New Essay–Shine Brightly: On Literary Citizenship & Class

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Check out my new essay, Shine Brightly: On Literary Citizenship & Class, published today by Women Who Submit.

Acting as a good literary citizen means participating in and taking responsibility for our literary communities. As writers, this means that in addition to promoting our own work, we share work by writers we admire; attend readings at independent bookstores; buy books written by local authors and look for opportunities to mentor. For most of us, literary citizenship is an extension of our everyday lives. It’s important to acknowledge the following three points, however, which often get left out of the conversation:

Community matters – and so do you.

Unless we acknowledge this piece – that we are interconnected and our presence counts – literary citizenship gets trapped within a capitalist framework of marketing and consumerism with the emphasis on promotion and purchasing.

Especially now, in the era of neoliberalism, our society wants us to imagine ourselves as individuals, separate from communities and movements. When really, writers need each other. Writing is a solitary act but we get to reach for connection through reading other people’s work, sharing our own, and showing up for and supporting each other.

Roxane Gay asserts, “We are all small points of light within the constellation that is the writing world, but we do better when we shine brightly.” In order to thrive as literary citizens, we must acknowledge that our communities matter – and that we matter to our communities. We exist within a writing world and our light makes a difference.

You don’t have to have tons of money or free time.

Literary citizenship is frequently viewed through a middle-class lens that values volunteerism, leadership and creating something out of nothing. So, the following are often suggested as examples of what to do: start a literary journal in order to give new writers opportunities to publish; found a non-profit that specializes in mentoring young authors; organize a reading series at an independent bookstore. These are all necessary and noble acts of literary citizenship, and I recognize and admire the hard work of people who take them on.

At the same time, it’s imperative to name that they require a certain amount of privilege. This step–that of recognizing class privilege–often gets skipped over, which isn’t surprising given how little we talk about class stratification in the U.S. I’m not suggesting that working-class and poor writers have never accomplished these types of actions, or that the middle-and owning-class writers who have are clueless. But if we don’t bring privilege into the conversation and acknowledge that literary citizenship usually requires free labor and resource, those who cannot contribute in these ways end up framed as and potentially feeling irresponsible and insignificant.

I know this because I used to consider myself Literary Citizen #1. Over a decade ago as a graduate student at Cal State LA, I founded the feminist magazine LOUDmouth. Then I was part of the editorial collective that started the feminist magazine make/shift. Both publications created a space for feminists of all genders and backgrounds to share their writing and have their voices heard. I loved the work. It required initiative, creativity and tons of effort – and entitlement. At the time, I was living with my parents rent-free and doing paid work only part-time.

After graduation, I needed to move out and pay off my student loans and credit-card debt so I took a full-time job in corporate America. I developed severe tendonitis in both arms as a result of typing, which forced me to cut back. I chose to stay at the corporate gig and walked away from my feminist and literary communities feeling demoralized and like I had sold out. It took me years to realize that I could have continued to participate in numerous ways.

Since then, I’ve learned to value and partake in other forms of literary citizenship: tweeting a commentary by a journalist in prison, publishing a book review on my blog, and signing a petition save a writer’s life, for example.

Becoming conscious of the multiple ways that we can shine will enable us all to shine brighter.

We need a movement.

The idea of literary citizenship has been around for years, but it started to gain steam after the 2009 economic collapse when publishers slashed their budgets, newspapers cut their book-review sections and bookstores shuttered en masse. Who was supposed to pick up the slack? Writers. We’re supposed to do pro-bono marketing, write for free and spend any discretionary income that we may have at local bookstores. The story goes if we just did more, everything would be okay. But it’s a lie. Even if we all stepped up our efforts, it wouldn’t be enough.

We must link literary citizenship to the economic system that we live in, which is squeezingthe 99% more than ever. In order to create the conditions for literary communities to truly flourish, we need to change a great deal within the current system. Recognizing that we’re in this together and uniting to change things is a good start.

In her new book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement, Angela Y. Davis writes:

“What has kept me going has been the development of new modes of community. I don’t know whether I would have survived had not movements survived, had not communities of resistance, communities of struggle. So whatever I’m doing I always feel myself directly connected to those communities and I think that this is an era where we have to encourage that sense of community particularly at a time when neoliberalism attempts to force people to think of themselves only in individual terms and not in collective terms. It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism…

Don’t we want to be able to imagine the expansion of freedom and justice in the world, as Hrant Dink urged us to do – in Turkey, in Palestine, in South Africa, in Germany, in Columbia, in Brazil, in the Philippines, in the U.S.?

If this is the case, we will have to do something quite extraordinary: We will have to go to great lengths. We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the center. We cannot be moderate. We will have to be willing to stand up and say no with our combined spirits, our collective intellects, and our many bodies.”

We will have to shine brighter than we ever have before.

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