Guest Post, Patricia Caspers, Poetry: A Meal Served at the Table of Resistance

Poetry: A Meal Served at the Table of Resistance

Patricia Caspers headshot




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 [1]


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.

12.what once passed for kindling

13.  fireworks at dawn

14. brilliant, shadow hued coral – Danez Smith[2]


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[3]


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.


Someone asks 

if the black girl knows she has already been beaten, as if 

the black girl hasn’t always survived beatings. – Deonte Osayande[4]


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[5]


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[6]


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[7]


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[8]


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.

It’s fair.


No difference

if we don’t get along with each other

or speak perfect English—

you can’t help mixing us up –Amy Uyematsu[9]


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,  

            eating of the last sweet bite. – Joy Harjo[10]



[1] “I Do,” Eileen Tabios, Poetry Foundation:

[2] “alternate names for black boys,” Danez Smith, Buzz Feed:

[3] “A Litany for Survival,” Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn

[4] “Gradual Transformations,” Deonte Osayande, COG:

[5] “I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp, White Background: An Elegy,” Morgan Parker, Apogee:

[6] “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglican Seraphym Subjugation of Wild Indian Rezervation,” Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec

[7] “In Offense of Vision,” Sean Desvignes, PANK

[8] “The Invented Mothers,” Zeina Hashem Beck, Heart Online:

[9] “Someone Is Trying to Warn You,” Amy Uyematsu, Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain

[10] “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” Joy Harjo, Poetry Foundation:


Guest Post: Write Between the Lines: Four Women Discuss Race, Art, and Activism

Guest Post: Write Between the Lines: Four Women Discuss Race, Art, and Activism

By Lucy Bryan and Alexandria Lockett

With Jami Nakamura Lin and Toni Jensen

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.




Alexandria Lockett HeadshotDr. 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_HeadshotLucy 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 HeadshotJami 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 HeadshotToni Jensen is the author of the story collection From the Hilltop. Her stories have been published in EcotoneDenver 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.

Guest Post, John Vanderslice: The Artist in Trump’s Society

John Vanderslice bio photoRecently, 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.

And I guess that’s being a legislator for real.

Authors Talk: Deborah Bogen

Deborah BogenToday we are pleased to feature Deborah Bogen as our Authors Talk series contributor.

In “Pain, Poetry, Power,” Deborah discusses the necessity of using poems to express what can not be put into words. Especially with this recent election, poems are important to convey any emotions or thoughts that might be hard to articulate.

She reminds us that as members in the literary community, we have a duty to share these words so that we might move out from the darkness.

You can read Deborah’s poems in Superstition Review Issue 12.


Kehinde Wiley Upcoming Exhibition

A New Republic, WileyThe Phoenix Art Museum has an upcoming exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. The exhibition will run from October 7, 2016 to January 8, 2017. This exhibition will feature sixty paintings and sculptures by Wiley. Wiley has emerged as one of the leading American artists within the last decade. Known for his portraits, Wiley draws influence from traditional, aristocratic portraits to make his modern portraits. In doing so, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic raises questions about race, gender, and the politics of representation.

For more information, visit the Phoenix Art Museum’s website. More information about the exhibit can be found at Kehinde Wiley’s website.

Guest Post, Dixie Salazar: Dippity Don’t

Dixie Salazar picture

        “Imagination is More Important than Knowledge”   Albert Einstein

Growing up, I always felt different. Of course I struggled with this, trying desperately to fit in, reading in the dark, trying to strain my eyes so I might need glasses because one of the “popular girls” wore them and I thought they would give me access to her status. When the surfer girl look came along, I was again, out of sync, with a mass of kinky/curly hair that only went straight when I set it on huge orange juice cans slathered with Dippity Do, even attempting to sleep on this torture contraption, so I’d be acceptably straightened for school the next day, only to have my smooth cap of hair spring back into a froth of frizz as soon as the morning fog hit. Next came ironing—my hair, that is. I wanted that parted in the middle, straight down the sides Cher look, with a long, silky rope of hair that swung down to my waist. But I gave this up after singeing the side of my face, not the in look I was going for.

