This month we endured the grueling twin testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh and are facing a very likely confirmation of (another) proven liar to the Supreme Court. It’s been rough. It seems impossible to think about anything else, or to experience anything other than continuous retraumatization. I’ve been working on a book of poems dealing with my own embodied trauma rising from the steam of a decade of forgetting and then remembering, then remembering, then remembering. And asking myself over and over – who is culpable, who invited what, what was forgotten in the darkness, in the not-negotiating? Interrogating the lines, yes, the blurred lines. I have written a book, considered every angle, plumbed my most vulnerable memories. I thought I was strong, self-congratulatory even. I remember telling a friend: I was raped, but I don’t let it determine my life.
These two weeks, I have triggered my own trauma over and over again, looking at the New York Times first thing every morning, checking Twitter every few minutes, calling and writing senators, building and bleeding rage. I’m so angry all the time. I can’t sleep. I lie awake and try to breathe. I go the gym to try to out-aggro myself. I need to feel strong but I’m exhausted. I’m so goddamn mad.
I’m supposed to be planning poetry readings this Fall to sell a few copies of my chapbook, to feel and act like a poet, but it feels so distant. The first reading is in mid-October, on my wedding anniversary. I had completely forgotten about the anniversary and now it seems almost beside the point. I have no interest in conversations with men, even my husband. I want to explode in elemental heat and gravity and destroy this corrupt world. The privilege of all of this (gym, marriage, news subscription, white woman rage) is astounding. I want to crawl into a hole and die. I steam like a volcano. I see a poll that shows a majority of white women believe Brett Kavanaugh over Dr. Ford. I don’t sleep. My mother tells me that she doesn’t think that men should be judged by what they did in high school. I argue with her, then leave. Senator Susan Collins argues the importance of the #MeToo movement then votes for Kavanaugh’s confirmation. My throat is always closed. I can’t stop talking about the injustice of this nomination. I try to tell myself to be prepared for the obvious outcome. Thirty years ago, Anita Hill came forward against Judge Clarence Thomas and was dragged. Need I say it? Donald Trump is president. Here we are today. I steam.
I am also worried that if I read any of the poems I’ve been writing that I will cry, that I will make someone else cry, or worse, I will show that I was wrong, not wronged. All these years later, I still have the internalized misogyny of a lifetime of being told that I put myself in a place where I was vulnerable, and I invited what happened. My mom asked me why I didn’t report it. I don’t know where to begin. It took a decade for me to realize that it happened. I don’t want to share the details, so I leave. I am a coward in my own life. Am I a coward in my own life? A poet recently tweeted that she would not be reading poems of sexual trauma at an upcoming reading because everyone deserves a break. I wonder if I should do the same. But if I don’t read the poems I’ve been writing, why am I reading? If I read them and people are upset, or I am upset, or create a sense of catharsis, am I being performative and insensitive? If I center myself, in my privilege and whiteness, am I perpetuating injustice? I feel sick. I steam.
When I started writing this, I determined that I would write a helpful post about battling imposter syndrome, overcoming doubts of self-worth, and getting over self-promotion anxiety. Work with your friends! Reach out to trusted members of your community! You are worthy! I deleted all of it. It felt so hollow. On Twitter, women post #WhyIDidntReport. I feel like shit every day. My mom wants to talk to me. If I don’t read these poems, how will I reckon with any of this? Is this ultimately the most selfish act – wanting reckoning, wanting catharsis, wanting wanting? My friend and poet Emma Bolden tweeted a gif of a wolf growling, baring her canines. The growl is practically audible. Caption: “YUPPPPPP actual image of me rn.”
The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU is proud to offer creative writing classes through the Piper Writers Studio. Classes are taught by acclaimed and award-winning writers from the community, and they cover topics such as memoir writing, the relationship between art and writing, contemporary poetry, the relationship between politics and poetry, the reveal of information, inspiration, writer’s block, intimacy, flash fiction, and fairy tales.
The classes and workshops offered in Fall 2017 are the following:
Classes are open to individuals of all backgrounds, skill levels, and experiences, and are designed to fit around the schedules of working adults (taking place weekday evenings or weekend afternoons). Most classes are held at the Piper Writers House, the historic President’s Cottage on the ASU Tempe Campus. Class sizes range between 8 and 12 students in order to ensure an intimate, individualized educational experience, and fees range from $50 to $250 (with discounts for students and individuals who are members of the Piper Circle of Friends). Classes can also qualify for professional development credit with the Arizona Department of Education. Individuals can register for classes through the Piper Center’s website, where they can also find more information about the courses.
If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer…
The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard
In her 1943 essay “We Refugees” Hannah Arendt explains the predicament of the suicide that “in their own eyes” feel themselves as having failed life’s standard. Having given into despair in themselves, they die “of a kind of selfishness”; the failure of how to define, or redefine, one’s self-worth given the loss of assumed standards makes for the quandary: “If we are saved we feel humiliated, and if we are helped we feel degraded.” This quandary speaks to standards of citizenship and social belonging that in turn speak to systems of society and behavior that are radically reconfigured in the lives of displaced peoples. The refugee being a prime example of such, one that Girogio Agamben in his 2008 essay “Beyond Human Rights” argues as “perhaps the only thinkable figure for the people of our time and the only category in which one may see today… the forms and limits of a coming political community.”
I am learning of how standards are reconfigured in a year of working with Afghan families living in a school building in the center of Athens. My assumptions of dignity and belonging are changed as I am gradually invited into these lives. It begins with an invitation to have tea on the spread blankets that cover the floor of a classroom, where we leave our shoes at the blanket’s edge. Mattresses are pushed up against walls; some pillows are on the floor. I’m urged to use a pillow as I am a guest but I shake my head, saying it’s not necessary, only to realize this creates confusion and a look of disappointment, so I accept the pillow, and drink the sweetened tea. I have a bag of raisins with me. There’s a feeling of comfort and hospitality, as we drink the sweetened tea and share the raisins. We discuss the fact that some of the children are attending the Greek public school. I’m asked if I will find a dentist for a 3 year old whose top front teeth have all rotted. It will be her birthday at the end of the month. It is not the date on her paper but the one her mother gives us in April. When I’d asked her father he said he wasn’t sure what the date of her birthday was. But her mother knows, and tells me. We plan a party. I still have a string of lights with me, a cluster I’d forgotten to bring to the Christmas party we had in December. I plug them in and they start flickering, this makes Heniah, who takes a quick intake of breath, laugh. She keeps plugging and unplugging the lights as they flicker in their nest of color.
Changed circumstances will change how we see what we see. These small living spaces are made unexpectedly new. Even the city is made new. Omonia square where buses and metro stops make for intersections and gatherings, where information on squats, cell phones, fake passports, border smugglings, and plain old advice on everything from medicine to asylum petitions are hawked. It is also a world where Unés, one of the refugee children I’ve grown close to, notices things I’ve never paid attention to. He pauses in our walk along a crowded street as someone who is selling potato peelers loses his grip, and the peeler skids across the pavement, Unés picks it up, checks the blade and gives it back to the man who is surprised anyone would pick up the now broken peeler, and thanks him. We pause at a pet shop because one of the puppies catches Unés’ attention. There’s also a snake and a parrot on display. When we leave Unés points to a huge ice-cream stand with its exaggerated plastic cone. I must have seen the thing too many times to remember because it sits just outside the metro stop, but this time I see it as he does, and smile.
We speak a mix of English, Greek, and Farsi words, a jumble of emoji symbols, VIBER and WhatsApp emoticons and letters. There is salam, “hello” and bedrood, “goodbye”. Thanks to the weekly games and books and songs in English that Alicia, Judi, Eirini, Stephanie and other volunteers and donors have made generously available some of the children are now speaking in near-fluent English phrases. We have become as familiar to them as they have become to us – Rocha, Heniah, Unés, Narghes, Rakia, Azize, Maedeh – we know each other’s names, even ages. Judi is asked why she isn’t married, and if she was ever married. I’m asked if I have any children. One afternoon I show a video on my cell phone of couples dancing tango at the studio where I go. I’m asked if I do this too, Azize and her sister would like to come with me, next time I go. We go to a Luna Park where there are bumper cars and a Ferris wheel, and high-flying space-cars in which Heniah, fearless, pushes on the gears so the air-borne car will go higher. She is giddy and I am anxious. Maedeh, who is 14, comes with me to a play my daughter is in. It is Ramadan and she asks if she can skip the fast since she will be walking in the heat to the theater. Her mother is okay with this, and she dresses in white tights and her scarf and tells me you can tell the difference between Syrian and Afghan women by the way they wear their scarves. The Afghan women wear them more loosely around their heads, less tightly folded around their faces. There’s a moment in the play when the top comes off one of the actors, it’s a split-second; the actor is a statue that comes to life, her white, spray-painted breasts are bared. On our way back to the squat Maedeh will mention it, that the actor “lost her blouse” and I will nod and ask if she will tell her mother and she says she might which makes me think I may not be invited to take her daughter anywhere after this, but ask then if it surprised or bothered her. She shakes her head and says, very simply, “This is Europe.”
In Agamben’s essay he references Arendt’s point that one of the things the Third Reich ensured before Jews and Gypsies were sent to the extermination camps was that they had to be “fully denationalized…stripped of even that second-class citizenship to which they had been related after the Nuremberg Laws.” Agamben is making the point that the concept of the nation-state founded as it has been on assumptions of citizenship and national belonging was a way to draw the line between what lives were “doomed to death”, and which remained with human, legal, rights. He argues the point first put forward by Arendt in relation to the Jews. He notes that “What is new in our time is the growing sections of humankind are no longer representable inside the nation-state – and this novelty threatens the foundations of the later.” In other words, human rights as they have been historically tied to citizenship are now, as he explains, “Beyond Human Rights”, an insufficient insurance, or reflection, of our humanity.
I get a message from Heniah’s brother, who is 12, that her birthday party will be at 2:00, and would Judi and I like to come. Like the invitation to tea I feel it’s important to go, and want to celebrate my fearless 4 year-old’s day. I pick up a lemon pie that looks fancy and some paper plates, cups, plastic forks, party hats, and arrive after Judi. We’re invited to sit on the floor in the classroom that is now the family’s living space, the wide blankets are cleared and what was once a school desk is brought in so Heniah can sit there and blow out her candle. We’ll wait for the guests, mothers and their young children who arrive from other squats, and camps, some from as far as the Malakassa camp, where mostly Afghan families are housed; everyone arrives with a small gift, wrapped in colored paper. There are clips for Heniah’s hair, colored plastic bangles, a coloring book. There are balloons taped to the walls and the Christmas lights I’d brought are hanging from the blackboard where they have been taped. Heniah has had her hair in tiny braids so that now curls all around her face, and Rocha puts new clips into it.
