Writers Resist lifts Nashville voices for freedom, justice
Less than a week from the presidential inauguration, clamorous political discourse continues. The divide seems to grow deeper.
But buried deep between the passionate exchanges about the Affordable Care Act, or the Second Amendment, or abortion, or immigration, is concern and commitment by some to make change for the better.
On Sunday, cities across the country took part in “Writers Resist: Voices for Social Justice,” readings during which invited speakers shared essays and poems focused on ideals of Democracy and free expression. The flagship event, led by PEN America, took place in New York City and featured two former United States laureates Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove.
Locally, The Porch and Scarritt Bennett Center co-sponsored the event, which, on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, included selections from the Civil Rights leader, along with writers James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and more.
“I think it’s important that artists and writers around the country speak out about what they believe in — in any case,” said Susannah Felts, co-founder of The Porch writers collective in Nashville. “We are living in times that call for an impassioned and compassionate response to injustice.”
Writers Resist became an “opportunity to bear witness to a beautiful collection of words,” Felts said. Words that are both “timeless and tragically timely.”
Among the artists to take the podium in Nashville were New York Times best-selling author Rebecca Wells, “Mercy Now” singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, national award-winning poet and Vanderbilt student Tiana Clark and Nashville’s first Youth Poet Laureate Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay.
The event began with Wells reading “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert. Standing in front of a small podium, Wells projected to the full house of nearly 200 attendees words about sorrow and suffering and courage to “risk delight.”
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
“I think it’s very important that we have a sense that we are community. That there is strength. That there are a lot of us,” said Wells, who is best known for writing the Ya-Ya Sisterhood series. “We can all so easily, right now, feel isolated. … I think one of the ways we hold on to joy is to come together.
“And on a very deep level, I think it is empathy that can help us. For writers and artists and musicians and filmmakers, our currency is empathy. And so we share our vulnerability with each other and hopefully help create an environment where empathy is nourished.”
Ideally, Wells said, an event like this would grow outward to a place where the audience is not so like-minded, but thinks differently and embraces those differences with understanding.
It can be difficult to get there. So many of our deep-seated beliefs form based on how we were raised, our faith, and our life experiences. And so often we magnify those differences and play them against each other. But then we miss something important.
To expect leaders to make positive change, it also has to expected from the individuals who ask for it.
People on both sides have to put pride aside and sit down and listen. Have conversations, not arguments. Name solutions, not call names.
They have to be willing to talk and listen.
In Music City, people have a lot to say. That is why Felts wanted Nashville to be part of the 90 cities nationally that took part in “Writers Resist.” A diverse artistry and activism thrives here. Movement starts here. Just think of the sit-ins and the push for Civil Rights.
Before he followed Martin Luther King, Jr. to the March on Selma, Rep. John Lewis started change in Nashville. A civil rights pioneer and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Lewis was a leader in Nashville’s nonviolent, student-led sit-in movement in the 1960s. He spoke of change. Many others have followed.
“We are known for our music, and we need to be known for our words, as well,” Felts said. “Words that matter.”
At the conclusion of Sunday’s event, Michael McRay — founder of Nashville’s live storytelling series Tennx9 — read a poem by Padraig O Tuama called “The Facts of Life.”
That you were born
and you will die.
That you will sometimes love enough
and sometimes not.
That you will probably be okay.
“I don’t know how we will maintain our resistance,” McRay said, “without hope.”