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What Is Literary Activism?
This past summer, I was asked to talk about my literary activism as part of an acceptance speech for an award I was receiving. This request threw my current actions into sharp relief. Was I doing “literary activism”? How to define if this is a thing and not simply a medium used on behalf of another movement (I.e. a poem as vehicle a movement can utilize)? Or is literary activism stepping back and looking at how the cogs and wheels of the literary world go together or grind and crunch in order to respond critically?
First a little background: I’ve been engaged in various forms of activism since I left home at 17. These include marches, counter marches, clinic defenses, and on the ground actions (some illegal), with various groups like Act Up to feminist and GLBTQI groups, etc. I was also briefly part of the zine and Riot Grrl scene in Baltimore and D.C. back in the day.
Between my participation in such groups and my Women’s Studies, and, later, American Studies classes, along with the campus Feminist Collective, these engagements and activities helped to foment much of my early understanding of what it means to be an activist. I bring some of those ideas into my own poems now and, even more so, into the classroom—and consider this transition, especially as an educator, a natural extension of my activism. In conjunction with those groups, the writers and educators I also learned from set examples, broadened the scope of possibility and legitimized the attention I felt ever more committed to devote.
Beyond that period of intense and dynamic growth, I was writing a blog and heavily critiquing “Best of” lists about seven years ago when I pretty seamlessly fell into working with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts at its inception. My recognition of literature’s value and primacy and how it shaped me had become an almost unconscious imperative as I contributed to looking at gender in the literary publishing world. I began to participate on panels and give talks, and these invitations inspired further research into the historical facets of women in the publishing world.
As I’ve continued on as an educator and graduated to becoming a member of VIDA’s Executive Committee, I began to recognize a need for greater consciousness to shine a light on the gaps where certain voices were either outright rejected or passively ignored. This includes even looking where women’s voices are featured since there is no universal woman.
So for this award speech, I realized it would be helpful for me to connect the dots in my own evolution in order to crystallize a personal concept of literary activism, but as importantly, to recognize my own limitations and inability to set the industry standard, so to speak, on what literary activism is. So I reached out to a number of activist writers and asked them to weigh in on what their experiences of literary activism are. Partly through my work with VIDA and partly due to listening to writers of color, I am as of late far more keenly aware of the optics of situations and publications and politicizations—and I very much want to counter the idea that a) a white person is always the trusted authority on a concept, especially an evolving one related to activism that many have been doing, in varying capacities, far longer than I have, and b) no one person should be the final authority on articulating a set definition or set of rules for what literary activism might entail. In other words, like most activism, literary activism must certainly include a range of ideas and actions and voices, even if some contradict or go against others.
Part of working towards understanding and attempting more pluralistic or consciously inclusive approaches to such matters means I have for quite a while been working on recognizing my own privilege, and therefore have also become aware of my limited perspective and understanding. I realized I would never have to face some of the situations, microagressions, suppressions and oppressions other writers explicated in a poetics, via voice, such as in the passionate bravery of Audre Lorde, or through writers I met in This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, or by way of the alternately comedic and serious intensities of Lucille Clifton and the challenges to the Eurocentric hegemony as penned by Paula Gunn Allen, among many others. They not only articulated in poems realities I had not lived, but they also invented and developed and explored concepts I had not thought of.
I also grasped that much of what those writers were vocalizing not only gave voice to people of similar experiences, but their words were also a charge to me to not continue feeling comfortable with the privileges I enjoyed because they often came at a cost to others. This seems like such a simple obviousness, but because it is very easy not to listen or read the experiences and concepts and aesthetics of others unlike ourselves, it is just as easy to defend one’s privileges against the unknown boogeyman who would threaten those of us divested with such powers endowed by the luxury of chance. We are born with certain protections simply for being perceived as white, male, heterosexual, able, American. To suggest we might listen to the pain of others and share that which is a perceived threat to our birthright gives rise to any number of abstract arguments about protections afforded us by the U.S. Constitution, arguments regarding how we are deserving and good people, etc.
The only real remedy to this impulsive combative defense I’ve found—and we’ve seen it enacted by the sea-change in attitudes towards gay rights—is that one needs to hear about the lived realities and ideas of “the Other” so that we might begin to empathize, approach understanding and be willing to relinquish certain privileges, including risking our own safety, in order to demand the safety and platforms for others not automatically entitled or granted it by birthright. Of my own medium, poetry, I have much hope, despite the ongoing attempt to colonize and capitalize its very existence via white supremacist tendencies in the academy and mainstream publishing world especially. Poetry has been a vehicle unmarried, so far, to any ultimate “official” authoritarian definition, and therefore, it retains its powers of vastness, affordability and adaptability. It is the spearhead of language as it pierces, points out and pivots at the bequest of many. Poetry continues to enjoy one of the more remote luxuries of disregarding monetized allegiances, at least as the least popular and packageable medium, which is why you’ll find numerous poets in the vanguard of articulating the least popular but most transgressive and challenging ideas going in any given period, including the present.