But what is most impressive is the 3-layered cake that’s been prepared for the guests. My bought lemon pie, while delicious, is nothing compared to this chocolate cake, which Heniah’s mother, Azize, has made.
There is excitement as people gather. The women shed their veils and change into clothing that would make them indistinguishable from anyone else in the city. Sleeveless dresses, skirts, loose shirts with low necklines. Azize puts on make-up and earrings. When she wears lipstick I think she looks like an Italian film star, but I’m not sure which one, maybe Monica Bellucci. There is music, and then dancing; the women pull me up from the floor where I’m sitting to join them; Raikia shows me how to move my arms in a slow, sensual wave, I start to laugh, feeling awkward at first, but then happy. The children are also dancing in a circle.
Judi asks me, “who do you think is happier in a moment like this, a group of women in the UK or US or these women?” I say, without much thought, that I think right now this gathering is a very happy one, and that everyone in the room is enjoying themselves. When Judi asks Maedeh why there are no boys, or men, she says they are never present at the women’s parties but that they are not missed either. Judi asks if she wouldn’t want a boy to dance with if she liked him, and Maedeh gives an emphatic “No!” and tells us when the time comes, her father will find a boy for her and will ask her if she likes him, if not he’ll find another one. She says two boys waited for her sister who is 19; “one waited for nothing” because Mina didn’t want to go to him, and now there’s another in Sweden. Maedeh is matter-of-fact, “If a boy wants to wait and I like him then we can get married when we ready.”
We share stories, and our lives. When Maedeh speaks Judi and I expect that she and perhaps some of the other women would wish to have some of the choices we in our western worlds assume are the better ones, and find out that’s not the case, that things are also less patriarchal if more gender-specific, than what we assume. For example, Narghes, who is also 14, tells me it is her mother who will pick the wife, or suggest someone, for her older brother, because her father is dead. She tells me her father had taught her to read, and wanted her to learn languages. At some point in our conversations, I share a anecdote from Greek Orthodox weddings, that the liturgy uses the quote from the Bible about the wife fearing her husband at which point the wife stamps her husband’s foot in symbolic resistance. Azize and Maedeh look suprised, and ask why a wife would be told to be afraid of her husband, I say to remind them of who has the authority, they tell me both have, but each has a different kind.
There are other ironies and surprises; that we communicate across language and culture in ways that reinvent our language and culture. My VIBER messaging with Narghes was a mash-up of discourses, and went on from our first month of friendship. When she messaged me that she’d like a pair of black tights if I could find them for her, to when the family moved to the Malakassa camp, and finally got their papers under the family reunification law to go to Geneva. We shared hundreds of texts, emojis, voice messages, in our digital exchanges –
Bai Bai [Bye Bye] – Narghes writes, Okey [Okay]; You vato slip??? [you want to sleep???]; Hi you kam tomoro [you come tomorrow]; Andrstan [Understand]; vat taim you kam [what time you come]; Hi Adrianne you kam tomoro my mazr koking for you [you come tomorrow my mother cooking for you]; Ined nmbr hosin and maide [I need number hossein and maedeh]
The nation state, says Agamben is in demise, borders are being contested, people are being smuggled through at costs that sometimes include their lives, certainly the EU is in crisis, and the refugee influx has magnified what Agamben explains as the “unstoppable decline of the nation-state and general corrosion of traditional political-juridical categories.” But as Arendt said of the Jews in 1943, “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples – if they keep their identity.” These families, unhoused, as they are from country and citizenship are examples of this challenge; rather than feeling themselves as having failed life’s standard, they show us how the standard is life itself, as in sheer life, as in what it means to continue with the traditions and values that shelter us.
Narghes’ mother wants to give me a gift, it is a black patent leather bag someone has given her, and she thinks I might like it. She also ties up the bag of raisins I’ve brought because there are still some in the bag, but I say I want her to keep the raisins, and she says tashakor [thank you]. My proximity to these lives has made the obvious newly tenable, and newly proximate.
For the purposes of argument, let’s assume that we can distinguish between form and content in writing. The latter – content – could be taken broadly to include things like what happens in a book, who is involved in the action, and the way characters are depicted. The former – form – could be taken to include the manifold ways the story is told and shaped, along with the matters of “craft” the author brings to bear.
It seems that thinking about this distinction might be worthwhile, because in many contemporary debates about writing the focus is so squarely on matters of content. A great deal of potential controversy adheres to the questions of what race, gender and class our characters are; how they act, and whether these actions promote offensive stereotypes; how the other characters refer to them, etc. Because of these pressures, ours has become a world in which authors hire sensitivity readers to double-check the level of potential offensiveness of their work, and a world in which the ability of a person of one race to legitimately write a character of another race is regularly questioned. My point is not to argue the rightness or wrongness of these practices; it’s simply to point out that they posit the main point of importance in political or ideological struggles as being what happens in a story, rather than the way a story is constructed.
Often, this approach is taken a step further and it’s argued that talking about or teaching writing in formal terms is itself problematic, that formal discussion itself is somehow anti-political, a hindrance to the expression of oppressed groups, or to social critique. The MFA program workshop model, and in particular the flagship/Great Satan of that model, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has become something of a focal point for this line of thought. In focusing on matters of “craft” (read: formal techniques in fiction), the argument goes, this model neglects matters of history and politics. Further, arising as it did in the context of the Cold-War, the workshop model approach to fiction carries the necessary stain of American Imperialism and an ideological fixation with radical individualism and Modernist technique that is antithetical to minority experience and revolutionary (or any other) politics. It’s not simply that the slogan of “show don’t tell,” for example, is bound inextricably to white male privilege; any focus on the formal aspects of writing distracts from our ability to write politically, because it pulls us away from personal, historical, and identity-based expression.
Again, it’s not my purpose to take sides in the debate over the worth of MFA programs, to stake a position on the enormous problems faced by women and people of color in the writing and publishing world, or to argue for one notion of revolution over another. My purpose is to defend the notion that the political resides at least as deeply in form as it does in content, using the American hardboiled crime novel as an example.
Raymond Chandler rightly stands at the center of this tradition, and his novels are as good a starting place as any. In them a detective, Philip Marlow, is asked to solve a crime. He begins on this task; soon after, he discovers at least one other seemingly unrelated mysterious circumstance that will in the end prove not to be unrelated at all; he proceeds forward, following clues, getting beaten up, shot at, and lied to, until he closes in on his criminal; in the end, the identity of the killer is revealed, and the machinations of everything that has happened are made clear to us.
The general political critique of Chandler is easy to outline. These are stories that feature a white male protagonist, invested in violence, who solves other people’s problems; in the final pages it is nearly always a woman who is revealed as the scheming betrayer behind the crimes, and it is this woman who needs to be repudiated, if not killed, for justice to be done; minorities are either not present or presented in generally stereotypical and outmoded (and indeed often outright racist) ways. However, this critique rests nearly entirely on questions of content: who is involved, how they act, and how they’re portrayed by the author/narrator.
My question is whether there’s not another – formal – approach we could take to all of this, that would allow us additional insight and, more importantly, additional force in our own writing. One place to start might be with the question of whether, or in what ways, Chandler’s work (and the work of similar writers) could be seen as political. Often presented as a kind of knight-errant questing forward on the shoulders of his hero-detective, the truth is that Chandler was bracingly cynical. He ends his much quoted essay on the detective story, “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950) with a passage extolling knight-errantry on the part of protagonists in detective novels; he begins it, on the other hand, by noting that popular best-sellers are
“promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.”
This certainly sounds like someone who’s invested in the idea that the apparatchiks of capitalist culture might be putting their grubby little thumbs on the scale when it comes time to determine which books get published and which don’t. But Chandler’s argument in the essay is not that he’s writing anti-capitalist literature, of course; it’s a formal one. His goal is to distinguish a particularly American style of “realist” mystery writing – in contrast to what he sees as a more class-encumbered English one – and to point out that what his forbearers in that style, Dashiell Hammett in particular, did was to use it as a way of pointing out power relations in the world. “The realist in murder,” he argues,
“writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations…a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket…where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.”
To my ear, at least, there is a breathtakingly strange political mixture in this passage: an absolute condemnation of corrupt political power exerted against the common person goes hand in hand with a sardonic disdain for that common person and a Charlton Heston-esque support for good old law and order.
Confused? Perhaps. But one cannot charge it with not staking out political or ideological claims about our culture. And in a sense, its confusion is exactly the point. Language in writing – and especially the American language, the complexities of which Chandler was trying to tease out, a language that goes back through Dickenson, Mellville, Douglass, and the rest of them, and forward from Chandler through everyone who’s written since – is necessarily political in its form. The words that are chosen, the structures of the sentences, the level of diction: all of it is the ideological ground that lies beneath the content of those words and sentences.
For Chandler, the attempt of Hammett and the rest to re-tether the detective novel to the diction of “the street” was an attempt at a some sort of realist social politics. They believed that the literature of their time had obscured the assaultive horrors of much everyday life, and that these issues could be addressed at least in part through language. Do we agree that they were successful? Perhaps we do, perhaps we don’t; for the purposes of this essay, it’s enough to note that it may very well be the case that for a writer to neglect the formal aspects of the American language is for a writer to inhibit their own ability to write politically.
But the argument doesn’t stop at prose. To write and structure any novel one must think more or less formally; I think the emphasis on plotting in a mystery story makes it an easy place to tease out the connections between the formal moves of the writer’s technique and the political content of their work. Thinking through (or trying to write) a densely plotted crime novel leads one immediately to a realization of the importance of the kinds of things taught in writing workshops: handling of POV in terms of distance and person, showing versus telling, the structuring of scenes, the timing of reveals, etc.
In his famous interview with François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock makes a distinction between “surprise” and “suspense.” He explains that if two people in a story are having a conversation and are suddenly blown up by a bomb, it’s surprising. If we see someone plant the bomb, and then the characters enter, sit at the table, and begin their conversation, it’s suspenseful. What Hitchcock is getting at, in our terms, is the technical question of the effect on the audience created by the manipulation of the formal aspects of storytelling: how much information does the reader have, and when do they get it? How much do the characters have, and how much does the narrator have? At first, this may seem to be simply a matter of using storytelling mechanics to entertain the audience; if we pause for a moment, however, it becomes clear that it’s a formal element that lies at the heart of some of the most political writing we know. By thinking through and controlling POV and the rest, we’re creating a world that feels a certain way, either surprising or suspenseful, and in shaping the world in this way we are in fact making an assertion about the nature of that world.
