Thursday, December 22, 2016

12/22: Erin Zwiener, How To Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About

I don’t know how to essay right now. In the five weeks since Donald Trump became President-elect of the United States of America, I have written, but I have not essayed. There was the brief rage typing the day after, a piece tentatively titled “So You Voted for Trump, But You Say You’re Not Racist”, but that just was a rant designed for my mother, not a general audience. And I have typed many, many things into Facebook, riding the anger phase of the grief cycle for as long as I could, shouting into a more and more echo-y social media chasm just to prove I still had lungs. But that is a snarl, not an essay.

The point of this is not the particulars of my politics. The point is that, now, only months after receiving an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, I am having a crisis of the essay. Because, really, what is the point? As a fundamentally political writer, as a person who believed that the twin pillars of better education and better communication could change the world, how do I navigate a space where facts are up for debate? Where authority is predicated on a sympathetic audience? Where my learning and research are grounds for distrust?

I grew up on political novels, falling in love with authors who either wore their politics proudly in their pages or snuck it in as the background fabric on which they embroidered their stories. Novels are stealthy; worldviews are slipped into a story with more traditional drama. I believe they urged me along my own path from a young conservative to an adult progressive. From Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams I learned about American interference in Nicaragua while wondering if Codi would find approval from her father. From Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna, I learned about resisting a totalitarian government while wondering if Eva would end up with Rolf or Huberto. This stealth is the strength of the political novel, surprising a reader with empathy for characters outside their experience or normal sympathies.

The essay is not sneaky in this way. The political essay is predicated on a reader who already has some interest in the topic, who arrive with an open mind ready to be surprised and to learn. In a country so polarized, I don’t see the use of writing an essay to persuade those whom already agree with me. Of course my fiction writer friends tell me they don’t see the use of writing fiction right now; they’re considering writing essays. We are all looking for new ways to use our art as a tool of resistance.

I miss essaying. I miss complexity. For the past week, I have been organizing a demonstration. Press releases and television pull quotes and talking points don’t have the same depth or heat. As I organized, I could feel the pull to essay about the experience. What it meant to build almost instant trust with internet strangers. What it meant to try, in our small way, to save the world. But there was no time to ponder these questions when I had to write Facebook posts to drive turn out.

The piece of writing I have most needed in the election aftermath is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s forceful “Now Is The Time To Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About”, not an essay exactly. More like a manifesto. Adichie asserts that we must be more precise and direct in our language, that we must remember that how we speak defines how we and others think. This seems at odds with the essay, often a place that explores contradictions and different perceptions of reality. So perhaps it’s time for a new essay that emphasizes a single truth, a sort of anti-propaganda, and Adichie offers some guidelines.
  • “Now is the time to refuse the blurring of memory.” The essay can remind the reader of the past by setting the present next to the history that is repeating. The essay can hold the truth of a moment, so that the future readers can learn or affirm their memories, resisting the manipulation of the past.
  • “Now is the time to discard that carefulness that too closely resembles a lack of conviction.” The essay allows the author to speak directly. Our integrity is needed on the page; we must not be subtle about our values.
  • “Now is the time to elevate the art of questioning.” Perhaps the essay’s biggest strength as a political tool is its ability to ask questions. We must hone this ability and ask questions that illuminate not obfuscate, questions that will inspire useful research and journalism.
  • “Now is the time to be precise about the meanings of words.” The essay has always been a place to examine language, to study the subtleties in implication and perception of synonyms. We can build and develop precision that others may borrow from.
This form of essaying seems a step closer to political poetry, like Claudia Rankine’s urgent and frank Citizen. This is also not a form that persuades the unsympathetic, but it does fortify the faithful and show strength. I am not ready to return to the essay yet, but I am thinking about how our form can adapt to our new political reality without losing its art.


Erin Zwiener is a writer and activist living in Driftwood, Texas where there is surprisingly little driftwood.

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