#AWP17 Conference Report—Nadia Ghent on “The Personal (Essay) is Political: Nonfiction as an Agent of Social Change”

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PM#AWP17 Panel S274: The Personal (Essay) is Political: Nonfiction as an Agent of Change.

Description: Online nonfiction venues such as Salon, Slate, and The Atlantic, among others, invite writers to respond to world events through the lens of personal experience while also allowing works to be shared virally via social media. The best of these spur public conversations about issues as pressing as police brutality, rape culture, LGBTQ rights, and more. This panel explores the various roles of the personal essay in contemporary culture, and discusses how words effect change on the world.

Panelists: Katie Cortese, Jaquira Díaz, Eric Sasson, Gabrielle Bellot, Matthew Salesses

Conference Report:

There may be no moment more poised on the brink of widespread social and political change than our current time. As a response to the current state of political discourse, the personal essay in contemporary culture has become a vital tool that enables writers to change established opinions and to oppose narratives based on “alternative facts.” Although this panel was scheduled for the very last time segment of AWP 2017 when conference fatigue was widespread, the panelists were unanimous in sending the audience off on a mission to write, to read, and not to despair over what some have called the “American tragedy.”

Moderator Katie Cortese, assistant professor of creative writing at Texas Tech, began by asking what the responsibility of nonfiction writers must be within the context of the present political climate, and how writers can transform words into measurable change. Cortese quoted James Baldwin’s statement that literature is indispensable to the world, but then questioned how literature becomes indispensible, and how writers can actually change political reality. These questions were explored in great depth by all the panelists.

Gabrielle Bellot, staff writer for LitHub, provided a comprehensive historical overview of the role of the essay in contemporary literature. Bellot traced the beginnings of literature’s role as an agent of change to Chinua Achebe’s lecture/essay Image of Africa, that challenged mainstream critical thinking about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as well as racist interpretations of “darkness” itself. “We must write dangerously,” Edwidge Danticat wrote, and Bellot asserted that the essay has always been political even within the realm of the personal. Bellot cited works by Sei Shonagun and Marjane Satrapi, in addition to the Wonderwoman series, as having clear political messages. Other texts that have created massive social conversations are Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Ta-Nehesi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” Zola’s “J’Accuse,” and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

However, there are many external forces that can exert negative effects on the efficacy of an essay’s message, Bellot warned, and the primary danger is in the positioning of the text within the current climate of extreme political partisanship. “We must be vigilant as writers,” she said. Writers must become acutely aware of how the editing process can sometimes change the aim of an essay, or how headlines, often the only part of an essay people read, can misrepresent that essay’s intended meaning. These are the “invisible dangers” that also extend to confusion over such words as “transgender” and “transgendered,” errors that even reputable news outlets can commit.

Bellot strongly advocated for creative nonfiction’s ability to create empathy among readers, and suggested that CNF may have greater power as an empathically driven narrative mode than reasoned, researched pieces. “Stories get us to believe in them,” she said.

Matthew Salesses, PhD candidate at the University of Houston, rerouted the question of change: what kind of change do we want and who do we want to change? These questions must be considered if writers want to avoid writing to and for the kind of people who believe exactly the same things we believe. Salesses made his comments while seated, “giving up the lectern” because he believes in conversation from a position of equality and being “in people’s spaces,” the same way an essay can enter into a reader’s space.

The personal essay grants access to the author’s mind and can change thinking, but change itself is difficult. Salesses argued against complacency, but admitted that finding ways to change the focus of his own writing after the November elections was challenging. As a Korean adoptee into a white family, he realized that he had drifted into writing from a comfortable position of white privilege without being white. Change is crucial, however, and writers must take ownership of change in order to write the kind of essays that interrogate personal and political values and systems of power.

Jaquira Díaz, Pushcart Prize recipient and MacDowell fellow, read from her 2016 piece in The Guardian, “Puerto Rico’s Last Political Prisoner” about the 34- year long imprisonment of Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera and described how she felt as if she was “posing” as a journalist in order to take on the authority the story needed. Díaz said that it seemed inauthentic to her to write journalistically, since she was more comfortable writing creative nonfiction, but pairing journalism with nonfiction techniques can be essential in reaching a wider audience. Readers see themselves reflected on the page when they can identify with the writer, and Díaz asserted the need for substantially more writing that speaks to people of color while also exposing systems of oppression and brutality.

Eric Sasson, Ctrl-Alt columnist for The Wall Street Journal, noted that he found it interesting to write for a publication whose opinions and values he did not believe in, but that he felt he was exposing Wall Street Journal readers to viewpoints they might not be used to encountering. Sasson described his belief that nonfiction can enact social change especially if writers cover issues that have previously been ignored or are not being written about. This burgeoning major progressive movement in reaction to the political climate has been fueled by outrage over what purports to be the truth, and Sasson emphasized that nonfiction becomes even more vital when “alternative facts” threaten to obscure political discourse.

In the Q&A, questions centered on responses to the uncertain state of our country. One question was about using Medium as a publication outlet, and Bellot said she is encouraged by the site’s aesthetically pleasing look and how quickly issues can be brought to public attention. She mentioned that she herself has published on the site, even though some people claim that as a self-publishing venture, Medium may not offer the kind of credentials necessary for many writers. Another questioner asked if this crisis in government is a call to action, and the panel was unanimous in its assent. Sasson pointed out that recognizing this situation can be positive, and that “the only response to despair is you double down, you organize.” A final question brought up the issue of who can write about race, and Salesses echoed Ralph Ellison’s words, “you can’t write in America without writing about race.” Salesses encouraged white people not to write from a personal viewpoint they will never have, but instead “to write about whiteness. Examine yourself.” Díaz reminded the audience that it is not the job of people of color to explain themselves to the white world, and she encouraged everybody to read the literature written by people of color: “The answers are there.”

Note: There was a candlelight vigil for freedom of expression organized for immediately after the panel ended. The vigil took place in Layfayette Square directly across from the White House, and speakers included Kazim Ali, Melissa Febos, Luis J. Rodriguez, Eric Sasson, Gabrielle Bellot, Ross Gay, and Carolyn Forché.


Nadia Ghent is a writer living in Rochester, NY. This was the first AWP conference that she has attended.

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