One obvious place to explore this (and an obvious comparison to the hardboiled novel) is the work of Kafka. The Trial and The Castle are both set up somewhat along the lines of a “mystery” story. A character navigates through an oppressive, claustrophobic, absurd landscape in search of a McGuffin (to use Hitchcock’s term) he’s destined never to find (the facts behind his trial; the authority in the castle.) On a technical level, at least a part of the impact of Kafka’s work arises from his astounding control over formal elements of the art form. Kafka asserted in a moment of self-denigration in his journals that his success came from little more than his ability to re-create the feeling of being in a dream; reading his work closely, we realize that one way to understand this ability is in terms of maintaining a relationship between the consciousness of his reader and his protagonist such that we experience the absurdity of the world exactly as K. does. In somewhat barbaric, reductionist terms, this ability is a matter of being able to manipulate POV and closely control the information the reader has. And it is this claustrophobia itself, along with the power it gives Kafka of projecting us into an experienced world of absurdity, that at least in part allows him to construct a savage critique of modernity.
The connection of this to the American school of crime narrative, and the reason I’ve taken this detour, is to point out that in the hardboiled novel the feeling of being at the center of a claustrophobic maze is one of the most important elements. In a way not dissimilar to Kafka’s characters, Chandler’s protagonists are stuck in a labyrinth, the end result of which is disillusionment. That is to say, if Kafka uses a deep understanding of POV and interiority to write novels that reflect our sense of modernity as a thing that controls us far beyond our ability to control ourselves, Chandler and his ilk use similar mechanics, along with a control of information and plot along the lines of Hitchcock’s distinction, to create the feeling of being caught in a maze-like mystery, with deception and avarice around every corner. The ideological cynicism of these books and their critique of the America of their time come at least in part directly out of these formal elements.
A final way to approach these issues might be to return again to the ways these novels are politically problematic, and to use this to think through ways that we might respond to them with a literature of our own. The work of Mickey Spillane, whose first novel I, The Jury appeared in 1947, provides a wonderful opportunity to do this. Spillane’s work is interesting because it unabashedly celebrates, indeed valorizes, the aspects of Chandler’s work can be seen as the most politically problematic. In I, The Jury the narrator and protagonist, Mike Hammer, declares that what he likes to do is just go out and murder the criminals that the cops are too soft on; in one scene he beats up an African American man he notes is a good-looking “high yellow” and then checks the man’s wallet to find pictures of all the women the man has seduced, and finds that, yep, one of them was white (the obvious implication being that Hammer has righted a miscegenistic wrong); he falls in love with a super-hot woman psychiatrist, finds out that she’s the criminal mastermind behind everything, and murders her as painfully as possible her at the end. The whole is almost unbelievably fascistic. Not surprisingly, Ayn Rand was defender of his work (and he of hers); perhaps even less surprisingly, he sold over 130 million copies of his books and was for many years one of the most successful writers in America.
How are we to critique a writer like this? It’s all well and good to point out the radical misogyny, racism, and promotion of blood-lust in the content of his work, but to find anything more interesting to say, either as writers or critics, we need to move almost immediately to thinking formally. Like the verbiage of Donald Trump, Spillane’s first-person narration is continually over-insistent about its own toughness, intelligence, dynamo sexuality, and animal attractiveness to women. The plotting of the book means that, contrast to Chandler’s Philip Marlow, Mike Hammer is always the master of the situation: it’s virtually impossible to imagine him being played for a sucker by a friend the way Marlow is at the end of The Long Goodbye. To really understand the politics of this – why Ayn Rand was attracted to it, why it was so popular with post-war audiences, the grounds it lays for ideas and narratives that are still with us today – we must think at least partially in formal terms: how is the language working? how does the plotting go to character? what is shown and not told, or the other way around? etc. What these lines of thought show us are the ways power – racialized, gendered, and class-driven – propagates itself in our entertainments and art, the way it seduces audiences, the way it flatters some and silences others, the way it seeps into the fabrics of our stories themselves.
Perhaps more importantly, how are we as writers to respond? If we believe that we can re-shape these stories simply by changing their content, I think we’re mistaken. If we were to rewrite I, The Jury making only substitutions along the lines of the race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of the characters, the fascistically violent and power-oriented worldview would remain unchanged. But approaching these narratives on formal terms allows a world of possibility to open up. What would it mean to write a detective story in a language that eschewed the radical tough-guy voice that propels so much hardboiled work? What would it mean to construct a plot which, like Kafka’s, was not solvable and simply led the detective further and further into a maze? What would it mean to adjust our understanding of showing and telling so that we knew everything before the detective did or, conversely, the detective figured everything out but simply didn’t tell us or, conversely again (if that’s possible) the detective found himself unable to read the human gestures that the writer who believes in “showing” to the exclusion of all else depends on so heavily? In addition to an increased attention to the identity and depiction of our characters, might all of this not allow us to write a newly-political detective story? And, in conjunction with changes in content – the identity of the protagonists, the depiction of characters – might it not aid writers in continuing to reshape the literature itself?
I’ll close by noting that I think that, if we step back from the specific example of the crime novel, we see almost immediately that this formal reshaping is exactly what a great deal of American writing has traditionally striven to do. The examples are countless, but we might think through the anti-war constructions of Johnny Get Your Gun, Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five, the way race is approached in the work of Langston Hughes, John Edgar Wideman, or Toni Cade Bambara, the way narrative itself is approached in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, the ways politics is investigated in Pynchon’s early work, history is flayed open in Beloved, gender structures pierced by Patricia Highsmith, and our relationship with the natural world is illuminated by Barry Lopez or Terry Tempest Williams. And on and on.
As much as their content, it is the formal awareness of these books that gives them their power. To neglect either – content or form – would be to rob ourselves of the ability to access that same power.
I hover in a helicopter over a beach where my two grown sons race to catch the spy-worthy ladder I’m dangling. Once they climb up (how do those spies do it, hand-over-hand, with a fierce wind at the rungs?), my husband seals the cockpit from the poison that’s building up below, I gun the motor to leave–but to where? We hover, using up valuable fuel. Out to sea where smoke billows over the Atlantic? Up or down the nuclear-blasted north or south?
My dream brain knows we can’t flee West. After 9/11, my father bought a truck that fit seven, certain he could drive to New York and quickly return us to the family homestead in Nebraska, sure bombs would reflect in his taillights all the way. Never mind that the SAC airbase in Omaha was where Bush hid until he was forced to make an appearance, that the cornfields of home lie a mere 300 miles away from the missiles – he would rescue us. Now my brother has commandeered my father’s truck, along with the deed to his house—and dumped him into assisted living. Home no longer exists.
I dream my homelessness, I hover and know that the helicopter fuel will run out, joining the realities of travel with the impeccable dream-logic of anxiety. I’ve had experience: the post-nuclear world of the fifties was filled with such dreams. My father – like most – never explained why he didn’t invest in a bomb shelter like the neighbors, was heedless of the rising inflection of the inquiring helpless child, busy ducking and covering at school. Well, we only ducked and covered once, were expected to remember forever (we did) not to look at the fireball. Oh, Orpheus! If we were attacked by night, were we supposed to run back the twelve blocks to school to hide under our desks? I imagined running in the dark, the school gone, I dreamt it.
Imagination is crucial to terror, and night causes the imagination to consolidate our rational daytime fears with our nighttime, the terror billowing out of control, forest-fire-wild, all light and shifting dark. Dawn sweeps the pre-verbal visions away, and holds terror at bay, no longer baying. The sun shines and the plants grow and those post-war children uncurl from their balls that they instinctively imagine protect them, never mind the desks. “In dreams begin responsibilities” according to Delmore Schwartz, whose book from the Fifties and Sixties chronicled disappointment with the American dream, reminding readers that they had to labor hard not to be pulled under by its false economic promise, its faux egalitarianism.
Nothing bad happened on American soil for two hundred and twenty-five years except 9/11, nothing compared to the rest of the world. Our complacency makes violence elsewhere hard to imagine, we have only the little sparks of fear that light up our brains after any one of the thousands of mass shootings in the last five years, nearly all of them committed by Americans. But such complacency is also the result of partial blindness and deliberate amnesia. We’ve had at-home bombings throughout our history, anarchists planted 44 bombs that brought on the Palmer Raids and the first Red Scare 100 years ago, George Metesky set off dozens of bombs throughout NYC between 1940 to 1957 (he also slit open seats in movie theaters to hide explosive devices), Ted Kaczynski planted 16 bombs nationwide, fatally injuring three as recently as 1995. Our worst insurrection was also home-made: the Civil War killing 630,000 citizens, but mention should also be made of the 1921 bombing by Oklahomans of black Wall Street in Tulsa that left 10,000 people homeless and 300 dead. Are terrorists terrorists if they’re your fellow Americans, part of the family, as it were?
While I was teaching for the Summer Literary Seminars in Lamu, Kenya, my husband went on a trip up the coast to interview a man who had been imprisoned for two years by the Mossad. Suspected of working for Al-Qaeda because his sister married one of the most important operatives on the continent, he pled innocence. “He was just my sister’s boyfriend,” he said. “It’s true, at the wedding his family didn’t come but they were so far away. He played soccer with everybody else. Even my sister didn’t know.”
A terrorist can be in bed with you, dreaming, night after night.
My brother threatened to bring a gun to a meeting about the family farm. He believed (believes) in the right to bear arms wherever he wants. Does that make him a bully or a freedom fighter? It’s hard for me to understand how someone in my own family could redefine democracy so radically. Taking the benign concept of the family and delivering a gunman is a little like turning a plane into a weapon. Of course the surrealists believed that whatever can be imagined becomes real. The most potent threat is the threat: the imagining of terror. The current administration is adept at promulgating imagined terror, posturing with North Korea, actually dropping bombs on Syria, political moves that create enormous stress, the opposite of what a government is supposed to provide.
Writers have a responsibility to use their imagination during times of stress. We need to imagine our survival and spread word of that imaginative act to others. I’ve always argued that novice writers have seen enough media violence to imagine any variation themselves, but when they need to imbue those scenes with emotion, they have to go to method-acting, and remember when their brother chased them around with a baseball bat, when their father’s hand was raised to hit them, or when the family dog turned, and magnify that response to fit the scene. Thank god, we survived it.
