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Writing in an inherently political time: By Sophie Kriz

From Professors' Point of View:

Some of the most accomplished writers in Ann Arbor are professors at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. Professor Sumita Chakraborty is one of them. She writes to ask and explore the answers to questions that haunt and intrigue her. She writes in such nebulous forms as poetry and as rigid forms as scholarly articles. Chakraborty believes that in sensitive forms like political poetry, a writer must always write with sincerity, curiosity and passion.

“I don’t think that ‘should’ has much of a place in writing,” Chakraborty said. “We need poems on plants and presidents, moons and money, love and legal systems, and everything besides and between.”

Another professor at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program who engages in political writing is Professor Peter Davies. Unlike Chakraborty, Davies is primarily a fiction writer. By telling fresh and heartfelt stories, Davies writes to entertain people, move them and force them to think about issues that are sometimes difficult or uncomfortable. Chakraborty and Davies discussed how that writers ought to first make sure to use political issues to expand the field of what they write about, instead of depleting it.

“Writing is by definition a political act,” Chakraborty added. “So is breathing, living, working, existing. None of that happens ‘outside’ of politics.”

Nevertheless, political writing has become very popular recently and has gained much exposure. When asked about the reasons for this apparent increase in the importance of political writing, Chakraborty responded that the current power of political writing comes from the new, fresh voices and stories we are hearing.

“Political writing is actually much older than the contemporary moment,” Chakraborty said. “That said, I do think that in the twenty-first century, we’re seeing voices that have been historically excluded from public speech for a variety of reasons (of race, of ethnicity, of class, of sexuality, of gender) finding—or creating—more outlets for their work, which is leading to a multiplicity of ideas and of voices that is especially exciting to me.”

When asked whether he ever wrote a piece with a political goal in mind, Davies answered that he often writes about issues he cares strongly about. However, he clarified that, since he chooses to tell stories through fiction, it is always his first priority to make sure that his characters react sincerely to those issues. His mission is to tell stories, not simply push political positions.

“[My characters’] experience of those issues - trying to be true to that - is what I'm most interested in,” Davies said. “If I've had a goal it's been to suggest that the individual human experiences of those topics are often more complicated than the lines that we draw politically between us.”

Davies added, in response to questions as to how writing will create political change, that writing and in particular, fiction can help us better understand our beliefs and the beliefs of others:

“Lately, truth itself seems to have become a political issue, which is to say that political ‘fictions’ have become an issue,” Davies said. “I'd like to think that reading (and writing) fiction might actually help us be more discerning in what we believe.”

“Every individual artist and every generation of artists adds to that conversation with the things that inspire and haunt them the most,” Chakraborty concluded. “Every addition expands our minds and hearts, and that’s a valuable and incredible thing.”

From Students' Point of View:

On the other hand, many students at CHS are also gifted up-and-coming writers. Sophia Scarnecchia is an example of this. As a poet, her work speaks with emotional purity and urgency. She discussed how political writing has always been important, but how it has gained a lot of popularity and publicity in recent years. She talked about how she felt this happening when President Donald Trump was elected.

“People started protesting against all the horrible things he stood for and it eventually grew into a multitude of groups that fought back in as many ways as they could,” Scarnecchia said. “There's importance in us coming together and fighting for what we know is right; all in pursuit of a brighter future.”

In response to questions about the role that young writers and their work will play, when it comes to creating change, Scarnecchia answered that young people, as well as every other generation, have great potential to make a difference through their writing.

“Young artists have just as much possibility and power as any generation,” Scarnecchia said. “It's the power of listening that matters the most.”

On the other hand, writer and photographer Alexander Davis, another CHS student, has a different point of view. An avid science-fiction writer and reader, Davis writes to tell intriguing and unique stories about where our society is and where it could possibly be going. When asked about his position on political writing, he responded that he personally was not particularly interested in political writing.

“Political writing is neutral to me,” Davis said. “Because America has freedom of speech and expression, to a certain extent, I'm glad there are so many people not only willing to write down their thoughts on different political subjects, but also share them with the world. It takes a certain amount of courage to do so. Personally, I don't read political writing because it's just not that entertaining to me.”

He also discussed his belief that the youngest generation would most likely be the one to create the most effective kind of change in today’s era.

“Younger people are better motivated to act when the figurehead of a movement is one of their own,” Davis said. “For example, Greta Thunberg and the movement she has created. If someone older was leading that climate change movement, I don't think nearly as many people would follow along demanding change.”

CHS student, fiction writer and poet Ren Gray-Wright has yet another take on this subject. Instead of writing to only promote change or tell stories, Gray-Wright writes for their own benefit, as a means of coping with trauma. When discussing the goals of writers, Gray-Wright talked about the importance of creating empathy and compassion through writing.

“I don't think all writing necessarily has to promote change, but a large majority of it is embedded with political views whether we realize it or not,” Gray-Wright said. “Politics, at least in the US, has a goal of representing everyone, and we can't do that without understanding other people's perspectives. Although we can never fully understand what it's like to be someone else, writing comes as close as possible to creating a perfect understanding of someone else's experiences.”

In addition, Gray-Wright talked about their view that political writing has grown in popularity because of how interconnected society has become due to technology.

“Anyone with a smartphone or computer has almost instantaneous access to an unfathomable amount of literature, which is updated from moment to moment,” Gray-Wright said. “The internet has made it possible for writers to reach millions of people within a matter of seconds.”

Everybody writes for different reasons, and for many, the need for change or action is a major one. It is up to the writer to decide why they write, what they write and for whom they write. However, whether you write nostalgic science-fiction or political poetry, the world needs your writing now more than ever. So, write on.