Book Club In The Time of Trump: Your Art Will Save Your Life
I subscribed to Beth Pickens’s newsletter right after the election, back in 2016, and I distributed her printable zine, “Making Art During Fascism” at my feminist collective meeting, where the idea for this column also got started. Pickens operates under the (true, in my opinion) notion that an appropriate and necessary response to our current White Nationalist Regime is to make and consume art. Art makes us want to be alive, but it also gives us context for what we’re experiencing right now. It reflects our world back to us. It helps us make sense of things that simply don’t make sense.
But I am sure, after having read this book this month, that you are wondering one major thing: why on earth did I pick a book explicitly for artists to cover in this column, where I certainly cannot be sure everyone who reads it identifies as such? Well, this is a queer-focused publication, and I can honestly say that even the leftiest-left brained queers in my circles get down and dirty with art-making at least occasionally. But even for those who do not, I actually found a lot of this applicable to things other than art making (we’ll talk about that in a second).
I also thought it might be encouraging to those who do not usually make art to, potentially, give that a go. Like I said, consuming art helps us make sense of the world around us; making art does that, too. Poetry was how I made sense of my gender when I came out as trans; prose is how I make sense of the larger cultural waves I’m swimming in. Or vice-versa, sometimes. So no matter if you’re presently an artist or a future one, I picked this book because I think, aside from a chapter on grant writing, it’s really for everyone.
And lastly, it’s a good book to encourage recommitting to resistance. Resistance has felt really overwhelming for me, lately. I’ve fallen off on my Five Calls. My Resistbot has forgotten my name. And I am in hiding. This book makes me feel like small, concrete actions can change things. It makes me want to get up, dust myself off and keep going. And I figure, if this is happening for me, it might be happening for you all as well.
So without further ado, here’s what I recommend you talk about in your book clubs this month:
1. Depending on how close your book club is, you may want to answer the questions on pages 48-52.
Taking stock of yourself as you renew your commitment to existing and resisting during fascism is really valuable, and I love this questionnaire that Pickens has smack in the middle of this book. It’s important to have an accurate picture of the things you are carrying with you, and which of those things are useful and which of those things marginalize you under fascism. That said, some things about it can be (depending on your boundaries) really private. And it can take a while; I’m actually not through with those questions yet, I’m taking my sweet sweet time. At the very least, if you don’t share it or do it at a book club meeting, encourage everyone to do it on their own time. Here’s a little excerpt from mine:
My grandfather on my mother’s side was called Grumps and he was called that because his handwriting was poor. He didn’t close the top of the “a” in “Gramps.” And so. Grumps he became. I know he was in World War II, in the navy. I want to say that he was stationed off the coasts of India, but I am not really certain. It wasn’t something he talked about frequently. I know he had a penchant for rotten apples, which feels like something my mother would say. He always trusted people who did bad things, thought they just needed a little bit of help. He was murdered by a prostitute he employed occasionally who hoped to get money for heroin. My grandfather had no money, and he was so trusting that, had he survived the encounter, he would have likely opened the door for her again another time. He had a full head of hair until the day he died. I have the same hair.
See, they can get real personal! Please decide where your boundaries are.
2. What sorts of things from this book could be useful even to a non-artist?
Obviously, as an artist, I got something out of the entire chapter on grant writing and being told over and over again that I deserve to make money from my writing. But as a human in this world, the assertion that we basically have just this one go-round on this planet and we still have to live our lives with joy (39) is certainly something I’m going to carry with me. Sometimes that’s hard—I feel like my weirdo fiction practice is meaningless. But it isn’t. It’s meaningful to me, and we can’t let them take everything as they orchestrate their parade of horrors. I think we can all use that even if the thing bringing us joy isn’t making art—you still get to feel joy, too. In the spirit of this, I highly recommend everyone head to Netflix and give The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society a watch. Find out what your roast pig is and eat that sucker. Eat it gloriously. We’re all still humans, even now. Don’t forget to feed your soul.
Starting where you are (28) and using exactly what you have to resist is also something that anyone can keep with them. For example, while I have a great respect for those who can punch a Nazi, I can’t throw a real punch. I taught cardio kickboxing for a while, but please note the emphasis on the word “cardio.” I am largely a weenie. But I have a reading practice and the ability to engage people on the internet, so here we are. This is part of my resistance. I also have no fear of the phone and, as a person who was raised to be a white woman, the ability to wield the phrase “I would like to speak to your supervisor” with great precision and competence. I am a person who can call my representatives, and I can call them well. While we still have a shred of democracy left, it still means something.
3. Regardless of where your art practice (or not) is, what are you going to take with you as you recommit to living your best life while still resisting?
I am scared all the time. And it’s almost certainly not reasonable. Sure, I’m trans. But the administration seems to be targeting trans women, and I am trans masculine. I was born here, I’m white, I live in a large progressive coastal city. The advice to be really realistic about who is affected is something I’m going to carry with me. Yes, I am in danger. But I am not yet among the groups of people being detained in inhumane camps. And because I am not yet there, I can do something still.
I’m gonna get really real with y’all—it’s been shitty, lately. I have not been my best activist self. I have had my head up my own ass because turns out, coming out as trans is hard. That, and a lot of little things. My life has gotten in the way of my activism. It was good to be reminded that “My power lies in adding my one part to the whole” (38). So here’s what I’m going to do—
I’ve already got Five Calls on my phone. What happens is that, when I break my streak, I get overwhelmed because I have not done my activism perfectly. I have FAILED. And I let myself fail the next day. And the next. All because I failed once. I am making the pledge to treat every day as a new day when it comes to this. And maybe I don’t make five calls a day—maybe I get through five calls a week. But it’s still something. It’s still doing what I am able to do that day, even if I’m hella depressed. It’s still adding the part that I am able to add to the greater whole. I’m not going to let the YOU FAILED voice keep me from adding what I can to the stone soup (remember that story from when we were young?). That’s what I’m taking with me—from right where I am, doing exactly what I’m able to do, I will keep going.
Our Next Book Club Book: The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen.
Okay, now that we’ve all recovered from Dreamland, time to do another big book. And it’s BIG, this one. Masha Gessen has outlined what it’s been like in Russia between the fall of the Soviet Union and now, and what that means for not just the practicalities of Russian life, but the impact it has on the ways Russians are able to conceptualize themselves in the world. Obviously, as the Mueller investigation continues to find new and intriguing ways that the White Nationalist Party (I’m no longer calling them Republicans) colluded with Russia, it behooves us to turn to one of the foremost experts on modern Russia as it relates to Russian history—that’s Masha Gessen for sure. What also might be important, however, is that this book also outlines the fall of a democracy; that’s something we’re experiencing right now, in the U.S. So head to those local independent bookstores or your beloved library and check this one out ASAP—it’s a long one, and it’s a depressing one, so let’s best get going, shall we?
A.E. Osworth is Geekery Editor at Autostraddle, Managing Editor at Barnard Center for Research On Women’s Scholar and Feminist Online, and Part-Time Faculty at The New School, where they teach digital storytelling. They're writing a novel about GamerGate, which is really depressing. Follow them on Twitter or on Instagram.