The usual writing is no longer enough

Brian Foster and his brother. Courtesy Brian Foster.

Like many others, I see-sawed between speechlessness and verbal explosion as the election results piled up on Tuesday night. In the few days since, I’ve moved, as a writer and a teacher, toward simmeringly quiet. We all have much to think about, but for me there are two precise issues I want to explore. I want to write about how, by naming a designer of S.B. 1070 to his transition team, Trump has provided his first clear and intentional signal of what his ‘law and order’ ideals actually mean for all of us. I want to write about how felon disenfranchisement and prison gerrymandering (essentially a contemporary version of the three-fifths compromise) increases the electoral representation of select rural areas while ensuring that no voter’s hands are clean of racism and class exploitation, even when they ‘vote their conscience’ in a national election.

But right now, I can’t stand the standard mode of long-form journalism, or the typical think-piece, which strike poses of authority to say, “This is how things are; this is what you must think about; this is what we must do.” At this moment, I’m deeply distrustful of that writerly voice no matter what it is saying, regardless of whether it pronounces doom, calls for disruption, or counsels love.

And I’m especially distrustful of that voice when it comes from folks like me— younger, well-educated White folks who have not been around this block before, who load up on analysis rather than posing questions, who write in a style that insulates itself from being called out, who lead from behind rather than putting themselves in the vulnerable position of listener, follower, problem. This self-distrust makes it very hard to write about this election, at least in these early days, even while I know that we need to, and even though I read the sharp analyses of my colleagues and peers with gratitude and inspiration.

The problem, put crudely, is that resisting authoritarianism requires un-authoritarian modes of acting, speaking, and thinking. You don’t learn that in school. It doesn’t read like The New Yorker.

That’s a very basic, writing-before-breakfast way to state the problem. For its inadequacy, though, I think it is important that thinkers and writers recast this problem for themselves, and sit with it in terms that correspond to their own lives. Folks who resist real oppression on a daily bases offer sharper, more articulate, and more experienced ways— genius ways— of negotiating the problem. I think of Gloria Anzaldúa’s hybrid languages in La Frontera, Theodor Adorno’s “damaged” fragments in Minima Moralia, the way Angela Davis, in speaking, holds her listeners as accountable for fiercely active thinking as she holds herself, instead of telling them what to do. I think of poets and videographers and other artists who present their analyses obliquely, or on a slant. I think of the local organizers and activists I know who, instead of declaring “We all have work to do now!” have been, for the last few days, simply doing the grand and intimate work there were already doing: sharing resources, supporting people in need, thinking about how to disconnect safety from surveillance, getting the word out about that upcoming event. Holding space. Listening to listeners. Kicking the legs out from under heroes and grandstanders.

I don’t have much experience with thoughtfully, intentionally un-authoritarian modes of engagement, except in my teaching. I want to learn to do it better, and beyond the classroom. But right now, I want to shut up and listen to folks who do it best, to folks who are hurting most, and to folks with a clear, lived view of the precariousness— the changes, and the continuities— this election brings.

At Scalawag, we have always aimed to center those voices, and we’ve gotten better at it. In part, this is because we have been encouraged and called out by others. We are grateful for that.

We also want to feature forms of writing and storytelling that do not conform to the impersonal, analytical, linearly declarative (and, I think, quietly authoritarian) style that long-form political reflections often take. That’s not to throw shade on quality writing-as-usual, which we energetically produce and promote. But tough times call for a diversity of tactics, and that’s as true in storytelling, journalism, and analysis as it is in other forms of mobilization and transformation.

It would be more in the spirit of these messy thoughts to end by pointing to exemplary work being done elsewhere. But there are two Scalawag pieces that I keep coming back to, for their bravery and insight, and because they refuse the conventions, the markers of ‘legitimate political analysis,’ that are reinforced and rewarded by a problematic status quo.

The first is Brian Foster’s “Before I let go: on Houston, mental illness, and family,” printed in our fourth issue. Foster’s piece reads like an intimate letter to a brother, intercut by an academic book review and memoiristic reflections on loss. At first, this hybridity challenged our editorial team. But none of its modes alone would do justice to its delicate, powerful subject matter.

The second is Rachel Garringer’s “Love letter to West Virginia two months after the flood.” We published it online this summer, and it is forthcoming in our seventh print issue. Garringer is a folklorist and a documentarian, and she can tell a tale. This one is an adventure story, a reflection on whose voices get heard, and a love letter. It’s also an invitation to stay, to dwell in a problematic present, even when you’re tempted to flee. It will be timely for a long time.

These pieces are exemplary because, after nearly too many months of down-your-throat electioneering, we need quality writing that does not presume to tell you what to think. We do need clear-eyed, direct, straightforward analysis and truth-telling, especially when the air is so full of lies. If that’s your thing, pitch us a nutshell idea. But we also encourage submissions that get at the truth in fragmentary, hybrid, personal, and oblique ways. That, too, is fitting and necessary to fight against a ‘post-truth’ society. Pitch us something challenging. We’re up for it.