Monday, December 14, 2009

Writers as Activists

I am pretty delighted that writer and activist Sarah Schulman posted a video on her Facebook profile from the first OutWrite Conference, in 1990.

First, about Schulman. The link to her name is from a recent Salon article about her, which includes info on her new book, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (New Press). The Salon article references a nice Q&A Publishers Weekly printed with the author, wherein Schulman confronts the ongoing reality of LGBT writers publishing books that openly deal with LGBT issues:
Gay press reviews have been superb, and I recently had a standing room only reading in Chicago. The excitement and embracing of the book’s ideas is very exciting. Ironically, of course, there has been a parallel blackout by the straight press. This interview is the very first engagement with a mainstream publication acknowledging that the book even exists. It’s a strange through-the-looking-glass experience, one that I have had all my life. It speaks volumes that work that LGBT people love and embrace is often ignored completely by mainstream institutions.

Schulman is quite an inspiring figure, who speaks with tough but plain language about ongoing oppression faced by not just LGBT folks, but all kinds of marginalized communities.

Back to the original video from the OutWrite conference in 1990. I have only listened to her talk, as she is first up on a panel that includes Essex Hemphill (a poet who died of AIDS-related complications in 1995), Pat Califia (lesbian writer at the time, who has since transitioned so is now a transmale), Susan Griffin, and John Preston (writer who died of AIDS-related complications in 1994). This panel was moderated by Roberto Belayo. As it states under this clip:

About Outwrite: "In 1990, the editors of OUTLOOK, a San Francisco-based magazine, conceived and produced the first OutWrite conference. The organizers of that inaugural event sought to bring together the mostly scattered threads of the queer writing community. The OutWrite conference created a place for literary lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered to meet, network, brainstorm, and do business en masse."

What prompted me to post was the end of Schulman's talk, her call-to-arms for writers in any marginalized community. I have transcribed this section, so apologies if I don't have every word correct. It is a powerful and angry call, meant for writers at a time when AIDS was running rampant through the LGBT community, with epicenters in NYC and San Francisco, but it can certainly be applied to other situations:

There is no book that got any drugs released, any drug trial open, or any service provided. Reading a book can help someone decide to take action, but it is not the same thing as taking action, and writing a book is not the same thing as taking action. The responsibility of every writer is to take their place in the vibrant, creative activist movements along with everybody else. The image created by the male intellectual model of an enlightened elite who claim that "their art work is their political work" is parasitic and useless for us.

At the same time, I don’t think that any writer must write about any specific topic or in any specific way. Writers must be free of formal and political constraints on their work so that a culture can grow in many
directions. But, when they’re finished with their work, they need to be at demonstrations, licking envelopes, and putting their bodies on the line like everybody else. We live in the United States of Denial, a nation where there is no justice. The way we get justice is by confronting the structures that oppress us in the manner that is most threatening to those structures. That means in person as well as in print.

I'm still thinking this through and putting it up against some of my favorite writers since literary biographies are a favorite genre of mine. But I wanted to share it widely, as I was immediately struck by the courage it took Schulman to stand before a crowd and say it, and to re-post now, almost 20 years later.

I also think this clip comes at an interesting point in publishing, when digital publishing can make the process of getting work out there easier. Ease of production and distribution can be incredibly useful for activists, just as mimeographs transformed activist work in an earlier era and eventually led to an explosion of zines. (For more on activists and technology, see Bob Ostertag's People's Movement, People's Press, a book I may have been involved with...) How do we use electronic resources for activist endeavors and maintain high standards so that artistic work can survive, and how do we ensure that truly high-quality artistic work comes to light and does not get lost in a glut of information and activist calls? How do we avoid, even within marginalized communities, a tyrant majority - something Schulman confronts in this talk, in reference to gay white men who have more resources than anyone else in the queer community - taking over and becoming the loudest and most visible voices for a marginalized community?

It's useful to pull from the past as we race so quickly forward, and think through the voice of those less heard as those so often heard rapidly acquire means to exploit the best of technology.

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