Below you’ll find some incredible poets’ and activists’ contributions that speak to just what literary activism might include. Contributors touch on consciously curating reading series to “activation literature” to posing questions about the range of political overtures and implications of such activism to the marginalization and sexual harassment of women to penning political poems to (in the face of determined efforts) recognizing complicity to being a writer of “purity” resisting integration to resisting the social activist label and the implications of such resistance to cultivating empathy—and beyond. Their ideas are additionally helpful, perhaps as other young writers invested in the literary world begin to ask what they might pay attention to, what questions they might explore and how they might embark on committing to literary activism. Hopefully too, editors, publishers and teachers will find these writers’ words illuminating areas we may not be able to see due to our own privileged positions or lack of experience in such matters. And maybe we will all catch a glimpse at the example each of us can strive to follow and further develop and advance in our own activist lives.
Literary activism, to me, looks like opportunity. Looks like loving attention, like curiosity, like inquiry. Looks like the supportive sharing of eyes, ears, hands, minds, hearts, and tools. Looks like being willing to be wrong, to be outdated, to be educated, to learn something new from someone different and strange. There are so many important voices who never get the chance to find their greatness, shut down as they are by the insistence upon a dominant aesthetic even when we all know that mimicry can be deadly. What good is a raven singing a robin song when it breaks her beautiful raven voice to do it? Is this what we really want to teach? Is this what we really want—need—to read? There too is so much greatness that many never get to see. Again this insistence on a dominant aesthetic. Here’s an apparent secret: the dominant aesthetic has been done. And done. And done. Yet we tell students and aspiring writers to read, read, read, then offer them a pile of the same book with different authors scripted across their covers. We want new ideas. We want fresh voices. We want important and exciting work, and then we strangle the budding voice boxes just as they are straining to speak and tamp down the mature voices that we need because they don’t sound like everything else we’ve been taught to hear as good. Most everything I’m proud of doing has in some way created space for new voices (writers AND readers—why do we so often denigrate our readers?!), “outside” voices, dangerous voices to trust themselves, to express themselves freely, to turn down the static-rush of the mainstream quarterstaff and create space for genuine creativity. Creativity doesn’t necessarily follow instructions—despite what today’s MFA-obsessed literary culture would have us believe with its million assertions of “how to be a writer” and “what a good writer is/does.” Creativity often paves its own way, usually with the help and support of a community that believes in it. We must be that community that believes in it. If we refuse to be so, then we should at least love creativity enough get out of the way so that it can find its community for itself and there feed and be fed. That’s the opportunity of literary activism—to act. And if not to act, then to move along (saltily or sweetly, creativity doesn’t really care) so that action has room to move and breathe and do.
Growing up between two different worlds—Mexican and Jewish— I always had to negotiate, whether it was identity, language, family, education. It wasn’t until I entered college that I learn to advocate—for myself and for others who didn’t fit so neatly, didn’t play so nicely, in existing racial, sexual and religious categories, in the so-called “canon.”
This past July, I finished my third and last fellowship retreat for CantoMundo, an organization dedicated to fostering the growth of Latina/o poets. In turn, CantoMundo has fostered within me an urgent need to advocate and spotlight Latina/o poetry. I wrote here for The Kenyon Review about the origins of this calling, my work curating and editing Latina/o poetics and poetry for The Conversant and Luna Luna, and also asked CantoMundo fellows to join me in honoring Latina/o literary influences. At AWP 2015, I both moderated a panel of mixed race literature and participated at a CantoMundo roundtable on poets as publishers; after both sessions, a number of writers approached me for a list of books by authors whose work I had discussed, whose books I teach in classes called “American Lit,” classes that I had taken as a student which were dominated by Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemmingway, while marginalized voices were deemed “too specific” or “too recent,” and therefore “unnecessary” in understanding that relentless oil slick of a canon.
Working with both CantoMundo and VIDA has inspired me to dismantle the existing patriarchy/pedagogy, and most of all, to advocate for a literature that cannot be summed up in a paradigm—a misleading guiding, single star.
