Activists Write: Writing for a Reason

Right now, Baltimore is all over the news. Pains and fears that it’s been struggling with for decades are now finally being discussed at the national level. This is in part due to the many protests (peaceful and otherwise) that are currently taking place here, but also because of the many brilliant, activist voices speaking out today.

Inspired by this, I’d like to share here a few of my favorite pieces of modern activist writing:

Nonviolence as Compliance,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city’s publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city’s police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview. …

In Defense of Looting,” Willie Osterwell, The New Inquiry

For most of America’s history, one of the most righteous anti-white supremacist tactics available was looting.

As protests in Ferguson continued unabated one week after the police killing of Michael Brown, Jr., zones of Twitter and the left media predominantly sympathetic to the protesters began angrily criticizing looters. Some claimed that white protesters were the ones doing all of the looting and property destruction, while others worried about the stereotypical and damaging media representation that would emerge. …

$pread: The Best of the Magazine that Illuminated the Sex Industry and Started a Media Revolution

Edited by Audacia Ray, Eliyanna Kaiser, and Rachel Aimee


Like any movement for social change, the sex worker rights movement has gone through many phases and been challenged both internally and externally by people, ideas, and events beyond its control. It has experienced wins and losses, and it has reimagined its goals and values with each successive generation of leaders and activists who have taken up its banner. …

“Defending Darwin,” James Krupa (painting by Alexis Rockman), Orion Magazine

I’m often asked what I do for a living. My answer, that I am a professor at the University of Kentucky, inevitably prompts a second question: “What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?” …

“On Climate Change: To Save the Future, Live in the Present,” Wendell Berry, Yes! Magazine

So far as I am concerned, the future has no narrative. The future does not exist until it has become the past. To a very limited extent, prediction has worked. The sun, so far, has set and risen as we have expected it to do. And the world, I suppose, will predictably end, but all of its predicted deadlines, so far, have been wrong. …

“The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

I. “So That’s Just One Of My Losses”

Clyde Ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired—the protection of the law. …

“Rewriting the Future: Using Science Fiction to Re-envision Justice,” Walidah Imarisha, bitch

When I tell people I am a prison abolitionist and that I believe in ending all prisons, they often look at me like I rode in on a unicorn sliding down a rainbow. Even people engaged in social movements, people who concede that the current prison system is flawed, voice their critiques but always seem to add, “But it’s all we have.”

For all of our ability to analyze and critique, the left has become rooted in what is. We often forget to envision what could be. We forget to mine the past for solutions that show us how we can exist in other forms in the future.  …

“Nobody Passes: Attached to Machines,” Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, make/shift

Jessica says the worst part is the preparation. The drugs they give you. Diarrhea all day long, and then you get the chills so you’re lying in bed but you never know when you’re going to need to rush to the bathroom–eventually there’s nothing but clear liquid coming out, and that’s when they say you’re ready for the colonoscopy. So you wake up super early the next day, totally wrecked because …

(This is one of my favorite, favorites!)

For Baltimore: A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis

I normally wouldn’t post anything to do with my personal religious beliefs to this blog–which is not about religion or news–but, as a Baltimorean, I felt powerfully like I wanted/needed to share this post from St. Paul’s Episcopal of Downtown Baltimore.

Living Our Faith: St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


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Fresh Writers Series, Part III

UPDATE 10/14/15

You can now also hook into Swenson’s work via her brand new podcast!

Dear Readers, it’s time for Part III of our Fresh Writers Series, and I’m very excited to highlight the gifted and thoughtful academic Haylie Swenson as our latest Fresh Writer to read. I don’t normally highlight academic writers (or even nonfiction writers generally (so far, anyway)—sorry, NF folks! I’ve got love for you too!), but when you come across an actually good academic writer (and trust me, I’ve read enough terrible ones to know how rare they are), they deserve as much recognition as we can give them.

journal_coverSwenson’s debut publication, “Lions and Latour litanies in The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt,” is an award-winning one, earning her the (among medievalists) coveted (2012) Michael Camille Essay Prize (“awarded for the best short essay…on a variable theme that brings the medieval and the modern into productive critical relation”) as well as publication in the prestigious postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies. Whether you’re a student of medieval studies or not, this article is absolutely worth the read. While absent the humor of Mary Roach and the storyteller-style of James Gleick (largely by virtue of its genre as academic rather than creative nonfiction), Swenson’s article possesses all the impressive clarity, thoughtfulness, and good-natured appreciation for audience as the works of these acclaimed authors. For many academic authors, their writing tends to read like a violent attempt to defy the reader’s understanding in order to showcase just how smart the author is comparatively. (In other words, like an asshole). Not so with Swenson!

While accessing the article itself requires a sign-in with the journal, here’s the abstract of Swenson’s debut work:

“This essay draws on Ian Bogost’s invention of ‘Latour litanies’ to argue that Villard’s sketchbook gives us a compendium of vibrant and unpredictable objects, which is particularly true concerning his drawings of lions. Responding to debates over whether these sketches were actually drawn from life—‘contrefais al vif ’—as Villard claims, I chart an alternate path by arguing that Villard’s lions represent a moment of encounter with a dangerous object, a strange, ultimately unknowable, predatory other.”

postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (2013) 4, 257–269.


