With the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, political upheaval has arrived; writers in Chicago, like many across America, wonder if they should address any other subject. On January 15, Writers Resist, a national network of authors and journalists driven to defend the ideals of a free, just, and compassionate democratic society, launched a concurrent series of events nationwide to foster communal strength in advance of president-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. This day of resistant rhetoric looped in seemingly every literary collective in the city, and included events at Open Books, Woman Made Gallery, Flor del Monte, Cafe Urbano, Bookends and Beginnings, and La Bruquena, with a concluding showcase in the evening at Cole’s in Logan Square.
Some of the 16 writers at Cole’s, the site of a reading called Speak Up/Warm Up (curated by Curbside Splendor, Make: A Literary Magazine, Meekling Press, and Red Rover, in collaboration with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association), summoned the words of quintessential voices throughout a long history of national pain: Toni Morrison, Harvey Milk, Lucille Clifton, Rosario Morales, Claudia Rankine, and Susan B. Anthony, to name a few. Others read from original work. All of the presenters, though, wrestled with the difficult task of selecting impactful words to properly describe the machinations of oppressive power that looms.
“I was asked to write an essay the day after the election, but I personally couldn’t distance myself enough to get it done,” said Reader contributor Britt Julious, one of the participants. “Everything felt too raw.” The work Julious read at the event was, like that of many of her peers, more poetic than the hasty, morally shaken think pieces that are abundant online. The Chicago chapter of Writers Resist aims to create lasting American literary contributions, like Morrison and the other cited inspirations, at a moment when most working authors and journalists are urged to craft blunt reactions to viral ephemera. “I reject instances in which I am being asked to write about ‘the black death of the week’ because those reactionary think pieces often offer little substance,” Julious said. “They’re usually just a quick grab for clicks. Writing about these kind of subjects takes time and finessing and care and I try to only accept work that reflects that.”
Other readers, including Doro Boehme of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and National Endowment for the Arts recipient Jami Nakamura Lin, committed their time onstage to recalling past horrors, domestically and abroad. Lin told the story of her ancestors who were subjugated to American internment camps, while Boehme read from the trial transcripts of White Rose, an intellectual resistance group in Nazi Germany. “I do admit that I have been this frightened about the state of the world only once before: growing up in Germany through the end of the Cold War period, situated dead center in the range of U.S. and Russian missiles,” Boehme said.
Lin’s larger ongoing project, a parabolic novel populated with Japanese folklore, responds to what happened to her family during World War II. “People wonder why I’m so obsessed with mythology, since they’re just made-up stories from long ago,” Lin said. “But myths are a reflection of a society’s fears, and myths are prevalent today. Look at our ‘postfactual’ society, filled with all this fake news. What is fake news? Myths! We’re doing the exact same thing: creating stories to demonize people who are different, to prey on fear.”
One noticeable aspect of the lineup at Speak Up/Warm Up was a lack of white men. The loaded term “identity politics” is one you won’t see embraced within this community. “That term is mostly used derisively by those who think questions of identity should be amputated from whatever issue is at hand,” Lin said. Nathanael Lee Jones, a playwright and poet, said, “I don’t think I need to try and make my work or my life any more political than it already is.” Jones’s performance included a surreal vision of mobilized protest, imagining “every cubic inch of every police station and headquarters in Cook County, Illinois” fully occupied by black bodies.
This installment of Writers Resist was not without concrete calls to action. Before reading from Susan B. Anthony’s court transcripts, memoirist Zoe Zolbrod urged the audience to call their representatives about HB 40, a state-level bill that could greatly mitigate damage done to reproductive rights at the federal level. Juliet de Jesus Alejandre, a representative from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, contended with the elephant in every Logan Square barroom: gentrification. She explained that the Bloomingdale Trail was a grassroots effort that was in the works for 15 years and acknowledged the threat of big-money development in the area, which would make a seemingly populist piece of infrastructure too expensive for its builders to live near. Writers rarely have the kind of tangible impact that such a landmark has on a city—but the strong, supportive turnout on January 15 suggests they will be an invaluable to Chicago during the next four years. v