When I was 14, my best friend Carly and I had a sleepover to make T-shirts. We painted our nails red, white, and blue. We stayed up all night looking at websites that documented anti-war paraphernalia. In the morning, my mother drove us to the thrift stores on Summer Avenue (near the old churches and pawn shops) in Memphis to buy the army fatigues that they sold. We decorated patches with fabric markers, and glued them on our oversized jackets. At school that week, my biology teacher, Ms. Fran, pulled me aside and asked me to “dress more respectfully.” My rebellion was slight and middle-class and relatively uninformed. That was March 20, 2003, the first week of deployment of the undeclared “Iraq War.”
This decade’s war is perhaps not far away enough yet to know its definition. Last month when the world marked the 10th anniversary of September 11, conversations tended towards “where were you when…” and the like. The passage of time cements our collective consciousness about events like these. There is the establishment of agreed-upon terminology. And the changing organization and topical tensions of popular discourse.
This Wednesday, Freerange will host for you an event of “Peace & War Stories.” We have not asked our performers for anything specific, and it will be up to them how (or if) they interpret this complex heading. The artist’s role is necessarily and constantly questioned.
There may not be many discussions of poetry or fine art in the war rooms of this generation (or any other). But the creative voice, its communicable history, will always hold something strangely present, vital. The writer’s voice in wartime is remembering, perhaps reimagining, too. I think all artists should read Carolyn Forche’s remarkable anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. Forche’s introduction reads, “If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance.” I do believe that it is the artist’s mandate to retell. And I find it ever perplexing and necessary to see our civil experience played out in literature.
I was 13 on September 11, 2001. My slacktivist generation has not been lauded for our political engagement. In comparison to the grassroots culture of the 70s, we are less effectual. Perhaps more ideological. Are we making any progress? It is certainly hard to tell. A very cool organization called Revel and Riot, which supports the LGBTQ cause through art and design, sells a T-shirt which features one of the most exceptional examples of linguistic reapproriation out there. It reads, “Ask, Tell.” I can’t imagine a better sentiment. 2011’s repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell legislation highlights the extraordinary shift of the armed forces that the past decade has seen. For the first time ever, gay, lesbian, and female military personnel have received main stream media attention. Here, you can find an online resource center accompanying PBS’s upcoming five-part series, Women, War & Peace.
The internet, social media, and the utter rebirth of the 24-hour news cycle has irrevocably changed the way everyone interacts with warfare, abroad and at home. I strongly recommend the New York Times’ impeccable presentation, “The Reckoning,” whose multi-media content and soft, elegant design evoke a new kind of journalism. On Neil Young’s website you can find his thoughtful catalog on songs protesting the Iraq war.
What does art create in wartime? Art is light, is something breathing and able to bloom, even in the face of extraordinary depravity. Nelson Mandela writes, “Poetry cannot block a bullet or still a sjambok, but it can bear witness to brutality – thereby cultivating a flower in a graveyard.”
We are called Freerange for many reasons. This week, you won’t just hear nonfiction, but fiction and music as well. We believe that by storytelling, and by enveloping diverse manners of expression, we can preserve the stalwart freedom to grow and to learn from the lowest states, from even unimaginable violence. Speak and write and create. Engage with one another. Ask. Tell.
-Molly Quinn, Managing Director of Freerange Nonfiction