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Alejandro Murguía lights his writing on fire at 'No Shadow Without Light,' Jan. 18, 2017. Gabe Meline
Alejandro Murguía lights his writing on fire at 'No Shadow Without Light,' Jan. 18, 2017. (Gabe Meline)

On Literature in a New Era

On Literature in a New Era

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It is the dawn of the presidential inauguration and I am writing.

Even as helicopters thrum over my roof, and my phone dings every few seconds, with friends telling me they have begun watching the inauguration and are already in tears, even as a person grunts in frustration below my window, even as I peek to the live footage to find out what is there that is so terrible and I see that it is Donald Trump — slumped in his seat, makeup caked on his face, striking a pose between slovenly and demure which he must have decided days ago was presidential. Even as all this unfolds, I am writing.

It is 8:40am and in just twenty minutes this essay will go from being written during Obama’s presidency to Trump’s.

What can I tell you in 20 minutes?

Zahra Noorkbakhsh speaks at 'No Shadow Without Light,' Jan. 18, 2017.
Zahra Noorkbakhsh speaks at ‘No Shadow Without Light,’ Jan. 18, 2017. (Gabe Meline)

I can tell you that five days ago, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I went to the Starline Social Club to see and participate in the Bay Area readings of Writers Resist. I can tell you that in the first half of the night, D.A. Powell said, “If Donald Trump were a page of writing, we would tear him out for not being worthy of what we ought to be.” And Solmaz Sharif said, “Violence against bodies is premeditated in a violence against language,” and launched into her title poem “Look,” telling us, “It matters what we call a thing.”


I can tell you that three days ago I went to the San Francisco Public Library for Litquake’s reading, No Shadow Without Light: Writers Respond to Trump. I can tell you that the city’s poet laureate Alejandro Murguía closed the night by reading a poem inspired by rumors that Trump would not touch the Bible during his inauguration so that the book would not burst into flames. That Murguía lit the poem on fire, saying this was his way of delivering the poem to the President-elect. Long after Murguía left the stage, the auditorium and even the lobby smelled like burning.

I can tell you about Shakespeare. Shakespeare liked the performance of Macbeth to begin even before his actors took the stage. Macbeth, a tragedy about seeking political power for its own sake. Before the audience entered, stagehands burnt gunpowder at the wings and the sulfurous scent traveled into the empty theater, lying in wait. Remember the Witches, who foretold the great tragedy to come, singing, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Remember Macbeth’s line, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me.”


“America, ignore the window and look at your lap,” Solmaz Sharif read at Writers Resist. “Even your dinner napkins are on fire.”

This essay is now being written under a Trump presidency. The age of Trump has now begun. My phone is not dinging now, and I can still hear the roar of helicopters.

What should our literature do now? It is minute two in the Trump presidency.

What beautiful things shall we write now in the during and the after? I do believe that all across America writers are gathering now with the mixed emotions of the doomed, giddy and somber, with the instruments of their inspiration, ready to write.

But if our literature is to be great, in times of oppression writers must make an extra effort to keep above the fray. Everything is connected for us — our bodies to our minds to our literature.

Writers I know have been preparing for this.

Poet devorah major at 'No Shadow Without Light,' Jan. 18, 2017.
Poet devorah major at ‘No Shadow Without Light,’ Jan. 18, 2017. (Gabe Meline)

Trying to voice our concerns, trying to read the fiction novels on our list, trying to read the newspapers, trying not to fall into the cyclone of perpetual refresh of social feeds, trying to eat mindfully, trying to be kind even to the self-interested, trying to vacuum every Sunday, trying to picture people we admire and how they would act, choosing thick books that help us escape, trying to organize, trying to keep fresh milk in the fridge, trying to be aware of our privilege, trying not to boil the coffee, trying to stop confusing the weekdays, trying to memorize poetry, trying to call our mothers regularly, trying to put our head down and do the work, and when work is over, trying to lift our eyes and not look away and do the work.

Not looking away is literature’s responsibility now, as is listening, as is continuing to define and defend our language in the face of the missives that come in one hundred and forty characters at a time and in news bytes, and are designed to flatten our understanding of each other and our sense of reality.

It is minute 20 of the Trump presidency.


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