I’ve now made peace with my hair; in fact, I celebrate my hair, along with all the other differences that plagued me growing up. It turns out they are all the best things about me and they help me to appreciate and participate in the arts. So here’s my rant against uniformity, and I don’t think it’s overstating the fact to say that uniformity is a danger facing our entire country. Just look at the current state of national politics.


Rant #1 Uniforms: Parents and teachers love them, but aren’t they the first step toward cookie cutter soldiers, mass-produced to join the ranks of the corporate/military assembly line? I don’t know how I would have made it through school or my first mind-numbing job without the crutch of daydreaming my next day’s wardrobe. I loved putting together unique colors and styles and being creative with fashion. I still do. And unlike teenagers and gang bangers, I don’t want to look like everyone else.

Rant #2 Paint Nights: Where everyone pays a fee to put on a smock and follow a stroke by stroke demo from a so called artist, to supposedly unlock their hidden talents. And they each go home with an almost exact replica of the leader’s painting, and they are all the same and they are all happy and brag the next day about discovering the artist lying dormant within them for so long. Please! All they unlocked was the hidden copyist lurking inside. This is just wrong…on so many levels it would take several more blog posts and a lot more ranting to deconstruct.

Rant #3 MFA poetry products: O.K. This one may make me unpopular, but I can’t be the only one who feels this way. I’m talking about MFA produced/work-shopped poetry.  I swear that it has a smell (not fragrant). Three lines into reading one of these poems, my nose is twitching and my eyes begin to glaze over. It’s obvious the writer has mastered quite well the template for pleasing his/her professors. Granted, there may be imagination at work at times and even adept writing, but it remains static within the normalizing template. They were very smart, industrious students and they’ll become smart, industrious teachers and editors who’ll direct the next generation down the same rutted path of boring mediocrity. And we now have a tautology, a closed self-perpetuating system as well as a love fest. The students give their professors glowing evaluations so they can keep their jobs and the professors in return give the students glowing recommendations so they too can get jobs and …and they publish each other and read to and applaud each other. And most people who don’t understand (read) poetry accept it and go away reinforced in the fear that they just don’t get it.


Granted, the hot mess that is current politics won’t be easily solved by eliminating uniforms, paint nights, and MFA poetry, but unless we change our intrinsic value system and promote creative individualism and critical thinking over the mass consumption of acceptable, locked in place ideas, we are doomed to be ruled by those who would have us all look, think, talk, dress, act and vote alike.

One of the side effects of creativity is empathy. It’s impossible to relate to someone who is different from you if you can’t begin to imagine their situation or their plight as one you might experience yourself. Nurturing imagination in children is a crucial step toward creating a world where we value differentness and otherness. Walt Whitman said, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I become the wounded person.”

And finally, in the words of Alice Walker, “This is a wonderful planet and it is being destroyed by people who have too much money and power and no empathy.” I would just add that it’s being destroyed by people who have no imagination.

Guest Post, Adrianne Kalfopoulou: When Refuge becomes Refugee

In a stupor of grief and dreadRefugees in tents
Have we not fingered the foulest wounds
And let them unhealed by our hands?

“Why Is This Age Worse…?”
–1919 Anna Akhmatova (trans. Stanley Kunitz)

It seems a long time since the picture of a drowned 3-year old Aylan went viral in September 2015. Much was made of the dangling “Velcro straps on his sneakers”, that Aylan was dressed like any child going to a playground in a red T-shirt and blue knee-length shorts – the Turkish guard who picked up the tiny body looked away as he carried the child. How hard it would be to look. And he must have looked when he first picked up the drowned boy. It seems a long time because there have been so many bodies since, and so many of them children. There have been meetings and discussions in various parliaments in Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Germany, and of course Brussels, and some horrid policies have passed through them like Denmark’s law (passed in January) in which the government is now allowed to seize assets of “asylum seekers on arrival in the country and confiscate any non-essential items worth more than 10,000 kroner (£1,000) that have no sentimental value to their owner.” One wonders who decides on what is or isn’t “non-essential” or of “sentimental value”. Similar laws are now in place in Switzerland and southern Germany.

