Philadelphia: Birthplace of the American Revolutions

My poorly shot panorama of the day’s speakers and organizers

On Sunday, January 15, 2017, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one day before the national day of recognition that honors him, writers and readers across the United States gathered in the spirit of Writers Resist, a movement born out of the need to protect democracy and the spirit of justice following the 2016 election.

I’m from Philadelphia, born and raised (cue obligatory recitation of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). It stands to reason that I’m biased in favor of my hometown’s importance, but truly no city encapsulates America like Philly. We are the nation’s first capital, the birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the finish line of the Underground Railroad, a key battleground in the war for LGBTQ+ rights, a haven for writers and artists of all stripes. The America I love and seek to protect would not exist without Philadelphia.

The Writers Resist event in Philadelphia was hosted by the National Museum of American Jewish Heritage and organized by Alicia Askenase, Nathaniel Popkin, and Stephanie Feldman, and featured readings from some of Philadelphia’s most prolific writers, reading poetry, petitions, and speeches from some of history’s bravest and most iconic speakers, some who were famous, some who simply deserve to be.

Six of the 36 readings were first given in Philadelphia, including the Resolution for Declaration of Women’s Rights, given during the centennial by the National Woman Suffrage Association, read by Lise Funderburg, and FDR’s 1936 acceptance speech for renomination, read by Lori Tharpe.

Most stirring, for me, was Lauren Grodstein’s rendition of Jameson Fitzpatrick’s 2016 poem “I Woke Up”. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who recognize that our identities, our passions, our very existences are political, and those who have yet to realize it.

In being political, one of the most important things to realize is that not all of our political perceptions are the same, and the beautiful diversity showcased on Sunday illustrated such. Men spoke women’s words, white, Black, Latinx, and Asian voices co-mingled with each other’s wisdom, disabled people offered each other solidarity, queer people and their allies spoke their truths to a crowd 300 strong.

Words, of course, will not be enough going forward. There must be action and resistance if justice is to be both won and preserved. But words are the genesis of movement. Stories are our empathy, articles are our information, media is our ability to connect. Revolutions do not happen without writers, and writers do not have a voice without readers.

Learn more about the movement at WritersResist.com and see a full list of the readings at #WritersResistPHL*

*Before Joey Sweeney opened with the Bob Dylan song “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, he noted that the song selection was chosen BEFORE #UrineGate broke.

Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace

Available for purchase here.

This is not a book. This is a fucking floatation device.

If booklust is real (and it is), I’ve had it hardcore for Laura Jane Grace’s memoir since she first announced its inception. I structured this entire blog with reading it as my ultimate end goal, long before the US went through a political mindfuck of an election that has shaped every facet of this year’s art and pop culture.

I don’t mean to take away from TRANNY as its own animal. Grace is a gifted storyteller with a compelling story to tell. It’s hard to reconcile the demure, articulate, warm person Grace is in interviews with the younger self she unveils in her pages. The charisma is there, and the keen intelligence, but closeted Grace is achingly angry, depressed, dysphoric, and reactionary. Her story of combatting her internalized fear and shame with punk rock, anarchist politics, and an almost absurd amount of drugs is heartbreaking and eloquently rendered. Her choice to be honest about her struggles post-coming out, being a newly single parent still figuring out her own shit, neatly avoids the fairy tale ending and the narrative is all the better for it.

TRANNY would be a great story at any time, but being released exactly one week after half the country decided to hit the reset button on civil rights feels like finding port in a storm. The president-elect is a clueless bigot, his chief strategist is a blatant white supremacist, and his VP would rather electrocute kids than have them grow up to be like me or my friends.

I can’t claim that Grace’s struggle with her gender is the same as mine with my sexuality–that’s kind of the point of closets. They are all specific to the individual, but all marked by shame and isolation. If it was a shared space where we had the benefit of each others’ love and wisdom, no one would ever feel the drive to come out.

Every time Grace tries to commit to the masculinity foisted on her at birth, I’m reminded of every time I tried to force myself to be straight–and the utter self-loathing I felt when I failed. Every out and open LGBTQ+ person who provides a platform for these conversations gets us closer to a generation that won’t grow up without community or support.

It would be easy (idiotic, but easy) to dismiss Grace’s memoir as one in a series of rock BTS stories, but it’s so much more. It’s 306 pages of forward momentum. Grace isn’t going backwards, and neither am I. And so long as we stay loud, and focused, neither is society.

 

Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle

Available for purchase here.