Writers also need to read and translate from countries that have lived through drone attacks and American terror to understand what they have gone through, to imagine whether that cost is worth our feelings of security. The proposed wall along our border also raises this question. What is the illusion of security worth? Fiction writers traffic in illusion, which is not alt-facts but seeks to establish the truth through accurate portrayal of emotion. Readers understand that. The domestic novel of an unhappy marriage can be a distraction, a method for relieving oneself of terror, but the story about a totalitarian brother making one’s father suffer is perhaps more apt. The bluster of bullies is possible because they have never lost or never had the ability to imagine losing, they feel assured of their win because they can’t imagine otherwise. To imagine winning, we need to write out our fears with an urgency that makes them impossible to ignore, to make them real enough to act on. We can’t depend on twittering birds and daylight to trigger our survival instincts.
Sleeping at night has become a problem for me. Dreaming is always the goal, reorganizing those brain bits so they work faster, unconscious enlightenment, rest. Waking from the dream, having imagined the worst, panting in the dark, I recognize that even my personal psychic safety has been withdrawn. I can’t go back to sleep anymore than I can go back home. Home is imagined: I’m awake and I have to make home again and again. Ask any refugee.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the political and the personal. When I was in graduate school, getting my MFA, my poet friends and I professed a slight scorn for poetry that was too or only or merely political. We spoke of the need for the individual voice, the lyric, the arena of mystery where a thing could not be defined by politics alone. We spoke with a what I now recognize as typical graduate school over-earnestness about how poetry had to exist in language first, as if language itself were somehow beyond or antithetical to the practice of politics. This now seems to me terribly naive, sign of a privilege we didn’t know we had. Now that I am older, and living in the America that is our America now, it seems to me, on the contrary, that everything is political, and yet the vexed crossing of the political and the personal still stands.
Everything is political.Everything is personal. This is both true, and untrue, and perhaps the more relevant question is how do they come together? What can we do as persons to speak out or engage in politics; more precisely, how can we do this without losing the distinctive strata of experience the personal gives us?
Recently, I read an article by Isreali philosopher Yuval Noah Harari in which he made a useful distinction.He said the important task was to look at what was real, and he pointed out how much of our power, our politics come from our capacity as humans to devise collective fictions. He goes on: “The best test to know whether an entity is real or fictional is the test of suffering. A nation cannot suffer, it cannot feel pain, it cannot feel fear, it has no consciousness. Even if it loses a war, the soldier suffers, the civilians suffer, but the nation cannot suffer. Similarly, a corporation cannot suffer, the pound sterling, when it loses its value, it doesn’t suffer.”
I thought of this last week when I saw that President Trump’s approval rating had risen—apparently, for there seemed no other conceivable reason, because he dropped a 22,000 ton bomb—a bomb so enormous commentators referred to it with almost unseemly glee as “the Mother of all Bombs,”—on an Isis training camp in Afghanistan.And, a few days before, he launched a major airstrike against Syria in retaliation for President Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The airstrike was large enough to make those on the scene feel “the heavens were falling,” and took out a few airplanes, a couple of runways, while not in any real sense impeding President Assad’s ability to wage war against his own citizens. For these acts, Trump was more often than not praised by major media “for finally acting presidential,” “showing the world he could be decisive,” and “demonstrating leadership.”
Track the suffering:15 were killed in the Syrian airstrikes.The bombing in Afghanistan killed an estimated 94.Between 321,358 and 470,00 people have died in Syria’s civil war to date; 1 2,394 US soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001; over 26,000 Afghan civilians have been killedduring the same period, with estimates of total Afghan deaths due to war-related violence or events related to the war rising as high as 360,000.
These numbers suggest the outlines of the “real story,” but for an American writer far from the actual battlefields over there, they leave unsettling questions.How do I bear witness?How do I take repsonsbility?Their suffering is not the same as mine.Am I qualified to speak of it?Where does my personal intersect with this political?
Here is a story from my life:
When I was a young child,and first went to school, I was relentlessly mocked because I had crooked legs due to a genetic illness.Every day at lunch ,a group of boys and girls would surround make fun of me, and dare me to run across the playground, which made them laugh because I could not for the life of me 1) run fast or 2) run in a straight line.
I had one friend, a girl calledNicky, who was as outcast as I was, though for less desirable reason.Nickiwas thin and scrawny with mousy hair that looked as if it had been cut with nail scissors; she stammered when called on and burst into tears easily when frightened.When the group of kids on the playground got tired of making fun of me, they made fun of Nicki.Over the course of the year little-by- little I became bolder.I spoke back.I became good at telling tall tales, making jokes.I was still scorned, but ever-so-slightly less so.
One day a popular girl who had long been one of my tormenters took me aside.She wanted me to play a trick with them on Nicki. I was to ask Nicki to go with me to the edge of the plaground, our usual spot, under a large plain tree, where we sat and played with people we made out of seeds and grass.And there the others would jump out and frighten her.
I don’t actually recall the exact mechanics of how this was to work, but I do remember what happened.Nicki ended up facedown on the playground, sobbing as the others surrounded her and prodded at her with sticks.It is a blurred memory and one that, when it comes back to me, always, these fifty-some years later, makes me flinch.But the point is this—when it came down to it, I wanted to belong, more than I wanted to be true to my friend.I felt myself weak and I wanted to be strong, and I wanted this badly enough to behave just like any other playground bully.
I remember one other thing too.After a few weeks, the other kids got sick of me, and left me with Nicki again, and we resumed as we had before, sitting by ourselves at the edge of the playing field, eating our lunch and playing with our makeshift grass-and-seed dolls, but I don’t think it was ever quite the same as before.
This small story is, of course, not in the slightest “political,” nor does it on the surface have much to do with bombs in Afghanistan or airstrikes in Syria, but there is a kind of affinity, for what is my story, after all. if not an allegory of power or the longing of even the weak to seize it and be strong? It suggests, too, how suffering and cruelty can result from that longing or how little there is in the world to defend the most vulnerable.
The personal and the political. One thing they share is both are in some degree made of stories, stories in which it is always hard to parse the lie from the truth.In her remarkable lecture, given on winning the Nobel Prize, “Every Word Knows Something of a Vicious Circle,” Romanian novelist, Herta Muller, like Yuval Harari, concerns herself with the difficulty of telling our fictions from “reality,” truth from lie.Shewrites of this problem as one bound up in and also, perversely, only able to be solved through language itself—the process of thought, speech, and, especially, writing. The essay begins almost tenderly:
DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was the question my mother asked me every morning, standing by the gate to our house, before I went out onto the street. I didn’t have a handkerchief. And because I didn’t, I would go back inside and get one. I never had a handkerchief because I would always wait for her question. The handkerchief was proof that my mother was looking after me in the morning. For the rest of the day I was on my own. The question DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was an indirect display of affection. Anything more direct would have been embarrassing and not something the farmers practiced.
Muller parses how words or discourse give us ways of expressing through indirection true or important things about ourselves we won’t or can’t simply say.How would her mother ever declare “I love you” except by asking the question about the handkerchief?
Yet Muller’s essay quickly darkens. She grows up and works in manufacturing plant. There, she is approached by an agent of the Romanian Securitate.He uses a variety of tacticsto appeal to her, flattering her first, then abusing her, all with the intent of persuading her to become an informer, spying and reporting on her colleagues at the factory. Muller refuses, and almost instantly finds herself an outcast.Lies are spread that she is a spy. Everyone knows this is not true, but everyone is afraid.Her best friend refuses to let Muller into her office: I can’t let you in. Everyone is saying you’re an informer.
Her desk is repossessed, her status stripped away.
Even if most of us have not lived thought such terror, we have experienced situations where the words around us became suddenly a lie, or where we do not know how to assert our own truth in the presence of what seems an overpowering mandate to think or be a certain way.Or where people or words actively betray us.
Once cast out, Muller spends her days sitting on the factory staircase, reading the dictionary for she has nothing else to do.Painstakingly, she learns all the words that have to do with stair: “HAND is the direction a stair takes at the first riser. The edge of a tread that projects past the face of the riser is called the NOSING…nosing and hand, so the stair has a body “ In finding the story words tell of the objects around her, she sees how they can create another world—not quite the world; yet a truth of the world:
Whether working with wood or stone, cement or iron: why do humans insist on imposing their face on even the most unwieldy things in the world, why do they name dead matter after their own flesh, personifying it as parts of the body? Is this hidden tenderness necessary to make the harsh work bearable for the technicians? Does every job in every field follow the same principle as my mother’s question about the handkerchief?”
Mueller is fascinated that it is precisely in the slippage of words, their materiality which has an affinity with, but is not the same as, the materiality of the worldthat provides words with their curious capacity to see inside or to reform or remake one’s relation with the world, even in the most desperate of circumstances:
The sound of the words knows that it has no choice but to beguile, because objects deceive with their materials, and feelings mislead with their gestures. The sound of the words, along with the truth this sound invents, resides at the interface, where the deceit of the materials and that of the gestures come together. In writing, it is not a matter of trusting, but rather of the honesty of the deceit
I love the phrase she uses here: “honesty of the deceit,” for when I think of writing, both as a political and a personal act, it is the imperative toward honest deceit that catches me the most. Often, when I write a poem or an essay, and I try to include something I have seen, I am always conscious of my failure,the way in which what I write isnever quite the thing itself.At the same time, I know when the deceit is most honest, the words catch something that is true in a lyrical andpolitical way about experience.Often this occurs when I am furthest from being strong or in control, but rather when my vulnerability is most acute, when the only means I have of bridging the gap I feel between myself and what is around me is through the materiality of the words themselves.
In finding herself under a dictatorship, unable to speak in a way that would be believed, Muller becomes obesesed with writing, with studying, simply, the words for things:
….what can’t be said can be written. Because writing is a silent act, a labor from the head to the hand.I talked a great deal during the dictatorship…Usually my talking led to excruciating consequences. But the writing began in silence, there on the stairs, where I had to come to terms with more than could be said.I reacted to the deathly fear with a thirst for life. A hunger for words. Nothing but the whirl of words could grasp my condition….
This week when I read of Trump’s newly enhanced presidential mien, and saw the stories about the war that might be coming, and thought about how powerless I—and most of us—feel, and how the language of the public arena itself seems to defeat our efforts to change or mend or heal what the wounded world is doing around us, I thought of Meuller’s speech, and the notion of words as a way of filling the gap, theirhonestdeceit, or that they,through their matter, will somehow penetrate or pierce the consequences of the fictions we live by each day.Muller writes:
The more that which is written takes from me, the more it shows what was missing from the experience that was lived. Only the words make this discovery, because they didn’t know it earlier. And where they catch the lived experience by surprise is where they reflect it best. In the end they become so compelling that the lived experience must cling to them in order not to fall apart
You could mull over what this means for a long time, but I think what I take from it—is simply this, only in the words can we hold the distinction between what is real and the unreal ideologies that make up so much of our lives at this moment. We can remember that it is only persons who suffer and, more, we can without deliberation or foreknowledge begin to trace what is missing from the lived experience of our time.
