On Thursday, September 24th, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students hosted “Writing About Our Identities,” an online panel discussion about activism, art, and identity. “Writing About Our Identities” is a part of the FOCUS speaker series, a program designed to offer students and the wider university community the chance to participate in meaningful discussions with some of the foremost anti-racist writers, activists, and thinkers in the world. The panel was moderated by Tracy K. Smith, the former U.S. Poet Laureate and the current chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts. She was joined by Morgan Jerkins ’14 and Rakesh Satyal ’02. Jerkins is a visiting professor at Columbia University and a senior editor at ZORA. Her acclaimed collection of essays, This Will Be My Undoing was published in 2018 and her new book, Wandering in Strange Lands is in stores now. Satyal is currently an executive editor at HarperOne; his novels Blue Boy, which received the Lambda Literary Award, and No One Can Pronounce My Name are currently being made into motion pictures.
After the participants were introduced by Jessica Bailey ’19, the ODUS Arts Program Coordinator, Smith guided the conversation for the first half of the panel. It largely revolved around themes explored in Jerkins’ and Satyal’s books. Their subject matter differed significantly – Wandering in Strange Lands is a firsthand account of the reclamation and renewal of family ties and long-suppressed history, while No One Can Pronounce My Name is a novel about the inescapable feeling of being an outsider – but there was ample common ground to explore.
A major theme of the discussion was silence, both externally imposed and self-inflicted. For Jerkins, it came in the form of generations of family history that had been repressed by pervasive white supremacy. “African-American families are traumatized,” Jerkins said, “and don’t want to tell stories about the past.” She described the difficult, painful work of coaxing stories, memories, and buried emotions from friends and family. When she started interviewing her grandfather for her book, he began with, “I guess I can tell the story now.” In Jerkins’ words, “[a]ll it took was just a mistake, whether it was that my father was uppity, would not cross the street for a white man… then he’s going to be lynched” – and rich oral histories and family traditions to be buried for fear of reprisal.
For Satyal, silence was “not only a verbal act, but a physical one.” His novel Blue Boy is semi-autobiographical, and traces the path that Satyal himself walked as a queer person growing up in an Indian-American community in Ohio. He discussed the internalized shame and compartmentalization that came with hiding a part of himself from the world, and the relief of finding his community to be more accepting than he had hoped. Satyal’s family also lived with the uncertainty of being immigrants in the United States, the perpetual conflict between assimilation and identity. He described the “knifepoint” re-editing of No One Can Pronounce My Name after the 2016 election, to reflect his and his family’s shattered perceptions of their place and future in American society.
The panelists spoke of writing as a way to bring their experiences – and those of their communities – to light. “[Writing] is a way to solidify my identity,” Jerkins said afterwards, ”but also to just document and to let myself know that I was here and that what I’d experienced was real.” The panelists both described a sense of relief in the security that their history and identity could no longer be completely silenced. “A piece of art is kind of like a human life,” said Satyal. “Even if it’s destroyed, it was at least there.”
The second half of the event was a Q&A, moderated by Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students and Manager of Strategic Communications Bryant Blount ’08. Questions were submitted live by the audience, and they proved to be varied and incisive. Several questions approached the panelists as educators, asking their advice on how to motivate young writers and students to tell their own stories. Smith responded that it was crucial to “show students what other writers have done with stories that are coming from similar places” – to allow them to see themselves in a greater, grander tradition of artists. It was clear to see that each of the panelists had followed that very same path. Upon being asked which authors and poets had inspired them, the names mentioned by the panelists included Edith Wharton, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin. Fittingly, Smith had opened the event with a quote from James Baldwin’s own collection of essays Nobody Knows My Name: “Human freedom is a complex, difficult, and private thing. If we can liken life, for a moment, to a furnace, then freedom is the fire that burns away illusion.” His legacy, like those of Wharton, Hurston, Morrison, and the countless others who had extended, embroidered, and expanded a singular literary tradition, was on display. The perpetual conversation in which those four authors had spoken was joined by the three on the panel and certainly by many more in the audience.