Not One of Us, All of Us: Writers Resist, Chicago
It is simply not enough to be an artist, unengaged. If you live in political times, if the lightning rod of history quivers with
fire on your roof, then all art is political.
Hope. Rebellions are built on hope. This is a line from Rogue One, the latest Star Wars movie that shows how the rebels stole the plans to the Death Star. Hope is what I struggled to feel on election night and the days immediately after the election. I was devastated. I’d voted in other elections where my candidate lost. However, this was more than that. My walk from the train to the building where I work in downtown Chicago includes me crossing over Wabash, where if I turn my head to look North, the sign on Trump Tower looms. It feels like a Star Destroyer hovering over the city.
As a writer, I am acutely aware of my own resistance or alignment with tradition and contemporaneous trends in American literature. Cities and their people have been at the root of American literature for centuries. The social function of literature is rooted in eighteenth and nineteenth century American writing, which encompasses the unacknowledged man or woman, the sex worker or drug addict, the slave or laborer. Using subversive language to embolden a reader or a listener, to witness the human condition, for better or for worse. Emerson said that while mankind is capable of sensing or being aware of the world, not everyone is moved to the “reproduction of themselves in speech.” As readers and writers, we must think back to the oral tradition and the importance of storytelling today through writing. I look to the past to learn from and avoid the costly mistake of not speaking out, of not using my platform as a writer to help others. This is the value of writing with a focus on society.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Resist. I felt confused and hopeless the day after the election. As a writer, part of my job is to speak out, reflect, and write about what is happening in society. But the despair I felt made writing, doing almost anything, impossible. As writers, we are observers of the human condition. Historically, writers have illuminated the good, the bad, and the ugliness of their place and time in the world. Consider the historical works of Phillis Wheatley on slavery, Margaret Fuller on women’s rights, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-abolitionism, Walt Whitman’s focus on nation identity, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s plantation experiences, Edith Wharton’s criticism of class, Carl Sandburg’s poems about laborers in Chicago, Langston Hughes on being a black American in the early-twentieth century, or Allen Ginsberg and the atomic age. Many of these literary giants have given subsequent generations a foothold for our own historical impression of the United States, then, now, and for the future. Acknowledging the past isn’t the focus here. More importantly, it is the potential of every writer to challenge or align themselves with the status quo.
Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.
–Harriet Beecher Stowe
Rebel. In the early winter dusk, the day after the presidential election, a group of people marched past my workplace. They held signs like “Dump Trump” and “Queer Latinx for Equality.” I ran out to stand on the corner, to shout and to cheer in support of the protestors. My despair and hopelessness started to fall away. One of the protesters shouted for me to join them. I did. I chanted with them, but I could only go so far before I had to turn back to go to work. However, the protesters, the show of solidarity, their chanting, their actions woke me from my election paralysis. I thought of the commercials for Rogue One. I thought of what it meant to say rebellions are built on hope. You rebel because you believe you can affect change, or why else would you bother? Like the protesters, like the characters in Rogue One, I believe my actions can change things for the better. Those of us from marginalized communities who can speak against oppressive regimes, those of us who can tell our stories to help the intolerant understand us better, and who can tell those who are afraid or unsure of what the future holds that they are not alone. We will stand for them and with them.
If you wish to heal your sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of others. They are looking to you for guidance, help, courage, strength, understanding, and for assurance.
As an observer, often it is the writer who gives voice to citizens when citizens are unable to speak out. From the mid-twentieth century to the present, writers like Tomás Rivera, June Jordan, James Baldwin, Dorothy Allison, Alice Walker, Paul Monette, Tory Dent, Audre Lorde, Carolyn Forché, Juan Felipe Herrera, Claudia Rankine, Ana Castillo, and so many others have written about the struggle of everyday people. As a writer and a person in the world, I believe in liberty and justice for all people, regardless of their ability, language or literacy, immigrant status, gender or sexual orientation, economic or social status. There is growing violence that has marginalized members of our communities. This makes speaking out even more important. With the hope that coming together will make it possible to stop any tide of further violence that might come our way.
Minorities, since time began, / Have shown the better side of man…
–Paul Laurence Dunbar
When the call came to join Writers Resist, there was no other choice but to say yes. We wanted the event to be an opportunity to inform and to educate residents of Chicago on ways in which they could be involved in their local and state government. We have organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood speaking at the event to provide residents with resources, information, and concrete action steps to take that would empower them to protect their liberties and freedoms should they feel disenfranchised.
We have writers who will inspire listeners to speak up and speak out. We chose writers who represented the populace of the city of Chicago—a group that was diverse and inclusive of ability, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. In part, we aimed to answer the question: Now what? How can one person make a difference? Or what resources are available to become civically engaged? The event in Chicago is a call for people to come together, to create communities with those of similar ethics and values—to speak and to act out during our current political climate, to be heard and to learn how to enact change.
For those who are unfamiliar with activism, it may seem hopeless to act and for many meaningless, but our voice carries weight and resonance. Our voice can manifest change. Sometimes we just need someone to teach us how to speak. For instance, you can stop harassment by not being a bystander. Step up, step in, and befriend the victim—act with positive intent. Start a conversation with them. Let them know they are not alone in the moment. You’d want someone to be there for you.
Our original plan had one event in the Loop because it’s at the center of the city, easily accessible from the surrounding neighborhoods. However, we quickly realized that to be true to the spirit of Chicago, a city of neighborhoods, having events in surrounding neighborhoods would be truly inclusive. Each neighborhood is unique with its own cultural populations. We turned to individuals living in those neighborhoods to organize events allowing each to have its own voice. We led a network of organizers and shared writers and resources with each event to ensure their success. We are united by our differences; what could have become divisions between neighborhoods turned into an opportunity. We are not in one place, but in all places.
—Ruben Quesada & Brian Kornell
Ruben Quesada grew up in South Central Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Long Beach. He earned an MFA in creative writing and writing for the performing arts at the University of California, Riverside, and a PhD in English at Texas Tech University. He is the author of Next Extinct Mammal (Greenhouse Review Press,...