Imagine for a moment that the Westboro Baptist Church had major political power. That the “divine fusion” of spirituality and capitalism that fuels the megachurches of men like Joel Osteen were the majority. Children are actively kept out of school for fear of exposing them to secular teachings, girls marry young and get pregnant within seconds of the vows. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are considered virtuous.

It’s not hard to imagine, because between rampant police shootings, permissive sentences for convicted rapists, and bigoted, bullying laws that prohibit people from using almost any service, up to and including public bathrooms, because of their sexuality or gender identity, Katie Coyle’s novel Vivian Apple at the End of the World feels like nothing so much as the extreme logical endpoint for where our society is headed.

There’s a lot to like about Vivian Apple. The title protagonist is partying away on “Rapture Eve” with her fellow skeptics, dancing with other teenagers and toasting the strike of midnight, assuming that when the new day dawns and the world remains as it was, her parents and the rest of the world will disavow their cultlike fanaticism with the fictional Church of America and she can slip back into a semblance of normalcy.

When she gets home, Vivian discovers that her parents are gone and there are holes in her ceiling. News begins to pour in–the Rapture has apparently happenedon a significantly smaller scale than the Church’s devotees had planned, and the rest of the country is left to pick up the pieces. Some hunker down with renewed zealotry, some philosophize, some plunge into a second coming of Caligula’s court, while a final few continue a strong strain of denial and disavowal that the world has changed.

Vivian, lifelong meek girl defined by her good grades and 10 star rating on the parental likability scale, is tired of the world gone mad. She pairs up with her recently acquired best friend, Harp, a character that smashes about a thousand and a half stereotypes, and a boy with the most beautiful blue eyes (this is a YA novel, after all) who has insider information about the upper echelon of the Church.

The ensuing road trip takes the trio on a literal quest through the US, and a philosophical one on the nature of love, mortality, morality, motherhood, and our place in the world. It sets up a real stunner of a sequel hook while being a fully contained story in and of itself. But in a world where a 70 year old toddler brags about not paying his billionaire business taxes to thunderous applause from working class supporters, a man who opposes the very existence of most Americans and pushes for the continued and extreme marginalization of the already marginalized, who could become our president, it reads a lot like horror.

 

Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack

Available for purchase here.

If you’re planning on using these waning days of summer for a few final hours of sun-soaked beach vacations before the weather turns and the days shorten, do NOT bring Unspeakable Things with you. For all the world is well acquainted with the horrors of the Holocaust, there are as many ugly realities that lay hidden in the shadows of history that Spivack’s novel pulls back the veil on. It’s not an easy or comfortable read.

It’s nigh impossible to not draw parallels between the European refugee crisis during the advent of World War II, and the modern Middle Eastern crisis faced by refugees fleeing the Islamic state. When blocked from safety through legal means, desperate people will fall to shady and even immoral means to find shelter for themselves, which leads to innocents being holed away with the same people they were fleeing from in the first place.

Unspeakable Things lives up to its name. Eugenics, rape, and pedophilia are shaped into a story with language so gorgeous it only serves to highlight the horror of what is so lovingly rendered. It’s not without its problems: one of the vilest characters is gender non-conforming in a cultural landscape rife with vilifying depictions of trans, non-binary, and other GNC people, a gay son serves as the sacrificial lamb for the rest of his family’s freedom, leaving a guilt-ridden father to tend to his grieving, catatonic wife.

In a simplistic purview, Unspeakable Things could be seen as a treatise against the acceptance of refugees, but in a more thoughtful, analytical lens, it’s a highlight of our historical failings and missteps, a spotlight on the people we’ve failed to help in the past and a blueprint for how we can be better.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Available for purchase here.

As a child I envied Harry Potter’s magical abilities, the Pevensie children’s gateway to Narnia, and even Anne Shirley’s freedom to float down the creek in a barge of her own making, the fact that it almost ended in tragedy be damned. As an adult, I envy the fictional characters their financial problems, which can always be resolved within about 300 pages. (And yes, I’m disappointed in myself, too.)

As someone drowning in student debt and trying to fit an adult’s life into a shoestring paycheck, I would be elated to deal with the problems of the Plumb clan, who all have the kind of money problems brought on by an abundance of wealth in the first place. The titular nest is their collective inheritance, which they are months from receiving, and which has been jeopardized by eldest son Leo, who spends the novel chasing validation and other ways to caress his own ego. His sister Bea is the opposite–she’s surviving, but not thriving the way someone with her talent should.

