Grace Paley’s “Wants”: Activism and Civic Involvement for Writers

 

Photo by Erich Ferdinand

Photo by Erich Ferdinand

After years of dodging PTO meetings and volunteer opportunities, I became involved in a school overcrowding issue in my town because I didn’t want my children’s class sizes to become enormous. The problem seemed simple at first, but soon enough I was attending school committee meetings, spending hours writing emails, and holding forth at a four-year-old’s birthday party about educational inequity.

As I sank deeper into the quicksand of civic involvement, wondering if this were one of the times I’d said yes when I should have said no, I remembered a passage from my favorite short story. I pulled the book off the shelf, as I’ve done so many times before. “Wants,” the classic Grace Paley story, is three pages long, and it contains the entirety of the narrator’s life.

The narrator runs into her ex-husband at the library. She returns two books she’s had for eighteen years, pays the fine, and checks out the books again. Her ex-husband rehashes their marriage, brags about the sailboat he’s got money down on, and says, “But as for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.” Left to consider this “narrow remark,” the narrator sits on the library steps and lists the things she wants.

I want, for instance, to be a different person. I want to be the woman who brings these two books back in two weeks. I want to be the effective citizen who changes the school system and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of this dear urban center.

I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up.

I wanted to have been married forever to one person—my ex-husband or my present one.

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Words Chosen For Ourselves: A Review of THE OXFORD INDIA ANTHOLOGY OF TAMIL DALIT WRITING

the-oxford-india-anthology-of-tamil-dalit-writing-original-imadzsghnvpzhxujThe Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing
Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan
Oxford University Press, 2012
480 pp, $39.95

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Of the social, political, and economic issues facing India since independence in 1947, the situation of Dalits has been one of the most pressing. Dalits face discrimination and oppression in nearly every part of Indian society, and often are portrayed as a voiceless and victimized minority group. Although Dalits make up almost 16-17% of the population, widely available creative expressions from individuals identifying as members of this group are few and far between, especially outside of India. However, these creative expressions do exist: so far, it’s simply been a matter of availability and translation.

The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing, edited by Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan, is one of several volumes pushing for a reorientation of Dalit representation. By presenting more than one hundred years of work, ranging from poetry to speeches, novel excerpts to autobiography, the anthology underscores that the outpouring of work from Tamil Dalits has never been fixed to a single genre, mode, or emotional current. The editors further emphasize difference by focusing on the state of Tamil Nadu, one of the most populous areas in India, located on its southern tip. Therefore, the book doesn’t present an overwhelming and impossible attempt to represent all Dalit writing throughout the subcontinent; but, instead, the volume makes a worthwhile and focused gathering of work.

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Round-Down: The Black and White Business of Confronting Racism in Literature

eric garner protests nyc

Like most Americans, I’ve been stunned the last few months by the verdicts in Ferguson and New York. Tens of thousands of protestors, black, white and brown, have taken to the streets and to social media to voice their protest and outrage at the implicit message received from these verdicts that black lives don’t matter—but who is putting pen to paper in attempts to record such moments in literature?

I ask this question as a young white poet at UNC Wilmington—a city that is no stranger to racial tension and violence. This semester, I took a graduate-level poetry workshop called “Gazing In, Gazing Out” where we discussed poetry under two lenses: that which speaks more confessionally and personally versus that which speaks more politically and socially consciously. The essential question that arose from that class—from, I couldn’t help but notice, a room full of young, white writers—was this: How can our art be political without being preachy? Rhetorical without turning into a rant? Sensitive to identities other than those we were born with?

But after reading a series of articles in the news lately about art and our current times, I can’t help but ask now: Who else has the luxury of debating this but white artists? And who else has more of a responsibility to step up to the challenge now more than ever?Continue Reading

Chucking “Art for Art’s Sake” – Writers and Social Impact

will write for social changeOne morning in late September, I found myself backstage at the “Annual Day of Peace” in Covington, KY—an event that kicks off October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’d been asked to perform a song I wrote about my family’s history of domestic violence, and was listening as speakers urged the young audience to find—and use—their voices to prevent violence. I wondered how many listeners were writers, performers, artists, and how many might go on to use their art as voice, changing their communities in the process.

audrelordeLeaving that day and re-entering the media binge on the word “shutdown,” I couldn’t help thinking about writers around the globe: how we use our voices; whether (and how) we’re heard. I also couldn’t help thinking of Audre Lorde:

We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine. Maybe because we do not listen to our poets…

Creative writing has the potential to change perceptions, elevate public discourse, inform, protest, and/or bring awareness to difficult issues and situations. Could we do more with this potential? Should we?

is this gonna get political

(No.)

Before anyone gets politi-scared, hark! I don’t believe writers should start “politicizing” all our work, or Woodie-Guthrie-ing our poems for the greater good. But I do believe that if we’re moved by any current economic, cultural, political, and/or social suffering, there’s a place for us—and our craft—in the fray.

But how? Where? If you’re interested in finding your writerly place in this kind of work, here are three steps even non-“activist” writers can take to dive in:

  1. Identify Our Stories
  2. Re-imagine “Going Public,” and
  3. Chuck “Art for Art’s Sake.”

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