The absence of voices

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“The writer is deceived who thinks he has some other choice. The question is not whether one will make a social statement in one’s work – but only what the statement will say, for if it says anything at all, it will be social.” -Lorraine Hansberry

            I am very fortunate to be a paid creative writing teacher. It’s part-time, as I am truly of this whole gig-economy life, but it is some of the most engaging and fulfilling work I do. There is a group I work with that is composed of mostly young adults aging out of the foster care system, and I look forward to working with them every year. They’re talented, insightful, witty and just plain fun.

            The other night, I asked this group why they write. Most of them talked about how it helped them to process their internal worlds, make sense of life’s ups and downs. We then began writing on some prompts. One wrote about rage as a snake, making amazing use of her metaphor to break down the emotion. Another wrote short pieces, one with an amazing image using quicksand. Another personified euphoria, another made use of shoulder blades in an image I won’t soon forget.

            The pieces they shared reflected very much their stated purpose for writing; their poems were about their struggles with anxiety, depression, loneliness, and also their joys in life. Yet, perhaps because of their life experiences, the fact they are not perched in a privileged social position, their writings also commented on and encompassed issues bigger than just their own emotional lives. This has been the case every year I’ve worked with this group (this is my 4th year with them).

            Writings from this group have always, intentionally or unintentionally, commented on the overwhelming frustration that comes from chronic financial struggles, on the ways our courts underserve the poor and on society and how it treats some of its most vulnerable (and God knows we have so far to go in how we support our foster care youth in this society). When I saw the Hansberry quote at the top of this post, I immediately thought of them. Their writings are mirrors back at us as a community. They are bright, kind, hard-working people and many of them have had to struggle, still have to struggle, because of situations over which they’ve had very little control.

            Their writings are social statements, but I don’t think they often realize it, realize the real value and importance of their insights. In a culture that exalts and gives undeserving amounts of air and screen and page time to celebrities and the super-rich, it is wholly unsurprising that artists like these, who have ample talent but not wealth, go mostly unheard. That absence of their voices, and voices like theirs, in the larger artistic world is in itself a social statement. One I hope we can all work to change.

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