I’m visiting with my friend Bianca and her mother in the woods of Vermont. Yesterday we cleared out a little house on the property of Bianca’s grandmother, the poet Ruth Stone. Going through old books, students’ manuscripts bearing Stone’s caring comments, recipes and funny notes, I think again about what it means to live for your art in this way, favoring its materiality and the values serious art-making grows in you over the brutal monothink of a commercial capitalist culture. I think about Baba Yaga and a lyrical avant-garde. And at home in Brooklyn I encounter every day those outliers who, like the women whose work I study, Diane di Prima and Audre Lorde, fight to survive (though “we were never meant to”) and fight for others too in a society that would at best appropriate and monetize their power, and at worst simply kill them—for their refusal to worship its idols, for their different productivity and ability, their poverty, gender, their color. I am in awe of these warriors. In practical terms literary activism can mean simply living as an artist and so showing others how to even as they show you; showing up for each other, teaching and caring the way we are not taught to—the way we’re not even taught to care about ourselves. Out of love, not “duty or pity.” It can mean saying “no” to a compromising opportunity even when you can’t afford to. Having witnessed the war and fall of socialism in former Yugoslavia leaves me with the knowledge of how quickly ideologies can change; academic study makes me aware of the limits of institutionalized Western thought; the Black Lives Matters movement gives me the hope that America can change too the way it must. What have you done today for another? Have you heard racist comments fly and not spoken up? Did you cook for a friend or a stranger? Do you feel weak today, is there anyone who can help you go on? Did you ask? Have you shared your power today? You won’t take any of it with you when you go. The coffin’s got no pockets.
From 2001 to 2009, I collected and published rape survival stories as an activist project. I don’t claim this as “literary” activism, because the stories were all about content, and while some of the survivors may have been considering craft or form while writing, that was besides the point. From 2010 to 2011, I facilitated the Veterans Writing Workshop at NYU. While this workshop emphasized craft over content, many of the participants used the time to tell versions of the stories they had lived while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. For me, literary activism had a lot to do with what stories are being told, by whom, and to whom. And while these two experiences—with survivors of rape and survivors of war—are very integrated in my mind, it is inescapably clear that the public, via major publications and publishing houses, is taught to be far more interested in stories of war than in stories of rape. More literary activism needed here.
As an editor at both VIDA and at No, Dear, I am still primarily interested in content, in the individual and cultural stories that are not being heard in the mainstream of the publishing world. As an editor, I continue to learn the importance of widening our own circles and listening to and engaging with the voices that we might have been missing. For me, literary activism means considering and challenging: who is being published? who is doing the publishing? what are the means of selection? of production? of distribution? who is the target audience? the actual audience? how is an audience being invited? impacted? what impact is the writing and publication having on the writer? the publisher? how are we engaging young readers, and to what ends? I believe in the importance of these questions, and in the actions that emerge from engaging with them. But I also see the limits of literary activism, and the need for it to intersect with a multitude of activisms in order to realize substantial social change.
What is literary activism? Rather than write an essay stating my politics, which seem to change almost whimsically, I thought it would be better to name the questions that blow the weathervane one way or the other.
1. What would a third culture that can imagine both poetry and politics look like? For a while, at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, so many of the job applicants were either Ivy League grads who cited French theory and Clarice Lispector or activists who majored in ethnic studies and came out of spoken word. What would it mean to run an organization that could be loved by both people?
2. What happens when one begins to think of ethnicity not as a safe space or even a space of empowerment, but as a counterculture, as what Michael Warner called a counterpublic, not unlike the way one might look at historical avant-gardes?
3. Are attempts to diversify literary institutions (or, say, call out Kenny Goldsmith and Vanessa Place) by their nature depoliticized or as radical as arguing for better inclusion in poetry’s corporate diversity group? And we often think of cultural recognition as a kind of placating decoy, an accommodation that substitutes for real change. (For example, multicultural holidays, rather than mass-based participatory movements.) I have often thought that literary politics should thus prioritize material changes over creating written works that simply espouse good intentions. I have more recently wondered if writing is something different, since its domain is that of imagination. Is poetry a utopian art, an art of political prophecy—a way to prefigure new and future ways of being?
4. For both narrative and experimental poets, poetry seems to be a genre dedicated to the private self—the humanist introspective ego, for the former, and the private language of the autonomous aesthete for the latter. Is a public poetry therefore intrinsically oxymoronic—and if not, what best alternative history can we draw of working models for a poetry of the political? Is the allergy to politics specifically American?
5. Many politicos and activists I know prize accountability (ethical representation of ones aims and “the people”) and positionality (a definite, thought-out politics), but many poets I know, even very political poets, do not seem to use these notions. (Much “political” poetry, for example, seems about documenting generic suffering.) That being said, I have come to relish the irresponsibility of artists.
6. Regarding accountability, is one’s only form of foundationalism the people? Do the people actually exist? Is it possible to be a political poet without advancing the social role of poetry beyond a literary work to be read? I sometimes believe that the most “political” project we’ve created at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop is Open City, a magazine in which emerging writers of color write about the poorest ethnic community in New York City, low-income Asian American immigrants.
