A Conversation Led by the Kenyon Review Fellows
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, we are called to look more closely at our art, at what we make. What writing is meaningful, now, to read and write? A significant portion of the country voted for a man who is openly racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic, who has aligned himself with white supremacists, mocked disabled people, and bragged about assaulting women. Millions of people have felt and continue to feel profound fear for themselves and for people they love.
At the same time, the election only foregrounded crucial aspects of our culture—including contemporary literary culture—that too many have tried for too long to ignore. Whom does dominant literary culture protect and support? Whom does it silence? Who is allowed to speak, and where, and about what, and how directly? What kinds of experience are valued as literary and human, and what are not?
An important aspect of this culture is the way in which it dismisses certain kinds of personal and collective experience and offers a limited understanding of what the personal is or might be. Women and people of color who write about experiences of abuse or oppression might fear being labeled “confessional,” or “victims.” And we have inherited, along with liberal capitalism, the capitalist myth of the individual—the idea that a person can exist, make decisions, and live a life free from the constructs of power, privilege, and history, including the implications of the current administration.
As KR Fellows, we felt the need to create a space at the Kenyon Review where we can address exactly what this administration represents—its threats to climate science, to public education, to health care, to criminal justice reform, to anyone already vulnerable and marginalized in our society—and consider how writing might somehow engage with resistance or change or survival. But perhaps more importantly, we are interested in creating a space for those whose work might not be explicitly or obviously political, but by speaking out of silenced experiences actually is so.
For this project, we have invited a diverse range of writers, with room for multiple kinds of response; in a time of fear and silencing, we want to create a forum for many voices, with the suggestion that the personal might not have to mean the singular, or alone.
We asked contributors to consider these questions:
How does your work engage with resistance or change or survival? Does your work expand or disrupt conventional understandings of the personal? Do you, in your work, connect personal experiences to collective ones, and if so in what ways, and why? How does your writing explore the intersections of personal and historical realities? Does it speak from or to marginalized or silenced experiences, and how does it do this? Does your work draw on the personal as a reply or corrective to dominant narratives?
We are launching this KROnline special feature on Labor Day in recognition of all that this official US holiday obscures and erases. Although the Department of Labor describes the day as “a yearly . . . tribute to the contributions workers have made,” its origins could more accurately be described as an attempt to symbolically placate workers while continuing with business as usual; just days after Congress passed legislation to establish the holiday, in June 1894, President Cleveland authorized federal troops to crush the Pullman Strike and open fire on the striking workers, killing thirty people.
For many, Labor Day is significant only in the emptiness of its gesture, as this country refuses to acknowledge how it was founded and how it continues: through the genocide of native people, on the backs of people who were enslaved, through the exploitation of undocumented and migrant workers, and through the labor of all those who are underpaid and must work without dignity and safety; this legacy of genocide, slavery, and exploitation shapes everything in this country, from the prison industrial complex to the education system. The day and its attendant celebrations—mostly, now, shopping and vacations—further signify the erasure of these past and present realities, an erasure with which the dominant white culture perpetuates itself.
Through this project, we hope to acknowledge this history and our current political moment, and look to each other for a way forward. We will feature a new piece by a poet or prose writer every two weeks from now through the beginning of March, and invite readers to engage with each piece individually and with the conversation generated between them. Each piece will also include the date and place of its composition, which we hope will speak both to the diversity of writers we have invited to participate, and to the shared vision for change that we hope will also emerge. We thank Afaa Michael Weaver for suggesting this addition by including the date and place in his own essay, which will appear later this month.
Thank you for reading,
Jaquira Díaz and Margaree Little
Kenyon Review Fellows