other writers will probably need to do them too.
I had to get educated about my local situation, and meet the local people responding to it. Here’s where I got lucky. A University of Pittsburgh professor, Marie Norman, responded to the 2016 election by forming a Facebook group to organize political action. She called it Order of the Phoenix (yup) and as soon as I caught wind of it, I joined. I was not alone.The group attracted a lot of people who were appalled not only by Trump as a man, but by the policies we knew his election would enable. When Trump said he would have all the “best people” running things Stephen Miller and Betsy De Vos showed up.
I read a critical book that described in excruciating detail the Red Mapping that had damaged the fairness of state and federal districts in my state. “Ratf**ked” by David Daley, tells the story of the gerrymandering of America, state by painful state. Daley’s facts motivated me to get involved with elections and with a group that fights gerrymandering. In Pennsylvania, legal activists took the Republican controlled State Senate to court when they drew highly gerrymandered districts that violated legal constraints. The State Supreme Court ruled that they had to re-draw the maps using parameters that resulted in fairer representation for Pennsylvania’s citizens. I could explain all this, but just read Daley’s book – especially if you live in Arizona, or Wisconsin, or Florida, or Ohio, or Michigan. Or anywhere really, just read it.
That led me into working on the 2018 election where we did well in southwestern PA. Republican control of our State legislature was impacted by the election of many Democrats. It’s great when things go that way. But there was no time to bask in that success.
When 2019 came around, I asked, “there’s a 2019 election?” Yes, Deborah. There’s an election every year – not just when Senate and House seats are up for grabs. That year we worked to elect a better District Attorney for Allegheny County. We had a great candidate, but we lost. I look forward to helping her win next time. For me this was another lesson: if you want social change you have to think long-term while you work as if this is your only chance. You must persist in the face of defeat.
Then there was this year – and you no doubt know that Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes put Biden over the top. You might not know how big a part Allegheny County played in that. We made a difference, maybe even the difference. In Allegheny County the group that may have had the biggest effect is Order of the Phoenix. And when the race was called for President-Elect Biden, we all got to feel something we cannot expect to feel again soon.
So that brings us to now. What does this history have to do with you, with writers in the age of Social Unrest? Well, here are a few thoughts:
Social unrest means there’s something very wrong. Contented citizens do not spend their time hollering. So whichever side of our current divide you’re on, there is a place for you to work, and work you should. That does not mean you can’t write poems, essays and novels as well. There is no “one size fits all” in responding to current events. The many things that happen in our personal lives matter. Family and friends still matter. Music matters. Art matters. Gardening matters. Having fun matters. Laughing matters. Being lazy matters. Looking at clouds matters. But there should be some time and energy that you put into bettering this world at every stage of your life. When I was between trying to stop Nuclear Proliferation and trying to stop Trumpism, I was raising kids, sustaining my community, being a lover, a wife, a writer, a teacher and you will be (or are) those things too. Those were worthy pursuits, but I regret not keeping my eye on the way things were going nationally. I regret that my serious political involvement came so late. I regret that we were on the way to this place for such a long time while I was ignorant. This will be a lifelong regret. Mea culpa.
So we can work. We can educate ourselves in lots of areas, not just in the literary world. We should learn about our states, our towns, our cities, our neighborhoods. Who is feeding your homeless? How are school funds disbursed? None of us can work on every problem but we can keep swinging our eyes around the landscape to keep it all in mind. We can choose something to learn a lot about. I have a political ally who studies how elections are conducted. She knows the safety records behind various kinds of balloting. She knows who makes voting machines and how the contracts to do that are awarded. She knows what local governing bodies have the final say on issues related to voting. I didn’t even know we had a County Council here who makes these decisions. When I need to know about election issues, I contact Julie. I’m re-visiting everything I can find about gerrymandering – the laws and practices, the US Supreme Court cases. I hope to be a useful resource about that when I’m done. But my other specialty is being a good foot soldier. I take orders well these. When we need to get yard signs distributed, when thousands of postcards need to go in the mail to get voters to the polls, when we need to recruit other workers, I’m a good person to contact. There is always a critical issue here, and there are always great people to work with – folks who keep me at it, or let me off the hook when I need time off, because we all have lives, need rest, and all that other good stuff. But – for a start – we can get educated about how things work where we live.
I had to admit that the things I do, and the things I don’t do matter. That’s not complicated, but it’s easy to forget. Take a look at climate issues, the economy, the educational system, the healthcare system, voting rights, energy production, food distribution, and especially racial inequity which will be a part of the story in each of the preceding areas.
Find your tribe, your people, your interests, and once you do, stay loyal. These are the people who will sustain you all your life. It may be something as personal as reminding you to keep sending out your work, or as big as reminding you to care about the generations who will need this planet when we are long gone. This is what is currently called “selfcare” – a phrase I find chilly and antiseptic, but then I’m an old lady.
And that’s it from me. Thanks for reading this. I’d love to hear from those of you engaged in political work, big issue work, little issue work, any of it. I don’t go to writers’ conventions anymore, but I sometimes imagine a session where there is no panel, no major writer. Regular writers just come in and write briefly about the work for the world they are doing. Then those descriptions, those pieces of paper, are pinned to a very big wall so we can see how effective we can be. This is the age for the fully engaged citizen and the fully engaged writer. Meet you on the ramparts.