7. What room is there for political mistakes, for bad or nonsensical positionality? How can one have “good politics” and also a sense of humor—or strangeness, unpredictability, mercurialness? As David Graeber asks in, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropologist, what would a political theory of happiness look like?
It is convenient to claim that writing is inherently an activist occupation—especially for those of us who write from a “marginal” experience—and it is true. Telling the stories of queers and women and people of color is inherently a radical act. But I have found it a different sort of activism than the more direct, less personally glorifying work of organizing, facilitating, and listening. It seems like folks in the margins are forever having to work harder for less, and for free, and activism is more work. But I find that this work—which includes, among other things, my role in VIDA’s Executive Committee and my work as a curator who focuses on queer/feminist/POC voices—actually gives me more stamina for the rest of it. Over time, I simply grew uncomfortable calling myself an activist without taking any action off the keyboard, the same way I became uneasy about my disinterest in writing criticism while I resented (and complained about) the staggering majority of white male reviewers and authors reviewed. It’s easy to feel as if we are politically active by posting an article on Facebook (though social media can be a powerful political tool), and I try to fight my own complacency, my paralysis in the face of everything so enormously fucked up, my not knowing what exactly to do about it. In this way, as in writing, I think we need to push beyond the point of our discomfort, our fear of being wrong or embarrassed, or of changing our minds. I give myself permission to participate, to ask questions, and to change my mind. I try to give other folks permission, too, in whatever ways I can. Sometimes we need that. Avoidance has never led to personal peace for me, though it has often been my instinct. I share Alice Walker’s sentiment that “activism is my rent for living on the planet,” and Fitzgerald’s resolution that, “I must hold in balance the sense of futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle.”
As literary activists, we can amplify marginalized voices by sharing resources, but we can also create something new. This means not only sharing publishing, reading, and residency opportunities, but also being sources of knowledge, guidance, and friendship. We, as marginalized people, exist in systems meant to keep us out. I am incredibly grateful for the people in my life who have guided me through spaces where people like me are not supposed to be and have built new spaces where I feel I belong. Editors, directors, curators, and professors who share not just opportunities but build long-term relationships with marginalized writers are both helping individuals, and enriching our writing community as a whole. But you don’t have to be in a place of power to be a resource. We can be lighthouses for one another, regardless of aesthetics or levels of expertise. We all have something to give, be it comfort, shared anger or distress. This Thanksgiving, my friends and I built a fort out of my home, where we forgot for a little while that we are not wanted in this country, where we watched Wendy Williams and made pozole and alfredo and did not even talk about poetry. But we pooled our strength, and we gained new life. When I moved to the Midwest three years ago, the whiteness was overwhelming. But gradually communities found me, and together we’ve gained strength, traction; we are heard individually and together. If we can share resources, advice, if we can become mentors for one another, we can build something separate from the existing hierarchy, a poetics and a landscape where we create value for ourselves, a system with no topdown dynamics.
—Suzi F. Garcia
In discussing activation literature, which is how I wish to define literary activism, as opposed to what we’re often institutionally given as poetry, I wish to pull from “Interview with an Empire” by NourbeSe Philip.
“Interview with an Empire” is an all encompassing critique of white modernism. In regards to her practice as a writer Philip writes that, “History was not death for me, as the postmodernist urged. I wanted a chance to rewrite it. According to my dictates–my memories.” But that the processes of language formation “represents a wound for me.” Of poetry she reiterates the material conditions of the current world, in which the “so-called developing world” is set up to exist for the unending gluttony of the “west.” In the context of this violent consumption, “to have the ability to make consumption difficult–is a quality to be valued.” Philip tends to making literature indigestible.
Perhaps to make literature and its activations indigestible commensurates with Audre Lorde’s call for tools that work to dismantle the master’s house in its entirety. To explode not only the surface, but to posit illegible, foreign, artificial artifacts into the colonial imagination, anti-black poetics: literature as indigestible: as direct weapons against breath: as unrecognized deposits that festers and festers en masse so that the take over needs no approval, no democracy (hatred for democracy for this body anyway, as Ranciere might quip): indigestible, illegible, foreign, smallest, mythology 2, mythology 3: I am interested in them.
Is representation, is poetry a reflection of the structure—and therefore of no use other than as appeasement, as decoration, a middle- to upper-class activity that maintains the imagination of the status quo (let this argument, this version die already!)—or can representation and even more specifically literature, act as a instigator, as fracture, as activations, as traitors to the systems that exist to protect and produce the appetite of the global north?