And here’s a taste of the article itself:

“Regularly appearing in the New York Times Op-Ed section as an ‘Op-Art’ series, ‘Things I Saw’ is a column featuring things seen and drawn in various cities by Jason Polan (2012). Portrayed through simple black and white line drawings, Polan’s objects – a plant, a taxidermied coyote, a boy peering at a Jim Henson exhibit – mingle freely on the page, with no apparent regard for scale or thematic ordering. Through this mingling, Polan’s column creates what Ian Bogost (2012) calls a ‘Latour litany.’ Referring to the work of actor-network theorist Bruno Latour, the term describes a list of apparently unrelated things, as in this example from Latour’s Pasteurization of France: ‘A storm, a rat, a rock, a lion, a child, a worker, a gene, a slave, the unconscious, a virus’ (Bogost, 2012, 38). Functioning ‘primarily as provocations, as litanies of surprisingly contrasted curiosities,’ these lists appear with regularity in the work of Latour and other object-oriented theorists, where they are embraced for their ability to alter our perception of ordinary things (Bogost, 2012, 38).”

However, while her article in postmedieval deeply impressed me, it was actually through a non-academic nonfiction article she posted in her blog last September that first arrested my attention to her writing talent. The post is called, “This Mo(u)rning,” and it’s an incredibly tender and thoughtful piece about Swenson’s discovery (and saving) of a little mouse from a library-haunting cat. Here’s a taste:

“Last night I held a mouse while it died. I had just shooed away a menacing cat outside our local library, and not for the first time, either. A few months ago I rescued a sparrow from this same cat, carrying it home in a box supplied by a nearby friend. I hoped an evening’s worth of quiet at my house would help him recover from his shock, and it worked, I think; the next morning he hopped away into the bushes. The mouse wasn’t so lucky.”

For now, her blog and her postmedieval article are Swenson’s only publications. However, with a talent like hers, I know this won’t be the case for long. I’ll be keeping an eye out for her future works, and be sure to update this post accordingly. Thanks for writing, Haylie Swenson!

Sweson’s given bio:

Haylie Swenson is a PhD student in English at The George Washington University. She studies animals, ecologies, and posthuman theory, along with medieval literature, and she also has a particular interest in creatures that literally or metaphorically bite.

A few words from Swenson on her current dissertation project:

Reading a variety of premodern and contemporary texts in conversation with each other, my dissertation argues that writers and artists come to understand death, grief, and memory through the bodies of animals living and dying alongside humans. 


Five Fascinating Facts about Samuel Beckett

For fun and all you recluses out there 🙂

Interesting Literature

The life of Samuel Beckett, told through five pieces of literary and biographical trivia

1. The ominous date of his birth amused him. Born on Good Friday, 13 April, 1906, Samuel Barclay Beckett enjoyed the irony of being born on a date ripe with religious connotations – not least because, as well as being Good Friday, it was a date ripe with different, superstitious associations: Friday the 13th.

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Art Encased in Art: Innovations in Publishing

As a professional writer, I’m often asked what I think of the changing face of the publishing industry. Do I want to find an agent? Do I want to self-publish? Go strictly e-book? Publish “traditionally”? Really though, the question they most want to ask is: “Are books dying out?”

My answer to this is always a laughing “no,” simply because–while the industry is certainly changing in many ways–books have always been (and will always be) at once a source of both function and art. In this post from Medieval Books, we can see evidence of this fact in the simultaneously artful, creative, and intensely functional style of different ancient books.

Today, as the internet changes our needs, demands, and expectations of books, we are also beginning to see a return to the production of artistically crafted books–that is, books produced as works of art in and of themselves. The content, in this form of publishing, thus becomes art encased in art. For just a few examples of this growing trend, check out: Anteism, Publication Studio, Ugly Duckling Press, Perimeter Books, and Art Metropole.


Both medieval manuscripts and their modern counterparts are designed to accommodate human readers. Our two hands can keep an open book under control with ease by applying gentle pressure on the outer margins of the pages. Release the pressure with your right hand and a page lifts up in the air, just enough to conveniently flip it. With a rustling sound it travels from right to left, moved along by an impatient reader that is left in suspense for a second or two. The proportions of the page, too, are designed to accommodate consumption by human beings. Our eyes can handle only a small number of consecutively placed words, no more than eight or so, depending on the size of the letter. As a consequence, medieval page design shifted to presenting a text in two columns rather than one, a transition that occurred over the course of the twelfth century.

This relationship between book design and human anatomy is seen most vividly in a particularly peculiar bookish object…

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10 Must-Read Books for April


There is no question that April brings with it many of the year’s most impressive works of fiction and nonfiction. (And don’t worry about poetry; we’ll handle it separately.) From Renata Adler to Masha Gessen, through established masters of fiction like Toni Morrison and Steven Millhauser, to undeniable new talents like Amelia Gray and Viet Thanh Nguyen, this month sprints the gamut before the industry takes a short and probably literal nap.

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