Sometimes I Want to March
Despite hopes that writing is enough to cope with reality, to admit we should do something other than writing was liberating.
Earlier this summer, I sat at a table giving out information about fascism to hundreds of young people at an extremely loud outdoor music festival. It was 105 degrees in San Antonio. I had a splitting headache and cramps. I don’t think I had ever felt so hot for so many continuous hours. At moments of self-pity, I thought about how I wasn’t supposed to be doing any of this. 2017 was to be the year I spent the majority of my time writing, the year that I seized my identity as a writer. I had quit my full-time teaching job and was on track to finish my second novel in a reasonable amount of concentrated time. At parties I was no longer going to say, “I teach first grade but I also write.”
Yet here I was, doing something other than writing. Not only was my novel unfinished, my entire relationship to fiction had deteriorated so much that I’d barely skimmed two novels since January. I could at least take comfort in the fact that I was not alone. A group of women writers in Austin, who previously got together once a month to drink and talk about literature, suddenly morphed into a political action group after President Trump’s election.
Most of the kids that came up to our table were between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, from all different races, who were understandably concerned about their future, wondering what would be left for them after this assemblage of billionaire, white patriarchs and religious zealots had combed over the crumbs of a dying empire. Sure, none of them stated it that way, but there was an instinctual reaction to the pairing of the words “fascism” and “Trump.” At times, there was a throng of teenagers in front of our table, and they were eager to talk.
One said she had to hide her feelings from her mother, who was a passionate Trump supporter. One mispronounced fascism as face-ism and laughed when her friend corrected her. Two others said they were having a lot of political discussions among themselves. An older woman told us how her son had been sanctioned at work for wanting to leave water for migrants in the desert. The young woman who had joined me for the day told me about the two sides of her family, Mexican and white. The white side of her family talked about her sullying their family’s white bloodline and needing Trump to repurify the white race; the Mexican side of her family was terrified about her speaking out.
As we were talking, a young man approached and asked us for a definition of fascism. I went through some of its features. A base of “true” nationals, rallied under a false sense of victimhood, whips up an atmosphere of vigilante violence and hatred against internal and external enemies. There is a denial of truth and science and an overwhelming appeal to emotion over reason, marked by a desire for a return to anti-modern, traditional, and often theocratic values. I told him fascists rise to power through the electoral process, but they ultimately subvert democratic rights. I could see that I was losing him. I tried to wrap it up and asked him if he’d like to sign up for the mailing list for more information. He declined, but he did take a flyer. “I only came up here because I’m a white nationalist,” he said, “and they say you should know your enemy.”
My family came from India in the ’70s. We have experienced instances of subtle and not-so-subtle racism, from name-calling and taunts to vacant, helpless expressions of confusion about where we’d come from and why we were here. I’ve always had the sense that in certain situations, our presence was unsettling. I myself often wondered what we were doing here, until I had a better understanding of history and labor markets. But in four decades, no one has ever looked at me so calmly and stated their allegiance to their white nationhood. Some of that is indicative of my relative privilege, and some is indicative of this rising fascist movement.
The Klan is marching in the streets again, even if they’re met with counter-protesters. Confederates armed with automatic rifles are defending their monuments. Racists of various affiliations have killed people, including an Indian immigrant, two white men who intervened in a racist incident in Portland, and an African American college student. I have been to rallies where armed vigilantes have gathered and I have puzzled at some of their agitation.
“Liberalism is a mental disorder.”
“You don’t know anything about respect because you’re liberal arts majors.”
“I’ll bet you can’t do ten push-ups.”
“Leftists are ethno-masochists.”
“No more Muslims.”
Videos of Trump rallies reveal even more disturbing slogans. If we study the footage of the white supremacists and Nazis that gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on the twelfth of August, we have a vision of the nightmare ahead. Those are the shock troops, the advance guard of the fascist movement that has coalesced around Trump, and while not every Trump supporter would stand with those vile men in Charlottesville, I would venture to say that a majority of them wouldn’t condemn them either.
This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Fascist movements are gaining ground and in some cases have seized state power in many countries. Fascism should be opposed everywhere, but fascism in this country is a unique danger to the world. For there to exist such a chasm between perception and reality, for the world’s only superpower to imagine itself the world’s greatest victim, means unrestrained revenge and violence. The Trump administration is hungry for more war, threatening nuclear escalation against Iran and North Korea, sending troops into Yemen to join an already heinous Saudi massacre, dropping the largest nonnuclear bomb in the US arsenal, and refusing to even give lip service to the question of war crimes or civilian deaths. These are wars for empire and no one who cares about justice, least of all writers, should want any part in them.
The blossoming of Writers Resist events before the inauguration suggests that writers understand the danger and feel a responsibility to respond. Slate ran a series called “The Trump Story Project,” in which ten writers “imagine the dystopian future of Trump’s America.” This dialogue between Ben Winters and Hector Tobar speaks to the distress so many writers felt after this election. In that dialogue, Winters says, “One thing that fiction does is it allows us to take big-picture questions, big issues, big moral and sociopolitical changes and see how they play out on real people’s lives, with real individuals.”
Back in April, I was on a panel about writing in the Trump era. We talked about many of the same things Winters and Tobar talk about in their dialogue: the need to reclaim language and harness the power of narrative to drive progress. But at one point toward the end of our conversation, a novelist living in South Africa announced, “Sometimes I don’t want to write. Sometimes I want to march.”
