Writers Resist: Because we need to

On January 15th, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, writers gathered at Sphères in Zürich for an evening of pivotal readings that celebrate the ideals of diversity, equality, freedom of movement and expression, and environmental and economic justice.

The event raised funds for the grassroots refugee-relief organization, Action from Switzerland. Their main project, the Athena Centre for Women in Chios, Greece, provides a safe haven for refugee women and girls to regain a sense of self through various well-being activities while providing them with information and access to professional legal, psychological and medical assistance. Please visit www.actionfromswitzerland.ch for more information on their work.

The idea for Writers Resist started with poet Erin Belieu, who had grown concerned about how disdain for truthfulness and public cynicism were threatening democratic ideals. Belieu noted, “Writers are acutely aware when the uses of language are empty.” Over the last two years, writers in over 100 cities on three continents have organized independent Writers Resist events. From Austin to Amsterdam, Singapore to Zürich, literary voices shared readings with standing-room-only audiences.

“If there is a time for independent and principled voices to remain loud, it is now,” said Gabrielle Tay, founder, Action from Switzerland. 

Here, one audience member—Angie Weinbergershares her reactions to the event.

Image courtesy Ana Amigo

Image courtesy Ana Amigo

It’s a Monday night. Apparently it’s also Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Not in my context. In my cultural context, it’s a lame Monday. I had a bad afternoon, confronted with my own failure to bring in enough money for the month. I am the breadwinner, mainly. My partner cannot afford the place alone. He is a migrant. He had issues for several years. He’s been living here from hand-to-mouth, working long hours in a kitchen. Don’t ask me why we live together. I grew to love him. He is my fate. He is real. His problems are real, and they are mine too. Technically speaking we are not married but what difference does it make now. I can’t earn enough as a writer to get us through. I need to have a salary.

I was there, on the other side. The capitalist world. When I enter Sphères on Monday, MLK Day, to support Writers Resist and Action from Switzerland it feels like coming home. Not like when you go to AA but similar. I get wine there by a nice French lady. I like it that the wine here has an acceptable price, not like the over-engineered expat hangout where I normally waste my money … if I have a job like last month.

I kiss my friends hello and feel good. I wish I had nerd glasses and could look a bit more ‘writerly’. I don’t look business tonight, which is good because I am looking at a book that sounds like the 2018 version of Das Kapital. It’s by Timo Daum. Das Kapital sind Wir – Zur Kritik der Digitalen Ökonomie.

Before the first writer gets on stage, I am already close to tears. Will this be my catharsis?

Clare O’Dea (author of The Naked Swiss) is first. Beautiful. She reads from Naomi Klein’s book on climate change.

Then JJ Marsh and Libby O’Loghlin, two of my encouragers and in the meantime I call them friends. They read together. From The New Yorker. My skin is white. My hair stands up. I am glued to my chair. “The identity policies are white supremacist policies …” “The cause for women should be the cause for all …”

Luckily my batteries are flat. I sit here, take notes in my pink book … almost like a real writer. Then “Counter lies with facts!” Bam.

Michelle Bailat-Jones comes on stage and reads from under- and un-translated writers with an immigrant background (immigrant to where, my inner inter-culturalist wonders). I see the scene in my eyes. Must be good writing. It touches me.

PJ and Maya from Action from Switzerland present a video about their Halcyon Days Project. I remember our first mission to Rözcke. I remember Zarah and the businessman I talked to in the camp. All the people we helped that one night. Gaby all concerned about an old man. We found him a blanket. I had not been so active again since. That night. When we were not admitted into our hotel. Two women at 3 a.m. When I decided to drive back to Budapest in the van, when Gaby and I stayed in a luxury hotel for several hours. This was the Sunday when we drove back from the refugee camp and as some of ‘our’ refugees were coming to the Austrian border, we heard that Germany was closing the border to Austria. This was the beginning of the end of Schengen, Europe and everything we had hoped for as young students studying European law.

What have we achieved since that night? What has split the world into two camps of supporters and opponents? What triggered all that hate? And why did I close my heart again after it had been ripped open so badly?

I would need to write it all down, catalogue my thoughts. Like Liam.

The women in the video dream about a normal life. A life like mine is out of their reach. I still complain, I sob, I drown in self-pity. I am embarrassed.

There is a break. Conversation. I try to escape. I don’t have money. Just enough for a second glass of wine. This is not my time to be generous with my money. I feel embarrassed and because of that I make a small promise to PJ. I will write about this event. I will write about my feelings and I will support Halcyon Days with my words. Because this is what a writer does. A writer is generous with words.

Anne with a poem on rape and one on a Vietnamese woman with long wet hair. Once again I see the images in my mind. A beautiful story of hope in the dark about ‘mansplaining’. I need to make a snarky comment as I cannot just sit in an audience quietly.

Darcy moves me with her poem ‘San Salvador 1991’.

Then I know the face. I’ve seen him before. It’s Liam. He reads from To Kill a Mockingbird and then from his own book, Paralian. I am moved to tears. When he thanks his dad with “Danke, Papa” water flows out of my eyes. I seem to forget that I am in a public place. I seem to forget that we are not alone. I cry. Because this is humanity. This proud father who accepted that his daughter wanted to become a man and gifted him with an aftershave and a razor. He smiles. Everyone looks at him.

We start to chat. Anne recognizes me and not because I made the snarky comment. She claims I was in her writing workshop in 2014. I am not sure I was there but she seems familiar and we have a lot to chat about. Another lady joins in. It’s an open conversation about harassment at the workplace and the abuse of male power. I am not too vocal about my stories. Gosh I should have mentioned about my boss who once told me over a glass of wine that he did not hire me because of my intelligence and competence. I should have sued him at the time. I just laughed then. But this is the issue. We are not standing up for ourselves. We accept the bullshit even if we are well-accomplished professionals.

Today I felt a bit encouraged, turned down two offers. One was probably from a scammer. The other one would have probably wanted to exploit me by not paying for my services. I said “Nein, danke”. And yesterday I turned off the localization for trends on Twitter because I don’t want to know what is trending in Switzerland. I want to know what happens in the other parts of the world. I want to read magazines like Republik and I want to finally deserve time to read a novel without feeling that I should work. I am a writer and writers have to read what others write.

When I walked out of the building into the rainstorm with a new business card and a bit of hope, I smiled at the other woman at the traffic lights. I did not dare to speak to her. I hopped onto Tram No. 4 and then I took more notes. Maybe one day I will publish those.


The Readings

Clare O’Dea read an extract, ‘The unfinished business of liberation’, from Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, and her own essay (read it here).

JJ Marsh and Libby O’Loghlin read a piece by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called ‘Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About’.

Michelle Bailat-Jones read a short section (in English translation) from Raluca Antonescu’s L’Inondation (The Flood), followed by her own translation of the short story ‘Chez Moi’ by Agota Kristof, from her collection, C’est Egal.

Anne Korkeakivi read two poems: ‘Split’ by Cathy Linh Che and ‘First Recital’  by Frances Driscoll. She followed up with an extract from Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’.

Liam Klenk read from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and also from his own memoir Paralian – Not Just Transgender and

Darcy Alexandra, who made the whole evening happen, read her own poem ‘San Salvador 1991’, ‘Hymn’ by Sherman Alexie and Roque Dalton’s ‘Como tú’.


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Author: J.J. Marsh

Writer of The Beatrice Stubbs series, founder member of Triskele Books, columnist for Words with JAM magazine, co-curator of The Woolf magazine, Bookmuse reviewer, blogger and Tweeter. @JJMarsh1

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