As with many, this election has established an uncertainty and an imbalance. Why is what I write important? I am not a journalist. I am not explicitly fighting the regime.
Months ago, my approach to this essay was very different. I was defeated. Stories would not come. Sentences reduced to two words and even those words were not very inventive. The one word that echoed was how. How to go on as a human. As an American. As a writer. As an artist. As an ally. As a terrified mother.
I wondered, what can I write now? Is not everything in the political sphere more important? Lives are in upheaval. In writing forums, I see hundreds of writers saying “I can’t write right now.” I myself left for a writing residency directly after the U.S. election and came back with little to show for it but pronounced anxiety.
When we think of historical moments, in particular ones that consisted of great danger and sacrifice, we often think back on art. As Churchill (despite his downfalls) said, if not for art, then what are we fighting for?
I don’t think of the old paper bag, marker-covered history text book or a droning high school history class. I think of novels. Stories. Paintings. Photographs. In short: art. Art transcends. Very rarely do we revisit newspaper articles of the time. What we are left with, in the aftermath of bombs or genocide or the evil yoke of slavery is a canon of emotion built around a framework of facts. It is true novels are not bound to the conventions of fact like journalism is (or should be). But the emotion is purer. For the writer, no piece of art can come with a void of emotion.
I am not only rallying only for fiction. Write your memoir. Your essay. Your piece of creative nonfiction. Your manifesto. A letter to a friend. To your child. To your future self.
Primo Levi did not survive the Holocaust, but his writing did and continues to be read. Khaled Hosseini, Afghan-born writer of The Kite Runner; Dr. Michihiko Hachiya, who wrote the heart-ripping and true Hiroshima Diary; John Lewis’ March series—a graphic nonfiction series based on the civil rights movement; Zora Neale Huston on the inequalities of black women in the early 20th century; Tim O’Brien on Vietnam; Miriam Tlali and Nadine Gordimer on apartheid South Africa; Marjane Satrapi on her experiences in late 1970s Iran.
These writers have contributed art to the world. Though we cannot replicate their tenor, we hear their voices via their writing. And their art has become the thing that makes their experiences and, by extension, the experiences of their time real and accessible to generations now and going forward.
I am not saying I am anywhere near the level of the aforementioned writers. This really isn’t about me anyway. However, of late, I’ve realized that I have dedicated my life to an art that has had the power of a million firearms, but with fewer deaths at the end of its point. I will keep writing. At least for my daughter, and myself.
I still feel overwhelming fear about where the U.S. is headed. But, I have gained an even greater appreciation for those who continue to write in the face of such uncertainty. I love writers. Specific writers. All writers. I mean it. I have glimpsed our seething underbelly and find your words and plots and rising action and climaxes to be things of beauty with which to paint this pocked landscape.
Read Jennifer's story "Just the Air That They Breathe."
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, Fiction Southeast, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com