To me, this was a startling confession. Despite all of our hopes that writing is enough to both help us cope with reality and have a positive influence on the world, to admit that perhaps we should do something other than writing was both discomfiting and liberating. This was the very choice that I had been wrestling with all year. None of us were saying that writing wasn’t important, or that anyone should stop writing altogether. But that is, in fact, what I had done. I stopped writing and started marching. At that point, I had been to nearly every major protest in Austin since Inauguration Day. I admit that I’m burned out on these protests. Larger, more determined, and more creative actions are needed to defeat this fascist movement, but that means we need more debate, more engagement, more public gatherings, and more action.
Literary writing is a slow process. When I told a friend, an activist, that I couldn’t reconcile the years it takes to write a novel with the urgency I felt to act right now, he had no answers for me. He said he was thinking about this contradiction and couldn’t reconcile it either. I have been thinking a lot about contradictions, between incremental and rapid change, between private and communal actions, between self-care and social responsibility, between fear and courage. Maybe I am drawing too many binaries. Maybe if we all defined what we should do more loosely, allowing for the possibility that at times, the best thing to do is to write, and in other moments, the best thing to do is to march, then we can actually change the direction of this country and the world toward a better future. Think of the incredible artistic, social, and political ferment of the ’60s. We shouldn’t take for granted the positive changes that came about as a result of that ferment. We are still enjoying that hard-won progress, while very powerful and wealthy people have been working for decades to roll back that progress.
Two of the books that managed to keep my attention this year are works of nonfiction: The Nazi Conscience by Claudia Koonz and The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton. Both books are disturbing and clarifying. They have illuminated how much Nazism was facilitated by the absence of resistance. It was enough for the most ardent followers of Hitler to act boldly while others retreated into their private lives, refused to engage, made adjustments to the increasing normalization of Nazi terror, or to some extent resisted in more subtle and subversive ways. Nothing stopped the Nazi onslaught and what Paxton calls radicalization, an escalation toward genocide. Fascism is a mass movement, not a coup; it requires a competing mass movement to defeat it, an opposite pole.
When I’ve told some of my writer friends about these books, they’ve jovially rejected them. “I can’t go there,” said one friend, acknowledging the power these texts might have to illuminate our current situation. I understand that instinct to build a wall around myself and keep writing. It’s not as if every outrage started with Trump’s presidency. People experience jolts at different times in their lives that can suddenly open a window to reality that they couldn’t open before. I’ve always had a broad spectrum of people in my life, from hardcore activists to those who have no interest in politics and never will. One could say that I was ready to respond to this election in a certain way because of a particular convergence of influences.
But to those who say they “can’t go there,” who feel they can’t confront what they know will disturb them, I would say two things. One, we need to be honest about the consequences of that choice and revisit the famous quote by Pastor Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist.” The luxury of avoidance will not last long, and by that time, it will likely be too late to act. And two, as novelists, poets, essayists, and playwrights, we won’t have anything valuable to say if we don’t participate in these historic times. There is a need for more understanding, more knowledge, and more resistance right now—public, defiant, and confident resistance. Writers, readers, and critics can embrace moral ambiguity in fiction, but fiction is not life. Standing up against any injustice, let alone an entire hateful program that aims to eradicate the social progress of the last fifty years and manifest an unsparing dominion over the world, requires some moral conviction. There is a right side of history and a wrong side, and moments when these choices present themselves more acutely. At these times, people who think there is a middle ground become complicit in great horrors.
It’s possible that I’m making too rigid a distinction between art and activism. I think that I can soften the border between the two, but I will always argue that they play different roles. When the Trump administration first announced its travel ban for Muslims from seven countries, imagine how different it would have been if everyone had stayed home writing essays instead of converging on airports, daring to occupy the space that most staunchly represents the post-9/11 security state. All kinds of writing about the travel ban was circulated in the following days, but it was the communal act of protest, not individual acts of writing, that first turned Trump’s declaration into a question that Americans had to contend with.
I believe literature has great power to build empathy and inspire action. Women dressing up in The Handmaid’s Tale costumes to protest attacks on their reproductive rights is a prime example. But can literature alone stop a movement that rallies people around a hatred of liberal education and free thought? Can literature alone stop an ideology of nativism and ethnic cleansing, of mass deportations and mass incarceration on the scale this regime is promising? Can it stop the rape and pillage of the Earth, accelerating the climate crisis? I would love to believe that it could, but if carefully crafted words alone had that much power, Donald Trump would not be our president.
The outdoor music festival in the middle of July was the antithesis of what I would have been doing on a Saturday had I been living my life as I had envisioned it last year. The people I talked to had no idea that I was a writer, and we were talking about things that I would frankly prefer not to have to talk about. The intensity of that day caused a deep and total exhaustion. I went home and slept for ten hours.
The next day, I woke up and started writing again. I opened my ’80s-era, coming-of-age novel, something that seemed irrelevant after the election but now felt fresh and necessary. On that day and many days since, I’ve written long and short pieces, stories and essays and poems. I thought about craft again. I thought about what my contribution as a writer could be. I am called into the streets even as I write this, but today, for as long as possible, words are my comfort and power.
Chaitali Sen is the author of The Pathless Sky (Europa Editions, 2015). Her fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Memorious, and other journals. She holds an MFA from Hunter College and currently lives in Austin, Texas.