It seems so long ago now: Brexit, the British equivalent of America’s Trump moment. By a similar slight tipping of an almost equally divided electorate, that necessary legal fiction called The British People chose to leave the European Union.
What the fiction concealed was a polity more split than ever, and with no wish to reconcile… not to mention the widening cracks between the four countries of the British union, the United Kingdom, or between regions of England itself.
As for the Yes/No question – making it so simple, you would think – that concealed complexities that would not have fitted on ten sides of ballot paper, let alone that one tick-box. Whichever way you voted, you’d been trying to ignore the fact that half your allies looked for all the world like enemies. Even one word, Yes or No, seemed like the answer, in each voter’s mind, to a whole array of different questions. Were you saying No, or Yes, to complicated bureaucratic legislation… or to globalisation… or to bloody foreigners… or to a gallant attempt to heal the fractiousness of a continent prone to internecine wars?
That was nine months ago – time for something, or at least some understanding, to have come to birth.
Some fifty years ago, I stumbled on the unappealing-sounding The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. I do care about science, but what it suggested, eye-openingly, was more. It concerned how we change. Why is it that we don’t change smoothly, incrementally, as we gain more information? Largely we don’t, not individuals any more than nations; we move in jolts and lurches, with ideas seeming to seize power in sudden coups.
Kuhn’s insight was that we live in a matrix of information, some of it fitting our current account of things, any things not. In newer terms, we think we know what is the signal, what is noise. We live with the freight of things we tell ourselves might be an error, or irrelevant, or just waiting to be better explained next week. Then one day, someone says What if that’s not the story? What if the exceptions are the story, in the margins of the page?
In Britain’s Brexit moment, we heard a blare of noise. The fact that it was being organised into a cruder, nastier and falser story is not the point. The howl of hurt unfocussed rage, of whole neighbourhoods, whole regions who saw no place for them in the current story, the yearning to uncomplicate things, violently, was going to be heard.
Was it a feeble response then, from some of us stunned by a genuine grief, to pick up our pen or laptop and write poetry? In my case, not even political poetry, not continuing the argument by other means, because my paradigm-shifting moment said: Maybe it’s the story of Yes/No that’s the problem, which we have to get beyond.
Alphabets are how young children come to language. A is for Apple, and so on. Trying to see what it was I felt such grief at losing, I found myself spelling out an alphabet of Europe, in the poem here. It contains some close-up details of European history that rarely feature in the headline stories, but that’s part of the point. Brexit barely features. The letters spelled out a wider story – of Europe already much more various than we tend to think, Europe now reeling at the impact of an age of population shift, of continents spilling, leaking great migrations. (This is not new. It’s the periods of apparent stasis that are the exceptions.) With migrant boats sinking offshore, we were struggling to be the Europe those desperate people dreamed, and we hoped, we might be. We needed to be bigger, in heart and practicality. Instead, nation by nation started backing into fear and defensiveness, into our smaller selves and stories of the way things used to be.
No, poetry is not the answer. It might look towards a better question, one that’s wider, deeper, than the Yes/No story. So few words, such a slight art form. Still, it points a way to being more.
Trying to Spell Europe
Armistice: for a minute or two, we understand each other. Silence. Then the
harder part, a life’s work: language must step in.
Banlieux: the writing in the margins of the city. Dark illumination. Yes, and we
will need to read it before we can understand ourselves.
Calais: the lost thing that inscribed itself not only on one dead queen’s heart but
thousands, where it translates into any home or hope.
Danube: not to forget, there is this other river that shapes half of Europe, that
concentrates its melancholy in the (what else?) Black Sea.
E-numbers are a way of knowing, that’s all. Of perceiving what our tongues can’t
tell. Did we think Brussels hid them, microscopic numbers in our food?
Frisian: the language most germane to English, of a country on and not on any
map, its heartland those long islands, barely more than shifting dunes.
Gross: allow me, please, this little word for Big; not just because it’s mine. Because it’s here.
Because it feels, in its bones, the swash of centuries.
Hanseatic: now, there was an empire – without borders, without army. Gabled
houses, and the weighing out of herring shoals, their scales, their silver.
Indigenous: for us, the word is affectation, scarcely old enough for habit. It’s no
time at all since the first stragglers happened on a house swept bare by ice.
John, Johann, Jean: three guys, three guises of J on our tongues, slipping from one
set of taste buds to another, as in a wine tasting: rinse, spit, taste again.
Kick out the Ks, unsettling letters. Tolerable when accompanied, as at each end of
knock. They are the crackling of boots through Northern, Eastern, forest dark.
Lulled, on the other hand, by languid sounds of Languedoc (disregard the silenced
voice in that word too) as if L was a lingua franca we could speak.
Médecins Sans Frontières, there’s a clue: not that our wounded borders are in need
of healing, but that borders are themselves the wound.
Nation: a shape that casts its shadow in the light of something other – maybe the
glare of empire; also the tiny candle of a stranger in the corner of the room.
Overseas is a word that comes too easily to islanders. Offshore (yes, with its stain
these days of dodgy dealings), that may be more to the point.
Pétanque, pelota, pesäpallo: we should give some time to other people’s games.
Not to compete, just listen to the tunk or whap against the wall next door.
Q’ran: he’s learned to write it; it disturbs him still, that letter abroad without its U,
old rules unput, and the sound of its catch in the throat.
Renaissance, Reformation, Risorgimento: it seems we never make a move without
the prefix glancing back at what was lost before.
Stars in too snug a circle on their blue-sky flag? As we know, it’s only where we’re
standing, looking, that makes any constellation hold.
Tundra crisping the Northward edges of our vision. And the South wind on the
windscreen with its gauze of desert sand. Both these define us.
Urals: there’s a skyline, and a far one, but why should this crimp in a landmass
make a continent, unless it mirrors some crimp in our minds?
Volte face or viva voce or (in acclamation) viva anything… From now, there’ll be
examinations on the border, to turn the voice back, though it only wants to live.
West is the wall we’re backed against, with, we would like to think, the setting
sun. Then it too takes ship, off, out. Leaves us standing on the shore.
X is that otherness, that and the Z, Basque shows us. As if any easy kinship was
being nixed. It’s a cross in the box, but no one tells us what the question is.
Yogh: that Saxon letter, never travelled, still leaves its guttural trace on our Y, a
shadow on each clumsy impulse towards Yes and You.
Zero, now, and zenith… Zodiac. I could go on. Wherever did you lay your hands
on words like these, their smell of spice route, alcázar, bazaar?
On a recent Saturday morning seven of us sat around a table with steaming cups of tea and homemade blueberry muffins. Good friends, we spent a fair amount of time sharing our common despair over the current state of the U.S. government. We had come together to talk writing, but the two Ps – politics and poetry – seem to roll around each other like shards of broken glass in a swelling sea.
I do know English and, therefore, when hungry, can ask for more than minimum wage, pointing repeatedly at my mouth and yours. – Eileen Tabios 
We live in Northern California’s red towns. The conversation we had wouldn’t be welcome in other parts of our lives: at work, with our neighbors, with our families. The ability to speak freely felt like discovering a camellia tree pink as a valentine in bloom during a long, rainy winter.
As we finished up, gathered our bags and coats and headed out the door, I was filled with dread at the idea of going back out to a world where I look at everyone I meet and think, “Did you vote for this?” knowing that half of those people would say yes.
In the entryway, I said to my friend, “Time to return to the unsafe spaces.”
It wasn’t until later it occurred to me: I said these words to a woman who at one time was forced out of her home because she’s a lesbian. She’s been living in unsafe spaces for years.
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk – Audre Lorde
As a white, able-bodied woman who’s married to a man, I’m not really experiencing unsafe spaces, other than the usual walk through a dark parking lot with my keys between my fingers. That’s nothing new.
Now, though, I am afraid – of what? – that someone will wear a “Make America Great Again” hat to our neighborhood block party, and we’ll no longer have conversations over the fence while pulling weeds? Yes. But what’s the worst that’s really going to happen at that party? I might feel compelled to turn in early for the night.
if the black girl knows she has already been beaten, as if
the black girl hasn’t always survived beatings. – Deonte Osayande
It’s not on quite the same level as a black person who’s worried that the neighbors are white supremacists who feel they’ve been given the go-ahead to burn down homes because racism is now employed in the highest levels of government.
There’s nothing I am or wear that makes me a target.
And yet, every day feels like a long walk alone through a poorly lit garage.
I pay taxes and I am a child and
I grow into a bright fleshy fruit.
White bites: I stain the uniform.
I am thrown black type-
face in a headline with no name. – Morgan Parker
I’ve always been prone to bouts of inexplicable sadness, but since November there have been so many nights when, last to bed, falling asleep in the dark, I’ve wished I wouldn’t wake, and in the grayish numb dawn the heaviness clings to me, and I have to talk myself into an upright position.
Quit bothering with angels, I say. They’re no good for Indians.
Remember what happened last time
some white god came floating across the ocean – Natalie Diaz
My conversation with myself begins this way:
If I die, someone else will raise my 9-year-old son, and she’ll let him watch rated-R movies and swig Monster energy drinks for breakfast.
If I die, my daughter will drop out of college, and unable to re-pay her student loans she’ll be forced to live on the streets.
Isiah is dead— or
Isiah is standing right in front of me,
he doesn’t even know what a bullet means. – Sean Desvignes
If I die, my husband will become an alcoholic, lose his job, lose the house.
No one will walk the dog and as a result he’ll bite people and have to be put down.
If I die, I won’t be here to see the glorious defeat of evil.
I want to see the glorious defeat of evil.
Finally, the fact that I choose whether or not I continue to live is my white privilege.
It’s highly unlikely that another person is going to take my life because of who I am, and I understand that there are so many who aren’t given the choice to stay alive.
for even after the dead, there are things to learn,
like reading, and maps, and minus one. – Zeina Hashem Beck
I’ve heard people from marginalized communities say again and again: You thought America was a safe space? That’s cute. Welcome to our reality: Educate yourself.
And little by little, I am trying to educate myself, beginning with poetry.
A few kind people have pointed me in the right direction, some poets I have discovered on my own, and some I am reading anew.
It’s not perfect, this fragile understanding. It will never be perfect, but I keep reading, along with many other forms of resistance. Maybe it will help. Maybe it won’t. In any case, I don’t want my death to be a tiny white flag of surrender. If it comes to it, I want to die fighting this beast, a sword in one hand and a poem in the other.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying,
As a white woman from the American south, I’m no stranger to conversations about race. I’ve moved between passively listening to people consciously (and unconsciously) disclose their racist thoughts in private and observing those same individuals assert their “colorblindness” or “open-mindedness” in public. It’s uncomfortable. Before Donald Trump’s election into the U.S. presidency, I may not have been so honest with an audience of strangers about the racism I witness in my everyday life. It simply wouldn’t have been acceptable. However, the forces of hate are so vivid and destructive that we all have a clear choice to make.