Jack is not quite as spectacular as his siblings, and just smart enough to resent them for it. Melody doesn’t shine, but has no aspirations to, and is all the better off for it, both as a person and a character. She shows the most growth, and has a better grasp of the value of a dollar than any of her siblings. Luckily, of all of them, she’s the only parent, so the kids in the story have the benefit of a well-adjusted parent, at least.

The siblings, all in their forties, are already distant at the start of the novel, but the wedge created by the precarious state of their inheritance only serves to exacerbate the four decades of rivalries and resentments, and it’s in those moments that the average reader finds these would-be millionaires recognizable and relatable. There’s also a great subplot with Melody’s daughter exploring her sexuality that feels organic and real, despite the busyness of the narrative.

Deep into the story, which rotates between all four siblings as well as Melody’s twin daughters pov’s, it becomes clear how members of the uppermost levels of the socioeconomic class are divorced from the reality of money, with no concept of how twenty dollars can mean the difference between staying afloat and drowning. Money is nothing more than a concept to them.

It begs the question of why we are allowing those people control over the economy, but as excellent as The Nest is, it can’t answer everything.

Real Artists Have Day Jobs by Sara Benincasa

Available for purchase here.

If you are a patient type of person, you can pace yourself by reading one of Benincasa’s essays every week. 52 essays–a year of quality, no-nonsense examination of life as an artist.

I read this book in a day and a half. Patience may be a virtue, but it’s one I’m sorely lacking, if only because Benincasa is an incredible writer, and if there is such a thing as fate, her book came into my life at a good time. Writer friends of mine are seeing greater and more visible success with their work, while I feel stalled and blocked on mine. Artists are supposed to be collaborative, not competitive, but there’s a greater, human compulsion to compare ourselves with our compatriots, and it’s a struggle when you find yourself lacking.

Which is why Benincasa’s latest venture is a prescription strength cure for Imposter Syndrome, that insistent little voice in the head of everyone who dares to call themselves an artist (maybe other professions, too, I don’t know. I do know I never felt this way claiming myself as a teacher.) Real Artists Have Day Jobs is a reminder that creating art makes you an artist. Not supporting yourself with art, not having it recognized as such, not your first gallery show, publication, record/role/whatever. Most creators of art are working crap jobs with crap hours, living in tiny apartments or with family, and they are no less valid than artists who show at MoMA or write really excellent books.

Benincasa also gets personal, detailing her struggles with mental health and her experiences as being a part of what I call the invisible queer–queer identified people who “read” as straight, and come out over and over again throughout their lives, who have their identities invalidated when they enter certain relationships.

It’s also important to recognize that Benincasa needed to be her age and have her experiences in order to write this book. I felt a keen sense of failure when I turned thirty having not published a book or otherwise made a name for myself as a writer. After 29, nothing we do is really considered precocious or impressive for our ages. Young as I am, I no longer have the benefit of youth.

What I do have, thanks to my widening perspective due to this yearlong sojourn into the world of women writers, is the knowledge that I am ten years more accomplished and interesting than I was at twenty. I can cave under the weight of my lack of accomplishment now, or I can work steadily, knowing that my best is still ahead of me. I choose the latter.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Available for purchase here.

Alison Bechdel is probably most famous for the Bechdel Test, which a piece of media cannot pass unless it has 1. Two or more female characters who 2. talk to each other about 3. something other than a man. It first premiered in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, one of the most iconic series for young queer girls everywhere.

Bechdel, is, of course, one of those once upon a time young queer girls, a landscape she navigated, unlike those of us who followed, without her work as a navigational tool, something we used to steer ourselves out of heteronormativity and into a more comfortable place in the world. So her graphic memoir, Fun Home, involves the pratfalls of growing up queer and isolated.

The titular fun home is actually Bechdel’s family-run funeral home, which was managed by Bechdel’s closeted English teacher father and brilliant actress mother. The dichotomy surrounding Bechdel’s father’s coming out and her own drives the focus of the story.

In the halcyon days of the seventies and eighties, while Bechdel was at college, her father Bruce was living out a life of suburban respectability on the surface while preying on teenage boys with alcohol and late night drives. Bechdel was caught up in the tail end of second wave feminism, finding her first love and coming out in spectacularly unspectacular fashion.

Bechdel and her father lived as each others’ foils long beyond their mirrored sexuality. Both suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, both were brilliant but stifled in their small town, but Bechdel is the light to her father’s dark. Bruce came out soon after his daughter, but died in a car accident almost immediately after, in what Bechdel theorized to be a suicide.