I say yes. Just this week I read four poems that uprooted me: Jennifer Tamayo’s forthcoming work in Apogee, Malaka Badr’s “Pleasant thoughts for getting rid of rage” Nikki Wallschlaeger’s “Sonnet 59” and Layli Long Soldier’s “38.” The only poems I remember are the poems that have transformed my body. I’m thinking of Lucille Clifton, Aimé Cesaire, Don Mee Choi. I’m thinking of Bhanu Kapil’s monsters. And the forms that alter our relationship to language: NourbeSe Philip, Amiri Baraka’s. The works that challenge our allegiances, activate our ancestors (Lucas de Lima) and asks us for radical, structural implosions.
I see many forms of literary “activism” that manifest themselves as Facebook posts or retweets–alliance with a cause, or support for a cause, or shaming, etc. And of course most people in the literary world pay lip service to “diversity” and “community” and try to show that they support these ideas through this kind of social media activity. But on the ground, in the actual, you know, world, I see very little in the way of diversity and community building. I am invited to reading after reading on Facebook in NYC comprised entirely or almost entirely of white writers. There is good male / female balance (in fact, most readings I see are predominantly female), but a shocking lack of writers of color are represented. And I think the people who organize these readings, while surely meaning well, do not realize the kind of power they have to shape our literary community for the better–to be more inclusive. Maybe you put on a reading and you want to invite writers you like, or your friends (or both); this is understandable, but if all those people are white, you had better think about the impact you are having on the literary community, especially if you call yourself a “curator” and run a “reading series.” Maybe you wonder why the audience for a reading of all or mostly white writers is all or mostly white. That is not a coincidence. I go to readings in Brooklyn, not exactly the most undiverse place in the world, and sometimes I am the only person of color in the room. When I met Jenny Zhang, it was easy to notice her because she was the only other person of color in a room full of over 75 people at a book party. Speaking personally as an Asian American male, I can count on one hand the number of poetry readings I’ve been to since moving to Brooklyn in 2009 in which I saw an Asian American male read. This is the subtle kind of behind-the-scenes racism that nobody talks about: POC not being represented at readings, simply not included. There is nothing like affirmative action for reading series. I see almost no dialogue about this in the way VIDA has created dialogue about representation in literary journals. Anyone out there want to do a VIDA-like count for what percentage of writers of color are represented in reading series in NYC? In America?
I organize and host a lot of events for Brooklyn Poets (over 40 events the last two years) and I tell you, the only way to incorporate diversity into your events is if you try. Put some constraints on your reading series; at Brooklyn Poets, we make sure of the 18 poets we invite to read in our reading series over the course of the year, more than half of those come from underrepresented groups. Not just POC, of course, but women, LBGT writers, etc. The constraints often make it more difficult to put readings together, because I can’t just invite friends or people I know or people whose aesthetics obviously align; and I have to push myself to read more and more writers I don’t know–but that is a good thing. I don’t get the sense that many curators out there are even trying to incorporate diversity into their events, save for those who run organizations with a clear diversity mission, i.e. Cave Canem, Kundiman, CantoMundo, etc. What we need is for everyone who runs literary events to start actively implementing diversity, not just the people who support POC and other underrepresented writers. If you call yourself a curator, well, curate something–you know, think about what you’re doing. That’s great if you go to a poetry protest rally against racial injustice, but if the next reading you host features all white writers, you are not helping.
“I hope you know your a slut whose going to hell.”
If the trolling I get is any indication, my work is political. I’ve written on the same subjects—sex and violence—all my writing life, and, for a long time, I felt a bit oddball in the poetry world, in a country that marginalizes women, women who perform sex work or have abortions or are the victims of violence.
It’s good to see that turning around, where there’s more room to write politically charged poems without being dismissed or shamed in deliberate or unconscious ways.
“You are using your sordid past to gain the attention of editors.”
I do believe that literature changes, even saves, lives. And I don’t care if that’s corny or unacademic or whatever.
Lately I’ve been trying to learn all I can about the disability community and their concerns and issues in the literary and larger world, as part of our developing a more intersectional VIDA Count. I admit I feel ashamed of my ignorance; there is so much I didn’t know about ableism because I rarely managed to think about it, to reach out. I am waking to these issues and consider it an honor to share what I know, to make visible the hidden.
“u shouldn’t be let out of ur house.”
I want to be of some use to my literary community and to the world at large. For every time I fell through the cracks, there was a sliver of net in the form of a generous human being who caught me before the abyss. I want to be as many nets as possible.
