|photo by Mai Der Vang|
On Saturday, February 11, 2017, over 1,000 writers gathered in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, to speak out for free expression.
Split This Rock and a number of hard-working individuals joined together to organize the vigil to coincide with the annual conference of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), which brought thousands of writers to the nation's capital. Thirty organizations cosponsored, spreading the word and helping writers gather at this time of intense threat to our basic human rights, of which freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental.
Split This Rock is publishing the statements of those who spoke, Kazim Ali, Gabrielle Bellot, Melissa Febos, Carolyn Forché, Ross Gay, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Eric Sasson. Today we bring you Melissa Febos and her rousing call to love and action.
When I was asked to speak here, my first thought was, free speech, yes. But “candlelight vigil”? That sounds like a funeral for free speech, or a prayer circle. And while I believe in the power and necessity of both funerals and prayer, neither fits my mood so far under this administration. I don’t really feel like lighting a candle unless that candle is intended to burn the house down.
But then I looked up what vigil was. Here’s what I found: “a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep.”
That sounded exactly right to me. Because awake as I have always believed myself to be, I also know that I’ve spent more time sleeping than I can now afford.
When I woke up on November 9th, I felt powerless. I felt naïve. I felt like I wanted to call up Obama, or my mother, or God, and cry mercy. And say: "This is more than we can handle. It is even bigger than we thought. I have already been fighting. I am already tired. If what I have been doing is not enough, then I am not enough." That morning, I whispered what I have always whispered when I cry: “I want to go home.” This has never been a longing for a place, at least not any place outside of this body. It has been a wish to find a home in my own body, something on which to brace myself as I move through a world that often hates such bodies.
But I didn’t call my mom, or Obama, or God. Or at least, none of them picked up. And then I remembered that I am a fucking adult. A grown woman, whom, though not always at home in her body or in this world, still has access to resources, and language, and more safety than the vast majority of humans on this desecrated planet.
Mercy has never come to me through any man, or my mother, or even God. It has come to me over and over and over in the hands and mouths and hearts of other people. It has risen from my own hands, and throat and heart.
So, I stopped crying. Because I am a writer and a teacher and a feminist and a fighter, and it not anyone else’s job to rescue me. I don’t need rescuing.
What I mean is, I have already been lucky enough to find the ways that I can be most useful in the world. I am not a politician or a political scientist. I am not a journalist, and I do not form fast opinions. I change my mind a lot. I have no desire to police the manner in which other people respond to their fear.
But I know the power of a person’s story. I know the power of mine. I know how to raise my voice, and, even more importantly, how to amplify and listen to those of others. I know that my own tender parts are also my strongest.
Part of my fear on Nov 9th was that the ways I found of speaking freely might be trivialized by what is happening, and will likely keep happening.
But I don’t think that is true.
You don’t have to be Van Jones, or Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Chimamanda Adichie or Charles Blow. You don’t have to be an expert at anything other than what you already are. There is already mercy in you, to be given, to find. The thing is not to become something else, it is to bring what you are into greater service to this resistance.
If that is make phone calls, make phone calls. If that is marching, you fucking march. And if that is writing the stories of humans, including your own, then that is what you must do. That is the knife you must sharpen and use to carve a way for all of us through this nightmare.
If I have learned anything in my life, it is that I can walk through fear, I can work through fear, and sometimes, I can borrow its power for my own.
I’m here on behalf of some organizations that are doing this work – VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and PEN America. If you are not sure where to start, or where to continue, and you want to join me in working with them, ask me how, or just join PEN America to fight censorship, protect persecuted writers, and defend free expression.
And come to VIDA’s dance party/fundraiser tonight. Because I’m also here to tell you, that yes, dancing is a part of every revolution. And that denying your own joy does not deliver it to anyone else. It only deprives you before they even get a chance to.
So, go ahead and feel afraid if you are afraid. Feel hopeless if you do. Now is “a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep.” Don’t go to sleep, and don’t stop using your words. It isn’t trivial; it is more important than ever. This vigil isn't going to end when we blow these candles out.