Literature in Trump's America, or Writing Politically
When I chose November 16th as the date for my blog post, I thought I was being very clever. That’s the last post before the Thanksgiving break, I thought. I’ll have a lot of non-controversial, relatable things to say about being ready to take a break, I thought. It’ll be easy to write, I thought. I didn’t think about the fact that this date would be about a week after Election Day, which, in hindsight, feels pretty stupid. I also considered not writing about the election but that also feels stupid. So, let’s get into it.
I, like many people, was deeply disturbed by the results of the election. I understand that not everyone felt this way; however, I think it’s important to understand—whether you agree with the sentiment or not—that many people woke up on November 9th feeling less valued and safe than they did the day before. I know I did. Other people in this country have always felt devalued and unsafe and woke up on November 9th to have this feeling confirmed yet again.
I spent the night of the election frantically texting everyone I knew, including my friend Wendy, a poetry MFA student at Syracuse. At one point, after discussing the many social repercussions of this election, Wendy said something very profound and very sad. “I think,” she wrote, “I’m still kind of shocked that my faith in an America that has a place for everyone has been naïve in a way… I feel like this will change my writing somehow.” If you interpret the results of the election in that way, how could it not affect the way you write? If this election fundamentally changed the way you view America, or confirmed your worst fears, this perception shift would have to affect the way you write about people and the world. Even if it doesn’t directly impact your writing, it would have to impact the way you think about your writing. All of these thoughts that have been percolating within me since the election have led me to an exploration of politics in writing and what political writing even looks like.
The mantra, “The personal is political” has always resonated with me. However, at the same time, I’m uncomfortable with the ways in which certain identities are politicized while others—white, straight, male, cisgender, etc.—are viewed as the default. These two ideas would seem to fly in the face of one another. Nonetheless, we can’t avoid the fact that some identities are politicized, no matter how we feel about that. Thus, choosing to write about young, queer women, as I often do, is an inherently political act. Similarly, choosing to omit people of color from one’s stories is also a political act. If whiteness is not the default—and it’s not—a narrative populated exclusively by white characters is sending a political message, whether we want to admit that or not. Thus, I would argue that all writing is political, be it conscious or unconscious.
As writers—and especially as writers trying to make sense of our current political situation—I think we have a responsibility to interrogate the implicit or explicit politics of our writing. We need to examine our own blind spots. I know I have many. This doesn’t mean that all of our writing needs to revolve around “Issues”; it just means that we need to be cognizant of the ways that even our most character-based, non-issue-driven writing interacts with social and political issues. We need to be purposeful and responsible with our choices.
I feel like this is getting a bit lecture-y, which makes me uncomfortable because I don’t like to lecture and because I know that so many of my writing choices have not been purposeful or responsible. I’m trying to be better. For me, one of the first steps will be examining racial blind spots within my writing. I plan to read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, a book recommendation from Wendy, and I’ll see where to go from there.
So, this election has certainly affected the way I think about my writing. I was already beginning to grapple with these issues but they seem even more prescient now. I’m not sure if the election will change the actual content of my writing or not. I imagine it will, at least in subtle ways, but that remains to be seen. Perhaps this election will affect everyone’s writing. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I think of future college courses with names like, “Literature in Trump’s America.”
I’m hesitant to view every life event through the lens of a writer. It feels narrow-minded and self-centered—probably, because it is. My conversation with Wendy was not, of course, all about writing. But, this is the CSU MFA blog so putting a writing spin on this event seemed appropriate. I also think examining the politics of writing provides us, as writers, with one concrete way to move forward. It’s not the only way by any means, but, to me, it feels like a start.