Yeah, what is literary activism? And do I do it? Probably I read all the wrong books when I was younger, but something in what I read convinced me—deeply and nigh-intractably—against writing “political” poems. I was convinced that poems arising from and representing/expressing political convictions were uniformly bad. And even though I thought of myself as a socialist back then (the kind of socialist who would have called himself a Marxist if he had ever read Marx—cut me a break, I was, like, 19…to, uh, about 30), it never once occurred to me that this conviction against conviction was both a symptom and a prop of capitalism. I don’t know exactly when I started to get over that kind of thinking, but I’ve been a black person all my life, so it must have been some time around then. And now, if I’m being honest, I have a hard time imagining what a non-political poetry would look like. And I would say political poetry is both literary activism and literary activism waiting to happen, in much the same way that Billy Collins is both poetry-world famous and real world famous. We do literary activism when we write our poems—most particularly, perhaps, when we write poems about political issues. (I know, I know—how could one not?) And we do literary activism when we read our poems to others or submit them to be published. And literary activism is done through us when our poems are published. And we do and have done through us higher-order literary activism, our most important literary activism, Billy Collins real world famous literary activism, when our poems are read. Because art embiggens—it really does; I know I’ve been embiggened—those who engage with it. How could that not be political? How could that not be activism.
I came to writing, serious writing, committed writing, by way of a suicide attempt. My brilliant Grandmother bought me a journal, after—as if she knew that what I’d been attempting to remove was not so much myself as the extraordinarily immense pile of Things I’m Not Supposed To Say. I gave a fairly good teenage go to getting my inconvenient interest in truth and justice out of the picture early. And survived. Here, said my Grandmother, handing me the lovely book of blank pages, after, it can go here. To have a safe place to put the perceptions was literally life-saving: writing got me through and continues to get me through all the endless (apparently) pressures to shut the fuck up and go the fuck out quietly.
I have an interest in the truth, or truths, plural. We can (and will) disagree and we will have to acknowledge if not discuss the subjectivities that inform our positions and perspectives, but there’s something gorgeous about the actual thing-that-happened (in all its complexity), and what we said about it, which becomes, as Wallace Stevens points out, a part of what it is: I am grateful for the lawsuit that is the word source (and legal record of the murder of slaves in mid-ocean) for NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! for instance, and the way Claudia Rankine takes on the account of the dragging death of James Byrd in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, as well as the moment in Carole Maso’s The Art Lover where we crash through every invention to the section titled “More Winter” and the unsparing and courageous account of the death of her beloved friend from AIDS; I like what Vanessa Place has been doing with witness accounts, and applaud what Charles Reznikoff did before her. I adore documentary footage and I heart the archives, however twisted by bad values and blindness (the special collections library at the Southern University with the carefully dried flowers from a Debutant’s ball, for instance, and almost nothing from the Civil Rights Movement); I am grateful for the chance we have to learn from our errors and I love the records even though (even as) they keep shifting as we sift. I love the traces of what we saw and heard and what we felt and thought and who we were (and the look on the face of the person saying “you can’t make this shit up…”). I believe in the dash cam and the body cam and the holy cell phone camera and the moment when we admit we let a lie lead us into 10 years of war. Because this is who we are: both what we see, and what we refuse to see—what we attend to, and what we ignore, or try to ignore.
My literary activism is rooted in this commitment to research and a kind of accuracy that feels to me like a way of being in the world that makes it possible to live and respect others. Most of the ways that commitment manifests are available, in books and on my blog, and I’m also happy to discuss it further with anyone who wants to follow up. I’d love a chance to talk about influences, for instance (from ACT UP and The Guerilla Girls to Brenda Hillman), heroines (Sophie Calle and Sylvia Plath) and touchstones (from Myung Mi Kim to the Black Took Collective). But I’m checking in here to write about an intervention whose consequences are still unfolding—and in some ways the most important thing I can do is simply to offer up the links to my blog, and the blog of Sandra Beasley, where…well…what shall we call it? (y)AWPgate? the D. Fenza papers? A particular intervention is still unfolding.
What you need to know? That the Executive Director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs reacted to provoking (public) questions about diversity statistics with a response apparently meant to silence inquiry. That—having thought about that response—I decided (for the protection of others) to make his letter (sent to myself and others at the institution where I am employed) public. And then you should know that, as of this writing, a measured and thoughtful consideration of this interaction, written by Sandra Beasley, was removed from Facebook (as was every link to her splendid blog).
I am still in shock about that one: it’s an extraordinary experience to see posts disappear, to be confronted by absence and silence, nothing left of the words, where people took the time to weigh in on an issue that engaged them. And then to find attempts to repost a particular link blocked at every turn—without any explanation… It’s breathtaking. I know, I know that this is a tiny salt or coke spoon full of the kind of poison our country has encouraged dictators in other countries to serve to their populations in large and lethal measure, but it’s a real dose…and there’s something to learn from this bitter little sip of censorship and repression, and there’s always something more to learn about resistance.
