“Writing Contemporary Issues,” the title of a new course at Richard Hugo House, is arguably an understatement. Try “Writing society’s most divisive topics while getting people to listen,” or “Talking about social justice when you’re white and straight,” or “Broaching humanities most pressing problems,” for a start.
The idea for the 10-week class at the center for writers came in the wake of protests over the killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer, and later, the spike in LGBTQ hate crimes in Capitol Hill, where Hugo House sits. It also came in the wake of Claudia Rankine’s book “Citizen,” lauded as a poignant and deeply complex look at racism in America.
Real Change sat down with four of the course’s 10 professors to explore what and why they write. The common thread? Writers have the power to reclaim, reshape and retell the narratives of gender, race, orientation, poverty and violence. And that is something to take on boldly, regardless of how frightening it can be.
Jane Wong and the poetics of haunting
Poet Lucille Clifton was once asked to write about the beauty of trees. But every time she looked at one, she knew someone once hung from its branches. Her trees were not Walt Whitman’s trees. Her trees were the chosen sites for the lynching of thousands of African-Americans.
As a poet of color, Clifton’s work was haunted by a history, a trauma, a context that she couldn’t — and chose not to — escape. That idea of haunting across time and space is what poet and teacher Jane Wong is all about.
Wong’s “haunting” is not the one rampant in horror films, where menacing ghosts threaten those who dare disturb them. It’s one where writers summon ghosts as a way of seizing power and shedding light on silenced stories. Something shamanistic.
“I think of it almost like an activist move to say ‘this is my history, and I’m telling it my way,’” Wong said. “If you summon it, you have the power over it. When these poets are writing about the things they’re haunted by, they’re controlling the story.”
Like when Clifton makes her audience reimagine a tree. Or when Wong writes about her family.
Wong’s parents grew up in a village in China before they moved to the U.S., but they never talked about it. Wong’s brother didn’t even understand why their mom was so furious when he brought home a shirt with Communist leader Mao Zedong on it. One day, as Wong sat in a college classroom and watched a documentary about the Cultural Revolution, it hit her: Her parents lived through it.
“I was just having this emotional reaction at the very sadness of not knowing what happened and my family not wanting to talk about things that hurt,” she said.
So Wong wrote a poem where she took on the persona of her mother as a child and reimagined an untold history.
Work that is haunted is work that has power. If you believe poetry is nothing more than an outlet for feelings, Wong would remind you of the poets in China who are under house arrest or in exile.
Her message for other writers? Go toward the ghosts.
David Schmader and self-incrimination
David Schmader sits on a wooden bench, hands in his lap and says “our story begins at a urinal.”
It’s the opening scene of his one-man show, “Straight,” about the world of gay conversion therapy. He is undercover at a support group, and he’s convinced that if he can only get a supposed “ex-gay” to look at his penis, it will mean some sort of victory over this phony dogma.
But he quickly realizes that in trying to prove his point, he’s become exactly what the sick stereotype of a gay man is: “a desperate, low-minded freak groping himself at a urinal.”
Schmader’s pattern of opening his comedic plays with an embarrassing, self-incriminating story might seem like a way to get laughs — and it is — but it’s also a tool for something much bigger: getting people to listen.
Touchy cultural and political subjects can seem impossible to broach without triggering people’s defenses. In Schmader’s experience, putting oneself on the menu for critique makes all the difference.
“You kind of have to like the person who is asking you to change, or else it feels like scolding, and ‘eat your vegetables and you suck,’” Schmader said. “I felt that the only way for me to get any authority was to show that for whatever judgment or critique of someone else’s behavior or beliefs, I would have to do the same thing to myself.”
There was a time for Schmader when it felt politically important, maybe edgy, to get on stage and say he was gay. But things have changed. And with that change, he feels a new responsibility to fight for others.
Today, he writes a weekly column for the Stranger, called “Last Days.” For the week of April 8, it included Purvi Patel, the first woman sentenced in the U.S. for feticide, as well as Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Regardless of tactics writers use to open the hearts and minds of their readers, it’s worth it. As Schmader says, “It’s about choosing to make arguments that won’t just feel good to make to the choir, but hopefully will make the world a little better for people who don’t have much power.”
Charles Mudede and the invisible class
Stalin called writers “engineers of human souls.”
Which is why filmmaker and writer Charles Mudede offers a disclaimer when he says it, too.
“[That’s] a wonderful expression that everyone is going to kill me for saying,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter. I still believe in it.”
The first person to coin the phrase was actually the Russian novelist Yuri Olesha, but that’s beside the point.
When Mudede speaks of writers as social engineers, he means they are largely responsible for the stories — or myths — societies tell themselves. There is one story in particular that really gets under his skin: The one about poverty and class, more accurately, the lack thereof.
Most of the stories Mudede sees, whether in fiction or political rhetoric, support the notion that we live in a society made up of two groups: the “middle class” and the “super rich.” In fiction, characters are almost always part of the former. Money and position in society is somehow not a concern. And when presidents tout equality, their anecdotes are about hard-working families, not people living on the street.
“In the mainstream, everyone is middle class,” Mudede said. “This is a phony thing.”
In both scenarios, the truly poor are omitted from the discourse.
Which is why Mudede wants writers to understand class. He wants them to know where they come from, to explore their position in society. He wants to see a rebirth of words like “underclass” and “working-class.”
“We don’t use that language anymore, and I’m trying to reintroduce it,” Mudede said, letting out a throaty chuckle as if he’s just revealed a mischievous plot. “I say, we need to take these classes seriously because they are meaningful. Let’s name them. Without naming them, they will always be excluded.”
That, he said, will make for more meaningful and more authentic stories.
And yes, he believes writers have a responsibility to be aggressive in dispelling myths, whatever those myths might be.
And to tell stories that upset the established order. And question society’s often-misaligned values. If you want to call that social engineering, so be it. But Mudede has a last retort:
“Somehow, no one treats advertisements for hair conditioner as social engineering,” he said. “Social engineering is always when we’re trying to raise awareness and change behavior that might be unfriendly to the status quo.”
Corinne Manning, getting beyond misery
Corinne Manning’s story was getting published, contingent on some edits.
The sexuality of the main character had to be more hidden. The already-mild sex scene needed to avoid indicating that the intimacy was between two women. The moments where the main character expressed power in her queer sexuality had to be softened.
Manning wrote to the editor and said she wanted to pull the story.
“It was one of those moments where I was directly confronting what was going on in the publishing industry, at least in the queer vein of literature,” Manning said.
In typical works of fiction, queer characters are depressed and disastrous. Their stories end with suicide. Unrequited love. Mental institutions. Swing to the other side, and they are the comic relief.
That representation, and the lack of representing queer people as anything else, can be harmful. When Manning thinks about two high school students who came out through their writing in a co-workers class, it’s bittersweet.
“It was really amazing and beautiful that they felt safe to do that,” she said. “There’s this way they found themselves through literature. But I think they will have trouble finding themselves in literature.”
There was a time when Manning followed the rules of what she thought it meant to be published. She’d write a story populated with queer characters, and a straight narrator.
“There’s this idea that there’s only a certain kind of story about each of these characters that you are supposed to tell,” she said.
After a couple eye-opening encounters with editors, Manning broke from the mainstream. She started writing a lot of stories with a lot of very queer, very happy people.
Manning calls writers “taste-makers.” Our tastes and beliefs are culturally formed, she said, and writers have a responsibility to be aware of the part they play and the characters they create.
As for that first editor, he surprised her. He responded with the most beautiful apology letter Manning had ever seen, and they ended up working together to publish her story. As intended.