Young refugeesTo be a refugee means the refuge of what once provided the rituals of stability, like home and shelter, no longer exist, that larger threats than those of the risks of being a refugee are being fled. “I don’t want to touch that one” says a friend, “too heavy”, “too complicated” – what will happen if we let ourselves touch the bodies being washed up like the Turkish guard who lifted the dead Aylan from the sand, if we help the luckier to dry land? They will touch us too, the pain and mess of these displaced lives will be real and, especially, there will be names and faces connected to their tragedies. I am about to say something to a friend and warn her that it is unpleasant, and she says, “are you sure you want to tell me” and really means “I’m not sure I want to know” because once told, she cannot, as she tells me “unknow it”; phrases like “the immigrant crisis”, “the Greek debt crisis” desensitize, the particulars are conflated, the faces and names lost. It is more efficient that way, apparently, when dealing with numbers (think of pyramid schemes of debt, think how all the added 0s of the billions lent, and the billions now owed in the Greek financial crisis that are not being addressed in “real terms”; i.e. the IMF – imagine even the IMF – is calling it unsustainable, that the debt cannot be paid back when the economy itself is being cannibalized though there are very real people starving on the streets and homeless as a result); so the question is what are we, or what is “Europe” trying to be efficient about. History has given us some very dark examples of the efficiencies of regimes wishing to keep themselves untouched by groups considered threats to an idea of citizenry and/or belonging. Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life theorizes the biopolitics of “The Camp as Paradigm” in a chapter that addresses the separation between “humanitarianism and politics” as “the extreme phrase of the separation of the rights of man and the rights of the citizen.” I want to say what Clarice Lispector says in The Passion According to G.H. that “till yesterday” there was a way of “fitting into a system.” That now that system is broken and the privileged do not want to “use an unprotected heart.” Perhaps Europe has lost its heart.

Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister, says “the distinction between protection and the right to a better life has got blurred” having been part of a renegade contingency of Central European and West Balkan countries, including Hungary, to react to the immigrant crisis by being among the first countries to close its borders to refugees (and so removing themselves from the Schengen agreement of an open border system – that founding European Union dream that promised the free flow of populations). To Angela Merkel’s credit who, initially anyway, sought a joint EU solution for the crisis, responded that “When someone starts to define limitations [to immigration], others have to suffer. That is not my Europe.”

drawing of houseAs we entered the port for an activity session with some of the refugee children, we all noticed that there were twice as many tents as there had had a week ago; before the borders closed a lot of the volunteer work involved giving activity kits and baby carriers to mothers on their way north. Once they closed hundreds, and in the case of Idomeni, thousands were now stuck (read Phoebe Ramsay’s updates “On the Ground” on her Facebook page). Tents were everywhere, on any open space of pavement or grass, “Welcome to Europe” Alicia said. “Look at this….” Yes, look at this. Look at the woman using cardboard to sweep away the banana peel, cigarette stubs, and used tea bags from the space around her tent. Look at the children quietly returning crayons after doing their drawings, giving their drawings of houses and homes to those of us who sat with them, look at the boy who shows me there’s a hole in one of the sheets at the shelter and would like to know if there are any sheets not torn that he could have. Listen to the teacher from Aleppo who asks if we could bring some white board markers for the lessons she’s giving in the shelter, look at the fact that the toilets are overrun, that someone has thrown out a doll that looks perfectly fine, look at the boy who is downloading music on his phone, tell me where the border might be between them and us, or you and I?

ASU Book Group: ‘Pachacuti: World Overturned’ by Lori Eshleman

Lori Eshleman Wednesday, February 24th from 12pm-1pm, ASU instructor Lori Eshleman (College of Letters and Sciences) will be giving a book discussion on her novel Pachacuti: World Overturned (Bagwyn Books). This discussion is open to all in the ASU community and will be held in the Piper Writers House on ASU’s Tempe campus. 