All writers are, as Hamlet says of the Players “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” He explains this in order to warn Polonius to use them well: “After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.” Inhabit your power to expose injustice and prejudice where you can, do all you can to correct blindness, wherever you can, speak up, turn a light on the violations and oppressions that depend on secrecy to thrive—open the doors and windows…
“Research in the humanities (perhaps in everything) is best when obsession driven. The so-called meritocratic elite academy promotes by separating research from teaching and service. I find that the three have coalesced in my case. After the fact, this may be proof of the digesting of deconstruction on my part, for that way of thinking and feeling, acting, undoes distinctions to show complicity, as it keeps them alive for methodological necessity. Thus, learning to serve the world through teaching is my research.” –Gayatri Spivak, from the abstract to her lecture, “Generalism”
For me, this nascent quality of my life that I’m calling Literary Activism means resisting the white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, global capitalist American imagination I’ve inherited. It means recognizing that the syllabus I give my students is not insulated from our murderous American reality. It is, to borrow from Spivak, a matter of rearranging desires, undoing distinctions, and recognizing complicity—all of this must constantly appear in my pedagogy, my interactions with faculty and peers, my writing style, my reading taste. Everywhere.
No amount of specialization or distinction or departmentalization can bracket our terrible American reality or justify our terrible American imagination. And as much as institutions of higher education pretend to accept this, I’ve learned that no Department (English, Police, etc.) is equipped to fully acknowledge its own complicity.
Departments can be perfectly fine and useful things. But I’m beginning to learn that they often need to be resisted or coerced.
For Roma, the arts have long been our lifeblood—oral narrative kept our histories, music guided our joys and sorrows, and our trades earned us our livelihoods. Roma are better known as Gypsies, a name given to us and used as a slur against us (Ex: to “gyp” someone is to steal from them). Some Roma reclaim Gypsy, hoping that when people hear or see the word, they don’t think of the sexualized, amoral, dirty, romantically free-spirited, and despotic stereotypes that plague us. We hope they think of who we are: a diasporic ethnic group with a rich culture and language originating in 10th century India and made nomadic by persecution. But to do that, we must represent ourselves. Right now, Roma world-wide are still fighting for basic human rights. We suffer apartheid, forced sterilizations, poverty, hate crimes, illegal deportation, racial profiling, ghettoization, the ravages of a history of slavery in Europe and the U.S., and the shattering blow of the largely unacknowledged WWII Romani and Sinti genocide. Because of this and the fact that Romani children are often segregated in schools, automatically put in Special Education classes, bullied so much that they leave school, or kept at home by their families for fear of integration and the prejudice that follows, literacy rates among Roma are very low. We have few opportunities to push back against Romani misrepresentations in popular culture, literature, fashion, reality TV—stereotypes that play no small part in spurring on anti-Gypsy task forces in the U.S. and Neo-Fascist political platforms, like the Jobbik party in Hungary, promising to “eradicate” Roma “pestilence.”
Our culture has been shaped by centuries of persecution, so it’s rare that a Romani writer does not deal with themes of marginalization in some way. Romani writers are charged with the monumental task of debunking stereotypes, representing a culture composed of myriad tribes/clans all with different customs and dialects, and simultaneously making their voices heard within a structure of systemic racism. The Opre Roma movement (Roma Rise Up) for human rights and representation is fueled by Romani activists of all kinds but particularly by artists. The very act of writing, for Roma, is a form of activism, both against systems of oppression, but also against the limiting aspects of our own culture, particularly for women who may have been raised in traditional families who expect daughters to become mothers and wives and that is all. And Romani writers must support each other, and most do, but our preoccupation with cultural ‘purity’ spurs some of us to accuse one another of being a Gyji, besmirched by integration or charlatan Rom altogether. This competition to determine who is ‘purest,’ will only weaken this vital movement from within. There are so many varied Romani experiences that there’s space for all of our voices.
When I taught a class on Romani Literature at Florida State University, none of my students could name a Romani writer and most weren’t sure who/what the Roma are at all. This is due to the nature of the great white male canon we are fed in school, the fact that Romani writing is under-translated in English, and to the rampant presence of anti-Gypsyism. But when we read and discussed a semester’s worth of Romani writers, they discovered metaphors and folk stories that spoke deeply to them and they began to understand our stories, and in turn, understand us. Every story, poem, and essay is an act of literary activism as we write ourselves alive as, as we are, and as humans deserving human rights.
