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When Writers Lose Their Freedom

"That Tumbling Passage," © copyright Mary Louise Long 2021. A painter who always surprises me with her inventive and beautifully rendered images, Mary Louise, a dear friend from college, continually inspires and encourages my own creative process. With thanks for permission to use this image.


If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today. If he is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free. 


-Salman Rushdie  from the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture 5/12/2012, Pen World Voices Festival.


Dedicated to Jimmy Lia, the founder of Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper, and the courageous reporters who kept working at constant risk to their lives and freedom.


During the long months of lockdown, I could not read or write any fiction. I read poems but the muse for writing  poetry had fled. I abandoned a collection of novellas—two written before the pandemic—and a collection of prose poems—ten written before the pandemic. Daily life had become surreal. Time slowed, but it was a mobius loop, a tunnel, with no end in sight, a constant barrage of statistics, importunities, and logistics. How will we get food in the house? How will we do our laundry, visit a doctor, stay safe? We concluded emails, texts and phone calls with those very words: "stay safe." I began a dedicated blog book, Virus Without Borders, and this seemed to be enough to keep my writer's muscle supple. I didn't want to do much more. But no one was telling me what to write about and what I couldn't write about. As a writer, no matter the illusion of incarceration during the pandemic, I remained free. Without the censorship of the marketplace, I was even more free. My goal was not to sell Virus Without Borders, but to witness the event and create a well-written document for a post-pandemic digital archive.


After vaccination, the muse loosened and I began working on a new short story idea set in the colonial past. It moved slowly and I could not figure out why; once I begin to write, I usually write rapidly. What was different? Why was I hesitating, and worse—self-censoring? The answer is unsettling: Given the mood in the country right now and all the unpleasant –often  uncalled for—white shaming, I was concerned that the story may not be well received by Black readers.


Of mixed heritage, I do not consider myself "white," unless that is also a synonym for "privilege," but there it is: according to some who choose to label me with racial epithet, I am "white." Even an Asian American college friend refers to me as "Caucasian" these days. How sad is that, not to mention genetically and biologically mistaken.


Nonetheless, as I was drafting the first few paragraphs of my new story, I asked myself: What right do I have to imagine what it felt like to be an enslaved child, to tell a story from that child's POV when I am so utterly removed from that experience?


The muse ground to a halt. And no matter how many times I told myself that every writer and artist must feel absolutely free to create compassionate, empathetic work, without restraint, I could not continue, not for a while anyway.


Years ago, when Robert Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran, received the Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain: Stories, I devoured them all in one sitting. They are beautifully written. But I was in a post-Vietnam politically correct outrage, and wondered why he had "appropriated," these stories, rather than encouraged the Vietnamese immigrants he had befriended in New Orleans to write the stories themselves. Well, they couldn't, or not yet, not at that time. Olen Butler had served as a translator during his stint as a soldier in Vietnam, he loved the people he encountered, and cared about their fate. The collection was an act of empathy, what the Europeans, in their greater wisdom and maturity, would call un homage.

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This Writer Wears a Hijab

With thanks to my daughter, Chloe, and son-in-law, Ryan, for raising a flock of multi-ethnic chickens. Wishing all my readers peace in this season of universal rebirth. 


We may have all come on different ships, but we are in the same boat now.


--Martin Luther King, Jr.



If I confided to you, dear reader, that when you do not see me or hear me or notice me, in front of the classroom, or on the train, or on the bus, I am wearing a hijab not out of necessity, but out of choice, how would your opinion change about my professional status, for example? Would you ask me if I were documented, or if I was a first or second generation American, or if I prayed, or if I had terrorist inclinations, or if I even belonged here in these United States? Or would you remain silent, silent and admiring, or silent and enraged, or silent and curious, or silent and wary, or silent and frightened? Would you report me to your superiors, have me watched, or try to recruit me to spy on my friends? And in case you are wondering, dear reader, if these scenarios are real, let me assure you they are real, they have happened to me, been reported by me, and I have written about them  over the years in different guises—journalistic voices and fictional disguises. I am Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu and Kurd, Iranian and Iranian-American and Haitian-American and Honduran-American. I am an American. It does not matter where I come from—originally. I am here. This is my country. I am a child of refugees. I am a child of immigrants. Do not tell me this is not my country.


These were my troubled and angry thoughts as I woke this morning. And also the word enfiladed, out of a dream, the writer wearing a hijab in solidarity with the non-violent Arab world, which is our world, our extremely endangered world—walking along an enfiladed hallway of ash-filled urns, the remnants of what was once a multi-cultural, multi-faceted open society, a society without borders that still only exists in an internationalist's imagination.


Yesterday, this enfiladed hallway was alive with students attending a small community college where I work as a writing tutor for nine hours every week. It is a bit too quiet these days—not enough students take advantage of our services—but when a student enters and sits down, and is courageous enough to ask for help, it is always interesting. I know that the student—white, black, or brown, wearing a hijab or dreads or a pony-tail—is  probably struggling to pay the rent and  pay for school. Perhaps she has no health insurance and her parents are sick and she is looking after them. Perhaps she has been in the military, perhaps she has been in prison, or had a baby too soon, or is the first person in her family to go to college because she dreams of being a paralegal or a social worker or nurse; perhaps she remembers watching her father executed in front of her eyes—in Mexico, or Guatemala, or Sri Lanka during the Civil War, perhaps she was born blind. This is the post-colonial, endangered, gentrifying world, families fleeing from man-made violence and natural disaster, families trying to survive on declining incomes without a safety net or extended family to lend a hand, or government benefits, or unemployment when a factory shuts its doors, or farmland is bought up by conglomerates,or barns sold off to millionares from the city for weekend getaways. This is the neighborhood in which we live. These are the Americans forgotten by our politicians in the last presidential election. We have already learned our lesson: we  must never forget them again.

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