Lori Eshleman, who has taught at ASU since 1994, has always been drawn to those spaces in time where cultural and religious traditions have encountered each other, from the European Middle Ages to colonial Latin America to the American West. Her new book of historical fiction explores the overlap of complex issues of race, gender, politics and religion through characters whose lives become entwined during an uprising in the Andean kingdom of Quito in the 1700s.

For more information on the event, click here.

Guest Post, Sam Gridley: Guns and Cheesesteaks: The Case for ISEP

unnamedEveryone lately has been talking about American political and cultural fragmentation—red states vs. blue states, natives vs. immigrants, cops vs. African Americans, and on and on. Even BBC News, to judge by its website, finds our cultural battles more interesting than MI5’s phone spying.

Not only do we disagree about everything, but we’ve combined our disputes with a new form of segregation. Most of us manage to live in a way that keeps us safe from The Others, namely, those whose opinions we can’t abide. In his 2008 book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop documented how Americans sort themselves into like-minded communities that have little contact with each other. We live in different cities and neighborhoods, we watch different TV programs and browse different websites, we listen to different music, we hear different types of news.

When by accident we stumble across The Others, our typical reaction is to brand them as ludicrous. Here’s an illustration: A friend of mine from Philadelphia, an American citizen born in Chile, recently flew to Santiago for a family visit, along with his American-born wife. When they returned to the U.S., they came through customs at the Houston airport. As is normal, my friend filled out a single customs declaration form for himself and his wife. The customs officer studied the form and the passports and then looked up suspiciously. “How come your wife has a different last name?” the guy wanted to know. Well, the wife is an academic who has published books and papers under her maiden name, so she’s not about to change it. She started to get upset, but my friend gently explained the matter to the agent: “You know,” he said, “some women who teach in universities like to use their original names, it’s pretty common these days.” The agent thought about this awhile. “Where you from?” he then demanded. “Philadelphia,” my friend answered, and the agent grimaced, “I don’t like Philadelphia. They hate guns up there.” My friend tried to finesse this point, saying there are plenty of people in our area who own guns (although he is not one of them). At last, the customs agent gave in and let the couple pass, but he issued a stern recommendation: “You gotta get yourself some guns!”

Naturally, as my friend told me the story, we both guffawed about it. How stupid that customs guy was! He didn’t even know that lots of American women have been keeping their maiden names for, like, the past 50 years??? A Neanderthal! There was no doubt that my friend and I shared the same opinion—and disdain.

When Pope Francis came to Philadelphia this past September, I thought about the issue again—because the Pope was the exception that proved the rule. On my Facebook feed, I encountered various reactions to the papal visit:

  • Appreciative: It’s so great that we can host a major religious figure in our city.
  • Mildly critical: It was a nice occasion, but the security measures went over the top.
  • Angry: It was a goddamn military occupation—National Guard, Secret Service, and Homeland Security everywhere!
  • Outraged: What the *@#%!! happened to the separation of church and state?!!!

What was remarkable was that my Facebook friends showed a significant range of views on the subject. This made me realize that, on most days, I encounter little diversity of opinion either in real life or on social media. Admittedly, there’s my one friend who believes Wall Street bankers should be shot, which I think kind of extreme; but everyone else I know thinks Wall Street should be converted into a maximum-security prison, so that’s not a huge spread of values. I dare say the same is true for most other Americans. Maybe you have Facebook friends who think everyone should have automatic weapons in the house, but if so, your other friends probably think at least a couple of .38s are necessary—again, not much of a spread.

There’s no doubt that our insularity, the way we isolate ourselves from other viewpoints, aggravates our differences. So what can we do about it? When my two kids reached college age, I tried encouraging them to attend schools in the Midwest, just for exposure to different sceneries and cultures. Our college tours took in Minnesota, Iowa, and Ohio as well as Maine, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. Where did they end up going to school? The Philadelphia suburbs and New York City.

