Panelists: Maggie Messitt, Tom Montgomery Fate, Scott Russell Morris, Sheila Ngoc Pham, & Amy Silverman
“I didn’t think the essay was going to be an activist.”
As writers, do we take on the responsibility of promoting ideas, news, and ways of thinking as a way of bettering our world? Should our work become an activist in itself? Panelists Maggie Messitt, Tom Montgomery Fate, Scott Russell Morris, and Amy Silverman, considered their own creative nonfiction in writing about social justice issues.
Scott Morris, recent PhD candidate from Texas University, facilitated the panel “Unexpected Activism” in the hopes of discussing whether the essay has become a mode of activism. “Is writing activism and should it be activism?” Morris asked. He went on to explain how journalists are navigating creative nonfiction writing for issues of social justice. He confessed that he was initially skeptical and that “for a long time [I] kind of resisted that I, an essayist in essayistic practice, should be an activist.” Morris continued the introduction with quotes from Roxane Gay and other writer of colors as examples of activism.
“I still feel like I should be doing more and that writing is not enough. Writing is powerful. Use that tool, you have a voice.” He then introduced the members of the panel.
Maggie Messitt has worked as a journalist in under-served communities in Africa and in the American Midwest, which has inspired her work. She told audience member about her long history in journalism, working in South Africa as her first real reporting, and where she soon discovered what journalism meant to her. “I was not writing for South Africans; I was writing for people who would never be able to choose to interact with this community like I did. I lived and was invested in a community that wasn’t mine and would never be mine and felt a responsibility to share that.” She concluded her remarks by encouraging activism through creative nonfiction by relating it to journalism of the 1930s, the “documentary era.” She believes that writers “got out of the way. People allowed the stories to unfold.”
Tom Montgomery Fate read an essay about his experiences in activism. His essay highlights several “snapshots” of occasions where he found himself in situations of activism. He moved from moments in the Philippines, Chicago, and the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2014. He acknowledged his position of being a “middle class white guy that deals with his heritage” through putting himself in justice situations. While he is not “directly responsible for that [injustices being put upon other people because of his white ancestors] debacle, […] I am accountable. You don’t have to save the world, you just have see it.”
Amy Silverman introduced herself as a journalist who works in Phoenix, Arizona. She is most known for having written about her daughter’s down syndrome as she searched for a school that would benefit her daughter. She faced many different and unfair situations that lead to her writing about her experience. “I didn’t mean to write our family’s story, but I did. It led to a blending of personal story and research. I blended personal narrative with reporting.” Through researching for her own daughter, she was able to expose perspectives that most people would not have been able to see if they had never had a child with down syndrome.
The panel ended with a series of questions from the audience that touched on topics such as acknowledging privilege, taking “risks” in advocating for others of different backgrounds, and what it means to be a journalist working in the creative nonfiction field.
Margarita Cruz is a MFA candidate from Northern Arizona University. She serves as poetry editor for Thin Air Magazine.