Before I participated in what would become the racially controversial Women’s March on Washington, I reached out to a handful of fellow writers and invited them to a secret Facebook group to discuss how writing and communication can facilitate racial reconciliation in America. As a writer, I was especially curious about the power of words in an age of data deluge.
I was joined by three women I met during my time as a graduate student at Penn State University:
Alexandria Lockett, a black American woman who composes and edits business and professional writing and also teaches writing, rhetoric, and media courses at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia
Jami Nakamura Lin, a Japanese-Taiwanese American woman who writes fiction and nonfiction and works at a public library in Chicago, Illinois
Toni Jensen, a Métis (Native American) woman who writes fiction and nonfiction and teaches at the University of Arkansas and the Institute of American Indian Arts
I initiated this conversation in search of practical tips that could help me become a more effective ally for “the cause.” But as I reflect on my intentions, I realize how sterile the word “practical” sounds when applied to an effort intent on eradicating hundreds of years of human suffering and dissolving deep suspicion regarding cross-racial contact. What is the power of the word “practical?” It reveals an impulse to “fix” and has the rhetorical effect of severing human connection and emotion. It also seeks control.
Giving up control, then, was one of the primary lessons of this experience. As the deadline for this blog post approached, I sought to bring our conversation to a purposeful (and efficient) end. But Alex pointed out that “The conversation about race and writing never ends.” Indeed, our conversation expanded beyond that Facebook page and lives and breathes even now, as you read these words.
You may notice that this piece has two main authors, as well as two contributors. It is worth noting that the entire concept of authorship changed after our dialogue. In this introduction, we opted not to utilize the second person to demonstrate our collaboration because Alex recognizes me as the lead author of the work. It began as my vision, and she has happily disrupted it. You will notice her voice in the dialogue and her authorship of the conclusion.
The act of sharing the responsibility of editing a text and communicating about that process to an audience is still rather alien to a predominantly white readership. It’s not neat, it’s not “practical,” and it requires giving something up. Because writing is something we do, we have the power to determine how we relate to it and how we own it. Writing need not be a solitary or detached endeavor; instead, it can be an act of relating.
What follows are edited excerpts that highlight some of the key themes that emerged in our month-long conversation. These passages are not simply the selective gaze of the white single-author. Instead, Alex and I worked together to identify what we both perceived to be important parts of the dialogue, and we edited each other’s work in real-time. The other contributing authors trusted us with this editorial job, and they remained involved, providing feedback and approving the final version before we submitted it.
As you read through our conversation, I urge you to consider: What happens when women writers representing different races talk about how race affects writing and communication? What kinds of writing become possible when one writer decides to confront how race and racism affect her understanding of language and power?
Lucy Bryan: I’d like to start by sharing what happened the first time I attempted to directly write about race. I was in my first year of graduate school, and I was grappling with the legacy of racism in my white, southern family. My ancestors were slave-owners. They were involved in killing and expelling native peoples from central Florida. My family supported (and continues to support) policies and social structures that have helped to maintain economic and social divides along racial lines.
Although my parents felt a strong obligation to the poor (who, in our city were predominantly black) and contributed time and money to local charities and social services, this didn’t change my feeling of complicity in the racist systems I inherited. So, I wrote an essay about my awareness of that injustice, my outrage, and my guilt, and I submitted it to my creative writing workshop. The essay was roundly criticized for being static: Nothing happened. I wasn’t doing anything to address the problems I wrote about.
Seven years later, writing about race as a white person still feels complicated and risky, and I’ve gravitated to other, easier topics—often reasoning that I should let marginalized people speak for themselves. But that seems like faulty logic. I’d like to join the conversation, to use what little power my platform as a writer affords me to combat injustice. I’m willing to take the risk of failing, or messing up, or exposing my own ignorance. But I’d also like to be responsible, informed, and sensitive. I’d like to avoid causing harm. So where do I start?
Alexandria Lockett: I’d like to know more about how you feel about and recognize the boundaries that your family taught you to respect. For example, how were you taught that being white meant having a space? Who did you see crossing “the line?” What is your most memorable experience, even if it wasn’t of yourself. What were your/their actions, and what happened to them?
Lucy Bryan: First of all, there was a very clear physical boundary. I lived in an upper-middle class, nearly all-white neighborhood near downtown Orlando. A highway called Colonial Drive separated my neighborhood, “College Park,” from the low-income, high-crime, mostly black neighborhood.
The public schools in my neighborhood were very diverse, as a result of a busing policy aimed at integrating the schools—but I rarely (if ever) saw the non-white children from my classes at birthday parties or sleepovers, and I frequently heard parents complain that the bused-in students were bringing down the quality of the schools. I don’t think I began questioning this dynamic until high school, when I called one of my black classmates a friend, and she laughed at me and said, “When have we ever hung out outside of school? When have you ever invited me over to your house?” Things changed after that—I did start inviting school friends of other races to my house (though I was never asked to cross to their side of that boundary). My parents welcomed those friends just as they would my white friends—and as far as I know, my neighbors never protested this change. But my behavior was definitely not the norm.
Recounting these stories makes me feel shame. I also fear that exposing this reality (portraying “my kind” in a bad light) will result in some kind of retaliation—against me or my family members. It also makes me realize how all-white spaces make racism easy. No one has to cultivate self-awareness or a sensitivity to injustice, because they don’t have to see it—and when someone crosses the boundary, whites can frame themselves as victims and non-whites as violators.
Alexandria Lockett: Your real life living with race reads like fiction: colonial drive, highway division that moves your bodies from top to bottom like the highs and lows of color-coded semantics of American Southern race semantics. I don’t think writing about race is capable of moving forward if we don’t honestly reflect about how we “learn race” through our literal contact with both “our own” And “others.” Feelings are not facts, as my hero RuPaul frequently argues.
Toni Jensen: Lucy’s response about childhood and place is especially interesting to me since I lived in the College Park neighborhood of Orlando for a few years but long after she did. There still is a working class section, which is under the freeway, the I-4, which is where I lived with my family. Our neighbors were from everywhere, and I loved living there—if not for the noise and pollution of the I-4. I had a cough the whole time we lived there, for example, because of the pollution from the traffic.
I understand the gated nature of Orlando and of most cities in the U.S. The boundaries are drawn early and fixed. They shift only when proximity to downtown, to the center, becomes something considered desirable. Then the undesirables are pushed under the freeway. That’s America. America is founded on a land-grab. America is synonymous with the capricious, with the non-sensical boundary-making endeavor that we call ‘progress.’ So many people view these borders as ‘natural,’ as ‘always.’ But they are constructs that serve the few. We’re seeing more awareness of this idea post-election, with maps of voter districts making the rounds, with ‘gerrymandering’ making the lexicon.
Indigenous people, including the Métis, have known about gerrymandering since always. All reservation and reserve borders are capricious, are the result of gerrymandering. No treaty with Indigenous people ever has been fully honored. So when I lived in Orlando, I was more comfortable living under the freeway than I would have been in a gated community—except for the coughing.
Jami Nakamura Lin: I’m interested in participating in this conversation partially because I’m struggling, like Lucy, with what to do now, in this current political climate.
I’m a fourth-generation (yonsei) Japanese-American on my mother’s side—my mother was born and raised in Chicago, my grandfather was born and raised in California, but was placed in the incarceration camps during World War II, and my grandmother was born and raised in Oahu. My maternal great-grandparents came over from Japan/Okinawa at the turn of the 21st century. My father and his family, on the other hand, emigrated from Taiwan to Chicago when he was 11, in the early 1970s.
As an upper-middle-class Asian-American, I know I possess a lot of privilege in comparison to most people of color—the racism I experience, while frequent, is mostly of the microaggressive variety. Japanese-Americans (particularly in the wake of WW2) have a history of assimilation, of trying to keeping our heads down and skate under the radar. I am haunted by the images and stories of my grandfather living in those incarceration camps, of the feeling that this, too, is not too far away from happening today. And still I—and many in my communities—still drift towards complacency.
Lucy Bryan: So, what are useful ways of channeling the knowledge that emerges from honest reflection about race? And is writing is an effective means of fighting racism (especially for white writers)? I sometimes wonder whether the time and energy that I pour into writing be better spent doing something else—like advocating for local policy changes, volunteering, or even giving financial support to writers or activists of color? So I guess I’d like to know how you all justify the time you spend writing? In particular, why does writing about race matter (for writers of all races)?
Alexandria Lockett: This is a question of individual excellence. I do what I do well in the world, and spend my time on those actions that are capable of producing the most transformation. In other words, wherever we find ourselves being most generous is where we should unapologetically spend our time. Documenting human experience is a very important activity if truth is actually your master. My historical status as a non-human whose ability to exercise agency through intellectual activity has literally been against the law and continues to go unacknowledged, unrecognized, and restrained, has been resisted by brave women whose courage and conviction and FAITH in their ability to transform their image. I owe a tremendous cognitive debt to their sacrifices. My ancestors were in touch with conjure, which is most likely one of the reasons that I exist. There is so much knowledge to be remembered, which is why I seek knowledge in human symbol systems. I feel no debt to society, no obligation to rescue evil from hell. We are arranged here in this spatio-temporal location as extensions of all that came before and all that will be. We all have the power to change perception including our own. As a black woman, I fight racism by expressing my excellence.
Lucy Bryan: It would be dishonest to say I don’t care about being an excellent and successful writer—ideally, I’d like to use my excellence to fight racism and injustice, like you, Alex. However, I think that will happen in a different way for me than it does for you, because our contexts are different. I’m curious—do you think, for white writers, it ever makes sense to directly “write about race as the object of revelation,” or is it better to deliberately inhabit contexts in which “documenting human experience” might produce transformation?
Alexandria Lockett: I think that we perceive “excellence” very differently. I’m defining excellence in the sense that Aristotle does in his Nichomean Ethics—a text that has deeply influenced my articulation of ethics. The other text was Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Yes—I can attribute much of my reasoning about motivation to this book, which made me very critical of the kind of altruism that white neoliberalism thrives on exerting, the kind of “charitable giving” that actually reproduces the very inequality that many seek to eradicate.
