|photo by Kierstin Bridger|
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. Below we present Eric Sasson, who spoke first, welcoming and thanking participants and organizers, while reminding us of what is most precious in our creative lives.
Statement by Eric Sasson for the Candlelight Vigil at the White House, February 11, 2017
Thank you all for coming. You have no idea how much joy I feel to see so many people here in front of me, especially considering how this event got started.
Back on December 14th, I posted a Facebook event page and invited about 400 of my writer friends to what I think I called “An AWP anti-Trump rally.” I had no idea what I was doing. I only knew that all of us were gathering in D.C. in February, and I couldn't imagine 10,000 writers staying silent in the face of what is looking more and more like an authoritarian regime with each passing day. I was shouting into the void, hoping someone would hear me. I said I didn't really know how to organize anything, beyond maybe a pretty decent Oscar party.
Luckily, people did hear me. People like Dana Cann, who worked through the grueling process of securing a location and permit for this vigil. People like Daniel Hoyt, who came up with the idea of a candlelight vigil for free speech and who was always ready to do everything, including purchase the candles many of you are holding right now. People like Sarah Browning, the executive director of Split This Rock, with her incredible network of connections and tremendous organizing skills, without which this crowd would never be as large as it is now. People like Sequoia Nagamatsu, who helped design our postcard. Simone Roberts, who helped secure the sound system. Julie Carr, who helped secure the funds and create the signs many of you are holding.
And of course, all the speakers you are about to hear: Kazim Ali, Gabrielle Bellot, Melissa Febos, Carolyn Forché, Ross Gay, and Luis J. Rodriguez, who generously offered their time to share a few words with us.
I am grateful to these people, as well as to the cosponsors who signed on and spread the word about this event. We have so many cosponsors—way more than we could have ever hoped for—that I can't name them all. I am grateful because all of you have helped me realize that I am not alone in my horror and fear. As a gay man, as a Jew, as a journalist, I am fearful for our country and what the next four years might bring.
But all of you make me realize that I do not need to succumb to my fear. You make me realize that I am not powerless, that together our voices can be heard and we can make a difference. That we as a community of writers have a specific duty to stand up and speak, especially for those who are marginalized and oppressed and might be targeted under the new regime.
I'm going to let the others get into more detail about that but what I want to talk about tonight is despair. Some of you might have felt despair these past few months. I know quite a few writers who have told me they haven't been able to get any work done since the election, that they've been so consumed by all the horrifying stories in the news that it's been impossible to concentrate on their work. It feels selfish, somehow, to work on a historical novel, or a collection of interrelated short stories, or your next book of poetry, in the face of the real world terror that is constantly surrounding us.
But I want you to not punish yourself for doing what you do. More than ever, you need to embrace your freedom to express yourself however that freedom manifests itself, and never be ashamed of your voice and your story. Some of you might find yourself called to writing more non-fiction. Some of you might find dystopic visions creeping into your creative worlds. Many of you will continue to work on exactly what it is you are working on now.
And that is the point. Every story, every poem, every essay matters. Every time you express yourself you must view it as an act of resistance against a world which seeks to silence or marginalize you. It is not your obligation to write about anything in particular. To quote E.B. White, “A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false. Lively, not dull. Accurate; not full of error. Writers do no merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape it.”
We writers are the custodians of history. Through our words, we hold up a mirror to our society, so that it can view itself in all its glory and shame. We are here to shine light on what is meaningful, framing for our readers what matters in the world, but also why it matters. When we stay true to these responsibilities, we hold our freedom of expression sacred.
This freedom is the most sacred freedom. As George Washington said, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent may we be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” But we will not be dumb and silent. We are going to use our voices collectively to stand up to this regime, each and every day. We will not let any attacks go unanswered, not on Muslims, or people in the LGBTQ community, or people of color, or immigrants of any background or status, or Indigenous people, or Jews, or people with disabilities, or any community that rightfully should take pride in its identity.
Look around you: we are those people. When the administration demonizes any one of us, it demonizes all of us. When it tries to pit communities against one another, we will stand together more firmly, more united.
So do not give in to despair. Look at the next few years of your life as an opportunity to stand up for your values in a way you may have never been called on to do before. Embrace this challenge to give your voice and your words more power and more purpose. Our voices matter even more now that our country is under siege. Truth is under siege, and it is up to us to serve as reminders of that truth. By doing so, we are doing nothing less than preserving one of the foundations of our democracy.
Again, thank you so much for coming. I couldn't have imagined a better way to celebrate the end of AWP.