My daughter did spend a semester in London, on one of those standard college exchange programs. She learned to ride double-decker busses, appreciate different types of curry, and spend pounds as if they were dollars. And I fondly remember my own time as a graduate student in London, when I learned to love beans on toast with milky tea. (That was before the whole city went upscale.) So, along those lines, I’ve been thinking: What about a student exchange program within the USA? Our contrasts with each other are much bigger than our differences from the average Londoner. I mean, my British landlords laughed at me when I asked where to put the “garbage,” but that was mere vocabulary, hardly like the gap between Sarah Palin and Elizabeth Warren.

Imagine how a domestic student exchange would work. That Houston customs agent would send his kids to Philly or New York for a semester. We’d have to quarantine their weapons, but they’d learn a hell of a lot about people different from them. And the same if we sent Muslim kids from, say, Flatbush to Kentucky.

I’m proposing to call this initiative ISEP: The Interstate Student Exchange Program. It will have to be set up by individual states, of course, because Congress can’t create anything except acrimony. I myself will be happy to host a young Houstonian, whom I can introduce to NPR, vegan cheesesteaks, poetry readings, and my friend who wants to shoot bankers (the young person’s guns might be useful for that). And I’m willing to send my grandchildren to Houston to learn about Tex-Mex cuisine, oil drilling, Kenny Rogers, and the proper way to hold an assault rifle.

The upshot of ISEP may be that we come to value our differences. Or perhaps we’ll just be better informed, so that instead of finding The Others totally weird and absurd, we’ll hate them for good reason.

By now, I confess, I don’t know how serious I am. Do we really need to treat other states like foreign countries? Must we set up an acronymic government program to help us talk to one another? Maybe I’m being earnest-ironic-whimsical—and if so, isn’t that appropriate for our times? Let’s ask Ms. Palin and Ms. Warren.

In case you do want to call your state legislator to promote ISEP, I’ll offer one final note: The program can be entirely tax-neutral. It can be funded by cutting regular school budgets, which many states already love to do.

Announcing: Kat Meads

Kat Meads headshot_300+In 2008, in Issue 2, Superstition Review published Kat Meads’ essay Relativism: The Size of the Tsar in Vegas.We were honored for her contribution, and we are now very happy to share the news of her recently released novel.


when the dust finally settles
by Kat Meads
A novel about land, loyalty and racial politics in the 1968 South
Ravenna Press, September 2011

Advance Praise for when the dust finally settles:

When anyone asks if Southern Literature has a future in our internet, iPhone, jet-lagged, speed-of-light world, I point them to Kat Meads. Her fiction is Southern through and through even as it embraces the dilemmas and contradictions of 21st century life. Simply put, you must read Kat Meads.
—Jason Sanford, Founding Editor, storySouth

Kat Meads’ writing is keen and precise; her stories, populous and lively. In when the dust finally settles, she employs a staccato, rhythmic prose in the service of a narrative both beautifully imagined and wildly exotic. when the dust finally settles will keep you up nights reading its propulsive story, but will also reward the reader who loves finely crafted sentences and pitch-perfect dialogue.
—Corey Mesler, author of Following Richard Brautigan

In The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan, Kat Meads created a 1950’s-era Scarlett O’Hara in eastern North Carolina. Now, in when the dust finally settles, she speaks through Faulknerian voices as white and black members of her small eastern North Carolina community desegregate the schools in the 1960’s. Meads’ Clarence Carter, speaking from the dead, provides a surprisingly upbeat (and humorous) perspective on the events unfolding in the community he has not yet quite left. The other voices, young and old, share Clarence’s openness to change—a refreshingly different Southern story.
—Dr. Margaret D. Bauer, Rives Chair of Southern Literature, East Carolina University;
Editor, North Carolina Literary Review


The Reading Period at Superstition Review has opened. Please send us your submissions of art, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction  between now and October 31st.