Writers Resist – New Orleans by Colette Sensier

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Colette Sensier is a poet and prose writer. Her story Mrs. Świȩtokrzyskie’s Castle featured in Spread the Word’s Flamingo Land (2015) and was also anthologised in Salt Publishing’s Best British Short Stories 2016. Last year, she moved to New Orleans and here she shares her reflections on Writers Resist in the city – a movement that sees writers across the world work together “to best protect and defend against further erosion of social justice and democratic process, through key actions of elevating the narrative surrounding democracy; better educate young future citizens; and mobilise writers who want to put their pens into political practice.”

“On Sunday 15 January, writers across the world – including London! – held Writers Resist events in resistance to the new president of the United States, Donald Trump. I was lucky enough to attend Writers Resist in New Orleans, where I’ve been studying and writing since August.

On the night after the election, I marched with a group of grieving protestors through the swish French Quarter district. Elderly tourists, bouncers and strippers called out support as we passed – but the overwhelming feeling among protestors was grief. It’s easy to feel alone and vulnerable in New Orleans, a liberal artists’ city in a Republican Deep South state. Many women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people and low–wage workers have felt for eight years that their president, if far from perfect, was at least “on their side” against bigotry, discrimination and violence. Now, they see this choice of president as a statement of intent to oppress.

But while they’re still scared, the writing community isn’t curled up under blankets. Over 150 people came out to a converted garage to talk, comfort each other, and listen to a diverse procession of New Orleans writers read out work by poets, fiction writers, essayists and journalists ranging from Mos Def to JK Rowling to Allen Ginsberg.

The readers’ choices spoke to the feeling, reiterated again and again, that Trump’s authoritarianism and disgust for liberal values isn’t normal, isn’t OK, isn’t right. High school students read from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Rediscovering Lost Values. Short story writer Ambata Kazi–Nance read excerpts from Mahamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir of his Guantánamo detention. And Thomas Beller – a novelist, essayist, biographer and professor – read a description of Mussolini playing tennis, written by a journalist desperately scrutinising the game for insights, because the dictator shared Trump’s strong aversion to the press and refused to give interviews.

On the 20 and 21 January, thousands of New Orleans–ians will attend more versions of national anti–inauguration events: Disrupt J20, the Women’s March, and the Millennials March. Many of the writers present on Sunday were part of the protests against the shooting of Alton Sterling in nearby Baton Rouge, which drew international attention due to accusations of police violence and mass arrests. They see fighting – physical, dangerous fighting – in their future.

But in this island of blue in a sea of red, connection is the priority right now. No reader at Writers Resist shared his or her own work. Instead, they reached out to expand the community standing in front of them: to talk with George Orwell, Audre Lorde, and Joy Harjo.

When in shock, I think writers reach for each other first: people in other times and places who have already made words for something like what they want to say. They listen to those words, and take them into themselves. And then they begin to speak, with all those other voices inside them.”