If you are a white person and you are conscious of the biases of your system AND those biases advantage you, I think it would be honorable to put your effort into developing the kind of merit structures that are more inclusive and challenge you to be as good as everyone else if everyone else had a fighting chance, as well. This is what, in my opinion, some white people don’t get. Meritocracy arguments [anti-affirmative action discourses], which reinforce individualism and the bootstraps narrative, are flawed because they tend to privilege white mediocrity by abolishing mechanisms that would make competition more fair. And of course white people would not be as competitive in a system that others have had to work twice as hard to compete in because they would not share the same knowledge as their competitors. Likewise, the others are trying to gain the same kind of ACCESS (not knowledge) that their white counterparts are able to gain by virtue of someone sharing information with them about the PROCESSES OF ADMISSION that grant a person contact with the credentialing procedures necessary for operating with social (and often legal) approval.
I would like to operate in a true meritocracy where the competition has been leveled to where you and I, both writers seeking to be excellent writers, had the same access to expressing that excellence for others to observe our demonstration of the craft. To your point, we need to redefine what the “top” is, as well as establish certain thresholds of access that might guarantee the maximum amount of participation.
I want happiness. I don’t want to suffer. Who can help us make the cleanest air, most productive soil, and the purest water? The most delicious food and the best dancing and the finest singing and the most gorgeous love-making? I would love to devote all the rest of my days competing for those purposes. And I do. That is my resistance. In cultivating the power of our attraction and unapologetic desire to LIVE through the making of more LIFE is to live sustainably. To desire for us all to have that chance, and truly want it and will it and create opportunities for others to do so is to do so through antiracist and decolonial methods.
Lucy Bryan: What I want to be is an ally—not a savior or a crusader (I hate that word, but it does illustrate the point, doesn’t it?). That said, it’s easy to talk in abstractions and metaphors and much harder to figure out what allyship actually looks like in terms of what I do, write, or even teach.
Jami Nakamura Lin: For the privileged (and in this case, usually white people)—I think my humble opinion is that writing is, most of the time, *not* enough. I can’t say this cut and dry across all cases and situations, but I am usually of the opinion that white writers writing about race primarily helps other white people.
Oftentimes, white people writing about race just obscures/overtakes POC writing about race in different venues—as I recently stated in an online writer’s group. I was appreciative of the support there, but there was also a huge backlash, and several condescending comments by white women writers towards writers of color in the thread. One was something like: “I’ve been writing articles since before you were born.” The patronizing tone gutted me, reminded me that POC voices, even in these supposedly supportive groups, are only important as long as we are not seen as trying to to take space away from white writers.
Unfortunately, in my limited experience, white writers, when it comes down to it, will choose their success over deconstructing power structures. (To be fair—I would have extreme difficulty not choosing my own writing excellence/success over deconstructing a power structure, except that as a woman of color, I don’t have to make this choice—they are one and the same.)
For people in the minority, for people of color, depending on their situations, just any type of speaking / moving / being in the world is an act of resistance and empowerment and deconstruction, and so I would not ask for the same things as I would a white person, which is not to say that I think we should stand idly by. I must do more, I can do more, I should do more.
Lucy Bryan: Alex, what you seem to be saying is that who we are is what counts. In other words, if we cultivate kindness, generosity, humility, excellence, and a love of justice within ourselves, then those traits will radiate into our relationships, our writing, and whatever it is we do. This resonates with my inner Buddhist—the part of me that believes being is more important than doing. But like Jami, I have an inner critic that says, “I must do more, I can do more, I should do more.” I look at my life and my writing, and I wonder: Where is the work the work of justice? If it were a motivating force, a part of my identity and essence, I think my life would look different. Wow. I need to chew on that for a bit.
Alexandria Lockett: Lucy, your conflict is a consequence of living a “segregated” life. If you have to fight to make time to give up privilege it isn’t going to ever be enough. I’m an advocate of settlement houses and miscegenation because I think integration depends on racial mixing—socially and otherwise. But even this model could be terrible if people hate their own race.
Meanwhile, the cultural aspiration to whiteness is almost always an unspoken goal of antiracism. This “give them what we have” philosophy is hilarious. Westerners are some of the most spiritually bankrupt people on earth…!!!!! I’m not saying white people can’t do great things, but I am saying that their accomplishments are usually appropriated from other cultures and the (lack of) recognition of those other cultures as the intellectual origin of creation (and as the rightful inheritor of its profit) is at the center of the mechanisms of racism by all measures.
When antiracist ideologies are clearer about their outcomes, more will get done. So far, all I see are missionary models that reproduce not effectively fight against racism. At the least, we have to ask ourselves what our behavior would look like if we were really antiracist… what kinds of values would we have? What aesthetics would be beautiful? Who would we make love to? What kinds of social relationships would we cultivate? How queer would they be?
Lucy Bryan: So, I’m curious to hear you thoughts… For white writers who are serious about fostering a more integrated literary community, what do you think are some best practices? What are some questions they should ask before pressing “submit”? How might they recognize good opportunities to make space or cede space? How might they support or amplify the voices of non-white writers? And ultimately, what is your vision for anti-racist writing, publishing, and/or reading? In other words, what would you like to see writers of all colors striving for, working toward, and advocating?
Jami Nakamura Lin: My vision for anti-racist writing/publishing/reading is that
a) we need people on the front lines in the industry itself. In the article in the Guardian I posted on my own FaceBook page, Yaa Gyasi says: “It is not enough to go to the protest, if when you go home nothing in your life changes. If black lives (Muslim lives, women, etc) matter in public, in your tweets and on Facebook, during the protest, they must also matter in private and in practice, in how and what you teach your students, in who you hire at your office, what you feature in your lifestyle blog, your magazine, in who sits in the writers’ room and director’s chair.”
To extrapolate this to our sector, it matters so much who the industry hires as book reviewers. As editors. As interns. As marketers. I think back to the brouhaha over the When We Was Fierce YA book—how all the pre-publication press loved it, and then when the ARCs went out many reviewers of color rightly pointed out all the racism laced in the book. The publisher pulled it, but they pointed out that all the early reviews by School Library Journal, etc. were all laudatory. They said that, I think, to express their confusion, and in defense. However, it just goes to show that this is what happens when all our gatekeepers are white!!! Until we have people of color in these positions of power, making decisions over the publishing industry, I don’t think much will change. It’s not enough for publishers to give lip service to social justice ideas, to voice their support for anti-racist ideals: PUT A DAMN PERSON OF COLOR IN THE CHAIR. We don’t need more white people speaking nice. We need people of color at all levels.
b) Outside the book industry, we (your Average Joe reader) need to promote more books by people of color, which means reading more books by people of color. For example: I read 80 books for pleasure (outside of my library work and my research for my book) last year—and only 7 were by people of color. This sucks. This is my failure. And if I, as an Asian-American writer, am not doing this—it’s so easy to understand why other people don’t. That doesn’t make it right. I try to do little things. I’m in charge of creating book displays at my library, so I make sure to always put predominantly POC writers there. I suggest these books to patrons. But it’s not enough; I’m not doing enough; I need to do more, be more.
c) We need to check whose articles we share. Do an autopsy on the gender breakdown of the articles you share on social media, do a race/ethnicity breakdown. Who are you tweeting? Who are you posting? I think it’s easy to not see overall trends when we do all this so piecemeal—I would never have known I read so few authors of color last year if Goodreads didn’t tell me. We just need to take a good hard look at ourselves.
d) Continuing from above, DATA! More data! I’d like a VIDA-style count for race. They have smaller studies on this, but I think a wide-reaching organization with this focus would do wonders, I think—to have hard facts to prove to the industry how poorly it is (we are) doing.
Alexandria Lockett: I’m not sure how to answer the question until I know the ends towards which this conversation will be put. For me, a conversation is great, but a community is better. The conversation about race and writing never ends. It is a living breathing thang as long as we are intent on “fixing it.” Antiracism requires radical approaches to showing and taking care. Language in action is communication and we should fully appreciate the depth of its consequences on what is possible in the world. We should wonder if all the words in the world will help us conjure the actions that are so obviously needed. I have no authors to recommend, no vision to inspire. I only ask us to observe how we show love and to whom, how we feel love and from whom, and to let love possess us more often and expand as far as we will let it take us.
Toni Jensen: I would like to see all writers of color writing whatever they want to write and getting published widely and well. It’s not the writers or the writing that needs to shift—it’s the publishing world. So the question for me isn’t what the writers need to do—they’re doing it and doing it and doing it.
This conversation illustrates the unfolding process of four women willing to talk about how racial identity and perceptions of race relate to a writer’s practices. Our motivations for having this dialogue were various. When Lucy approached me about having this conversation, I immediately felt conflicted about participating. First, I didn’t want to do all the work. Next, I didn’t want to be placed in a position where I would tell the white person that everything will be ok, or intellectually flagellate/pleasure them with reminders of their guilt. I certainly didn’t want to have another superficial conversation about passively resisting fascism through more talk about talking about talking. Basically, I didn’t want to be put into the position of Mammy, Sambo, or a Magic Negro.
However, I decided to participate because I consider Lucy to be one of my more interesting colleagues. She has never hesitated to reach out to me, or speak to me outside of our professional engagements. We’ve always had a good rapport, and she never hesitated to “keep it real” about her life, her love for her family, her passions, and her goals in life. In other words, she seemed like a rare person to connect to because I observed moments of raw honesty in our prior conversations. Trusting anyone is difficult to do. If I did not actually know Lucy beforehand, my skepticism towards a white woman’s motivations to discuss race for the purposes of sharing our conversation with a wider public would have been declined. However, she seemed open to letting the conversation unfold, and I liked that other races and ethnicities of women would be involved too. Black and white tends to almost always dominate racial politics in America. We need to hear more from our sisters of the rice, corn, and plantain.
As a black woman, talking about race is simply part of my life. It is not an optional activity. It is not something that I do because I suddenly notice the prevalence of injustices that don’t inconvenience me too much. Of course, I have a much different relationship to the term “race” than other people do. For me, discussing the social, informatic phenomenon of race does not mean inciting difference for the sake of trying to be disruptive. It also doesn’t mean being impolite or rude. While I am always aware of race as a social construct, I am also aware of race as a cultural marker that signifies the fact of very unfortunate colonial pasts that need to be remembered—not forgotten—if they are to be learned from. History is most useful living in our memory to increase the substance of our souls, not played out in our everyday lives in a tragedy of blame and regret.