A few years ago, while teaching a class in African American Literature, I invited a poet to SKYPE in with the class. I’d called his poetry Social Activism and High Comedy and Absurdism and Political Poetry. When I used the term Social Activism, in my introduction of him, he interrupted me to say something along the lines of “Social Activism what is that? what does that mean? That sounds so hoity-toity” and he went on to, basically, introduce himself, as a poet who writes poems. I was quite surprised that a poet with his catalog of clearly social activist and political poems would shirk at the term Social Activism and later, I saw how poets were balking, yet again, at the moniker Political Poet and Poet of Consciousness and Poet of Witness and Poet of Protest. I understand, of course, how academia can take creative work and squeeze all of the art out of it, to turn it into nothing but protest conscious raising awareness building social activism, and yet, I take great issue with artists whose work does, indeed, operate as activism, but claim the work is not activist work. They are, I imagine, reacting against academia. However, we can both push against scholars being “too scholarly” while also holding our work up as activist work. On the one hand, we, as artists, tremble at how STEM is taking over financial philanthropy, how the arts are being de-funded; on the other hand, we somehow want art to be art for art’s sake, to be removed from any context, personal or political or personally political or politically personal. When we insist that our creative work that is involved in shining light on injustices, involved in critique and challenge to these systems that allow for these injustices, then we end up with horrifying examples of attempts at writerly compassion that are, in reality, writerly ambulance chases. I speak here, of Lament of the Dead, an attempt to step in the arena of social activist poetry, yet fails, remarkably, to be anything other than vulturistic voyeurism. By seeing and articulating the synthesis between political life and imaginative life, we embody at least one of the hallmarks of the arts: to elevate our own consciousness and to work towards elevating the consciousnesses others in the world.
In a recent interview conducted by Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates stated, “Finally I think one has to even abandon the phrase ‘ally’ and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.” This is what literature can do, if properly wielded: It can help us know, and even more so, feel, that nothing that impacts another human can be truly separate from ourselves. Whether we are black or white; blind or seeing; male, female, or gender fluid, we are all made of the guts of stars. We all breathe and live and long. We are all limbs of the great organism that is humanity. Students who read not just John Donne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but Leslie Marmon Silko, Lucille Clifton, and Maxine Hong Kingston too will not have to be taught this. They will just know. They will feel it because they will have inhabited the minds of characters and authors whose experiences have grown them into larger human beings, who have taught them to feel the limbs of humanity not connected to their own physical bodies.
Sadly, we’ve seen the canon restrict literary empathy to a repetitive and limited experience of the world. We’ve seen privileged by literature those who were already privileged by life. This is not only wrong; it is dangerous for the people whose experiences, and therefore, lives, are not being valued. My activism is and has been to work towards growing our conception of literature to shape the world we want to have. Closest to home, that means making sure my students are not deprived of marginalized voices and perspectives—that their empathy reaches far and wide. In a broader sense, it means striving to provide those voices with platforms previously denied. That’s the work I’m doing with the forthcoming VIDA Voices & Views interview program—engaging a wide range of voices that we need to hear and learn from and spotlighting people in the field who are doing the good work.
Literary activism comes out of that need to not be alone. A need to know that we are out there, a recognition that we are here, and there is an audience for the work that we do. The reality is when we keep denying that we are a collective experience, with many voices that come out of it, and only focus on one vein of existence, the whole rest of the body politic atrophies. That state of atrophy is a condition of our oppression. We go dead brain from the same kind of stories/narratives, syntax and prosody, and we are tricked into believing that we are better informed. That we gained intelligence. And this is actually the loss of our humanity.
Different literary works open us to different states of consciousness. We are refreshed and our viewpoint expands, and that expansion is what leads to innovative thinking. We need to exercise the imagination if we are to be active collaborators in solving the problems that face us today. And as writers, we must do the constant work of making sure we are not forwarding the agenda of master narratives, personally and in our creative and professional lives.
Do what you are capable of doing to change the literary landscape, however big or small, in ways you can sustain, with the resources available to you. When you teach, inject your syllabuses with new voices, invite more emerging writers to your reading series, start a blog where you interview writers who are impacting the lives around you, mentor a (young) writer, participate and support organizations that are doing the work of calling out disparities or creating spaces that bring marginalized voices to the center. Essentially, make literature be a catalyst for activating your potential, for going into the realms you fear, for making the silenced heard. Reading does not need to be a narcissistic pursuit, but a means to reflect on aspects of our humanity that we’ve neglected.
Tags: Ana Božičević, Arisa White, Emily Brandt, Eunsong Kim, Héctor Ramírez, Jason Koo, Jessica Reidy, Ken Chen, Lynn Melnick, Melissa Febos, Melissa Studdard, Metta Sáma, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Samiya Bashir, Shane McCrae, Suzi F. Garcia
Posted in Featured Blogger on Tuesday, August 18th, 2015 by Amy King.