Bechdel could’ve taken a similar road, but she instead used her art and fine mind to forge ahead. She created a safe place for young queer kids and adults to find both solace and community. It’s been less than a month since the shootings in an Orlando gay club that claimed 49 lives. There have been countless bills proposed and passed that limit or destroy the rights of LGBTQIA people. We are reminded that there are too many people who hate us, who see us as less than human. Bechdel’s work is more important than ever in light of these events. It reminds us that even when we are persecuted, we are not alone.

And we are not immoral.

She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Available for purchase here.

When North Carolina passed its discriminatory HB 2 law this past spring, a bill that news outlets inaccurately referred to as the bathroom bill, but in reality prohibits trans and non-binary folk from suing on a state level for discrimination, there was a national outcry. Famous artists either boycotted their own scheduled performances in the state or donated the proceeds thereof to safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth.

Such staunch support by mainstream and cisgender (people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) of one of the most marginalized groups in our society would have been unfathomable even five years ago, and certainly in 2004 when Jennifer Finney Boylan released her memoir about growing up as a trans woman, including her medical transition that involved hormone replacement therapy and gender confirmation surgery, a process she began in her forties after twelve years of marriage, two children, and a successful career as a professor and novelist.

Boylan has one of the happiest “endings” of a trans person in mainstream zeitgeist. Her memoir exposed the realities of living as a transgender person that rivaled the toxic tropes perpetuated by Hollywood. Up until recently the primary image most Americans had of a trans person was the villain of Silence of the Lambs. In contrast to that poisonous stereotype, Boylan is educated and articulate, with a solid marriage and children who called her “Maddy” (Mommy + Daddy). More important than the dispelling of cisgender folks’ unhealthy assumptions about gender variant people, she was also a visible beacon for other trans people who deserved both representation and hope.

Boylan was also the recipient of some unhelpful advice from her doctors, who approached her treatment from the perspective that gender is a binary (it’s not), and that medical transition was her only choice, which fortunately was what she needed, but the idea that other gender variant people were receiving such a limiting message is almost as painful as the knowledge that it’s still happening more than a decade later.

Today, Boylan is one of the prominent leaders of the LGBTQ+ community, championing causes and writing eloquently about issues faced by the community. The world has a long way to go before queer and trans folks have the social equality they deserve and are entitled to, but thank goodness for Boylan’s bravery sixteen years ago, because she surely propelled the conversation forward.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Available for purchase here.

Greenidge’s story of a Black family in the early 90’s who launch an experiment to assimilate a chimpanzee, the titular Charlie, into their family, with the hopes to teach him sign language. The novel cuts back and forth between the 90’s and the 20’s, when the institute where the Freemans live is in its infancy.

The twenties version of the small New England town where the novel takes place is sharply segregated, and readers get a glimpse of the social lives of the Black community there that remains concealed from the disinterested eyes of their white neighbors. Fast forward seventy years, and the town is still deeply divided. We’re almost thirty years ahead, and culturally, we are still stuck in the ugliness of the past.

Greenidge writes of a practice of two of her main characters, who don’t do certain things in front of white people to avoid playing the fool or giving them a reason to stereotype and disrespect them. Everyone has their specific actions or practices that they avoid, but the reason is singular.

Charlotte, the de facto protagonist of the piece, is learning about the history of the institute where she has been transplanted while simultaneously discovering her own queer identity, and all the inherent homophobia attendant with that discovery–her first love downplays their relationship even as Charlotte is falling deeper in love. Meanwhile, her sister Callie is isolated and using food to cope with their bizarre new circumstances, her mother Laurel is obsessively trying to bond with Charlie, and her father Charles is losing himself in an environment so different from the urban world in which he’s always lived and worked.

Even more fascinating are the events unfolding in the twenties, when a Black schoolteacher unwittingly befriends a white researcher at the fledgling Toneybee Institute. What first appears as the breakdown of racial and class barriers is in fact the ugly devolution into a study of eugenics, a race based branch of pseudoscience that dehumanized Black people by comparing them to apes as a way to legitimize white supremacy.

The past collides with the present over the holidays, as does all dysfunction in fiction, when the Freeman family learns that they are nothing so much as an attempt by the Institute to erase their horrifying history.

The best thing about We Love You, Charlie Freeman is not the examination of the cross culture of race, sexuality, isolation, etc.–in fact, the greatest failing is that in its ambition, it doesn’t delve as deeply as the reader would wish. I was left longing for more. But the examination of race and history is fascinating and illuminating, and sparks a conversation that needs to be had, now more than ever.