Throughout the conversation, we may have offended some people by discussing white people as a problem. To clarify, I do not hate white people. I greatly abhor whiteness. From my perspective, whiteness is a manner of behavior that is enacted through its declaration of impartiality and lack of existence. It is a denial of belonging to any place or culture. Whiteness is a convenient escape from history that enables refuge from conversations about responsibility to it. Many people like to talk about being white as a privilege. That may be so for persons who have both fair skin and practice whiteness. However, a person need not have white skin to perform whiteness. Whiteness is less about color, per se, and more about a condition of suffering from color-blindness. If you belong to no time, no place, no people, your ability to connect to others will be stifled by an inability to remember anything about what it means to overcome conflict caused by racial and gender separatism.
We know that whiteness is destructive because even as those who seek to stop talking about race think that they are acting on behalf of a greater good, the fact of white (skin color) power advocacy exposes the cultural significance of whiteness. Whiteness, for a white nationalist, means that you should be willing to commit acts of murder against “others” to affirm that your system of law and order will allow you to get away with it. For them, a white person literally getting away with murder is simply a time-honored tradition of white culture, and a mere demonstration of the unabashed supremacy of the “white race.” Those who ignore race as proudly as a white supremacist lives by it hold no one accountable for social problems. Whiteness is a see no evil, hear no evil mentality. When a person sees “no color, or no race,” they empower those who see race and gleefully practice racism because they rob us of a language to even talk about race.
In sum, our discussion was a rare one. We are not “famous authors” who will draw readers because of our canonized names. We’re women who write in all kinds of ways. We produce information, as well as help others find information and find words that match their desires, intentions, and goals. This work binds us together because we see a lot about life that other people casually dismiss. In the business of writing and communication, we observe and feel the anxiety, embarrassment, and frustration when people lack the ability to express not just what they want, but how they feel about what they want. What is not-so-obvious about the public disclosure of some of our dialogue is that women’s talk tends to be very invisible. We are quite used to women guiding us and assisting us with our needs, but it is not often to glimpse how they communicate about their work. Before our audience is tempted to filter our experiences through the lens of their own lives, I hope that our readers appreciate the emotional work women writers, teachers, librarians, researchers, and consultants do. We are not perfect, nor should we be expected to be. As artists, we simply want to be free to imagine a better world and do what we can to manifest it.
Dr. Alexandria Lockett is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches courses in digital writing and rhetoric, business and professional writing, as well as grammar and style. At Spelman, she co-directs the Writing Intensive initiative in collaboration with the Comprehensive Writing Program. She also serves as a co-coordinator of the Pulitzer Campus Consortium, and faculty mentor to the independent student-led literary magazine publication Aunt Chloe. Her research focuses on the conceptual and causal relationship between race, surveillance, and information leaks across media. She has presented work on this subject as it applies to various learning spaces at the most recent CCCC and RSA conferences, as well as in the role of keynote speaker at the Gulf Coast Student Success Conference (Brazosport, TX) and the Truman State University English Senior Seminar Conference (Kirksville, MO). Dr. Lockett’s was recently awarded an ACS Faculty Grant (2015) to organize a faculty development symposium entitled, “Integrating Wikipedia in Writing-Intensive Courses at ACS Colleges,” and has published work in Composition Studies, Enculturation, and the McNair Scholarly Review. @MzJaneNova (Twitter)
Lucy Bryan lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a vibrant city with a diverse population of refugees, migrant workers, Mennonites, farmers, scholars, and students. Bryan serves on the faculty of the Writing Center at James Madison University. She holds a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Penn State University. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Quarterly West, The Fourth River,Nashville Review, and Superstition Review, among others. She is currently working on an essay collection that uses landscape, ecology, and natural history as lenses for examining experiences of loss and discovery.
Jami Nakamura Lin is a Chicago-based writer whose work highlights intersections of ethnic identity, faith, and mental illness. As a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, she will spend this spring and summer in Japan, researching and writing a novel based on local folklore. Her book project investigates the traditional figure of the oni (roughly translated: demon) both literally and as mythological metaphor for the outsider. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the Pennsylvania State University, and her work has appeared in the Passages North, [PANK], the Baltimore Review, and other magazines. @jaminlin
Toni Jensen is the author of the story collection From the Hilltop. Her stories have been published in Ecotone, Denver Quarterly, Iron Horse Literary Review and elsewhere. She teaches in the Programs in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas and in the low residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Recently, in my graduate fiction workshop, we were chewing over that vexing subject of the artist’s role in human society. Our discussion stemmed from having just read William H. Gass’s provocative essay “The Artist and Society,” which originally appeared in The New Republic in 1968 and then was reprinted in his 1971 collection Fiction and the Figures of Life. Gass’s theme is a timeless one certainly, dating back far earlier than the 1960’s. How can one not remember Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous formulation from 1821 that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”? It’s a line that sounds grand but has never made much sense to me, to be honest. Unless we take “legislator” to mean something entirely different from what it actually does. I’m from Washington DC. I know about all about legislators.
When I was in my wandering twenties and searching for a satisfactory career within which to apply my English degree, I toyed with the idea of finding employment in a congressional office on Capitol Hill. I did end up trying but was unsuccessful in my attempt, probably because I was completely half-hearted in my approach. Deep down I knew that working for a congressman wasn’t really what I wanted to do or what I should do. After all, I had come to the conclusion years earlier, early on in my college days in fact, that while everyday politics seems to get the press’s and the public’s attention, in the long run the arts have a lot more to do with forming human people and human societies; the arts, one could argue, help form the human soul. And how could there be anything more vital and more lasting than that? I was sure then that I was right, and I remain sure now. Indeed, when we look back on past eras it is the political events that we often have a hard time remembering, while it is the artistic accomplishments that we study and revere. And it is those societies whose artistic accomplishments seem minimal that we dismiss as less vigorous and less interesting, less demanding of our attention.
But knowing all that doesn’t really help the contemporary workaday artist struggling for purchase in a society that seems indifferent to him or her. It’s unavoidable that artists–whether literary, musical, theatrical, or visual–all go through periods of profound alienation from the culture in which they exist; and I dare say that most suffer a kind of low-level alienation their whole lives. Alienation from institutions; alienation from coworkers; alienation from churches; alienation from the world of commerce; alienation (most painfully) from the families in which they were raised; possibly even alienation from their own spouses. This alienation seems especially acute here in America, where–more than in any other country I can think of–an artist is made to apologize for and explain his or her ambition. Calvin Coolidge famously noted that “the business of America is business.” Sad to say that more than ninety years after that appraisal, with all the social upheavals and revolutions that have since occurred, the statement may be more true now than ever. No one ever asks a businessman to explain his interest in business. No one makes him explain why. No one makes him squirm. Too bad artists are not afforded the same respect. But they aren’t. Period. Hence this blog post and the discussion in my fiction workshop class.
So given the climate in this country–a climate that looks to get only more harshly anti-artistic and nihilistically money-grubbing with the advent of the Trump administration–it is fair to ask what’s an artist to do here. What can he or she hope to accomplish? How can he or she ever influence more than a narrow band of people? How can he or she actually affect a whole culture? It’s a common adage about writing that writers take up their pens (or their computers) because they have something to communicate, important messages to pronounce, compelling ideas to pass along. In fact, that perspective seemed to dominate the discussion in my fiction workshop class. One student stated quite plainly that he knew all of his readers “would not agree with [him]” but that didn’t matter; what mattered to him was getting his ideas down and out. He was confident that those ideas would certainly affect someone, and possibly in compelling ways. Another student argued that all the absurd prejudices and false ideas he saw professed by those around him, even those in his own family, maybe especially by those in his own family, would eventually be disproven by science. Science would eventually provide answers to everything, and the force of its cool logic would prove too powerful to deny. We all found this student’s faith in science, and, even more, his faith in his countrymen’s ability to listen to reason, conspicuously naive.
As interesting as the discussion was–and it was quite interesting–in the end I felt it missed the boat entirely. Because the truth is I don’t think writers–that is, creative writers, the kinds of writers and writing about which I specialize–write because they have “something to say,” some specific message with which a reader would instantly agree or disagree. If that were true, the job of the novelist would be essentially no different from that of the sermonizer or the philosopher or the editorial writer or–more harshly–the propagandist. In my opinion, those jobs are vastly different from that of the novelist. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I cannot tell you anything in particular that “I have to say,” any singular message or compulsive idea that drives me to write. I write because I want to tell stories. That’s it. That’s what I want to do. And that’s true whether I’m writing a short story, a one-act play, a poem, or a memoir. I want to tell stories that engage a reader’s imagination. After all, this quality is exactly what makes creative writing so different from any other form of written communication. So when I hear terms like “the fiction of ideas” I tense up; not because I don’t think fiction can transmit ideas, but because I worry that a fiction writer who defines himself or herself as such won’t take care of his first and only mandatory duty–to tell a story; I worry she will use the idea of ideas as an excuse to avoid that duty.
But here’s the rub, and here’s the magic. If I say that creative writing isn’t primarily about transmitting ideas does that mean that creative writing can’t be deeply affecting, even formative? Do I mean it’s no more than escapist entertainment? No, not at all. I would not assert that the stories I write are “merely” anything at all, and certainly not escapism. But if you’re not in the game of making messages, I hear you ask, how do you expect that what you write will affect the wider culture? I’m going to answer that question by ending this post the same way I opened it: with William H. Gass. Gass does not have the exclusive answer to your question, but he does have a great one. Gass asserts that artists definitely do affect their culture, but not from spinning any coherent “messages.” Indeed, despite being a philosopher himself, Gass does not look for a sustained, organized philosophy from the fiction writer. What does Gass think fiction can do? In a world in which we are too quick to dismiss the humanity of those outside of our immediate tribe, when we are given to characterizing others with prejudiced and belittling slogans, so much so that we dismiss their lives as fundamentally unreal–we “unperson” them, to use Gass’s phrase–it is fiction, Gass argues, that can act as a corrective. It is fiction (broadly defined) that reminds us how real we all are, and how more real we can be. “Works of art confront us the way few people dare to: completely, openly, at once. They construct, they comprise, our experience; they do not deny or destroy it; and they shame us, they fall so short of the quality of their Being. We live in Lafayette or Rutland–true. We take our breaths. We fornicate and feed. But Hamlet has his history in the heart, and none of us will ever be as real, as vital, as complex and living as he is–a total creature of the stage.”
How do we affect reality? By adding to reality. That’s what a good, well-told story is: a beautiful object added to the sum of what we are as people, what we have done, what we can do. Gass: “The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love.” That’s enough–and that’s everything. A well-crafted human tale matters more than any message. And maybe it matters more than ever now, following a presidential campaign that from its very first day, its very first speech, attempted to “unperson” an entire population, and then went on to “unperson” several others. Maybe the way we “defeat Trump” is to portray reality so broadly, so fully, and so compellingly that even he and his lackeys and his henchmen and his sycophants cannot deny it.