Every Time We Put Pen to Paper, It is an Act of Protest
A Red Ink Roundtable on Silence
Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate, hosted at powerHouse Arena. This dynamic series focuses on women writers, past and present. The name Red Ink brings to mind vitality, blood, correcting history, and making a mark on the world. The next discussion, “Envy,” will take place on February 8th at 7 pm and feature Jamie Quatro (Fire Sermon), Taylor Larsen (Stranger, Father, Beloved), Kate Tuttle (president of the National Book Critics Circle), Min Jin Lee (Pachinko), and Rachel Lyon (Self-Portrait with Boy). The following is an edited transcript from November’s panel, “Silence,” which featured Rene Denfeld, Alisson Wood, T Kira Madden, Gayle Brandeis, and Alexis Okeowo.
Michele Filgate: How does your own work address the issue of silence or being silenced?
Rene Denfeld: My writing work deals a lot with silence. Both of my novels have characters that have been silenced in different ways. Interestingly enough, I also have male characters who are silenced in my work, and I’m fascinated by that. In my day job I work a lot with victims of mass incarceration, and I think mass incarceration is one way in which we silence people. In particular, it’s a way we’ve silenced a lot of people of color, every year we banish people, we erase them, thousands disappear and are silenced. So I’m really intrigued by silence on a lot of different levels. The silence of oppression, the silence of female experience, of women’s experience, how we’re all silenced.
Alexis Okeowo: In my work as a journalist, I think of silence in the way of what stories we tell, whose stories we tell. I write a lot about Africa. And one thing that happened that really illustrated this for me was a couple of weeks ago, when over 400 people were killed in Somalia, in the largest terrorist attack ever there. People in Somalia outside of the diaspora were upset that there wasn’t the same outpouring of public sympathy for the attack there, like there had been in Las Vegas or in Paris. And I think it’s because of the way we tell stories about places like Somalia. When attacks like that happen, we don’t think about the people there, the families who have normal lives, who go to work, go to school, and who deal with an incredible amount of loss. We think about grief and mourning there on a lesser scale.
When it comes to my work, I don’t like to think of myself as giving voice to people, because I think everyone has their own voice. But I do like to think of it as telling the stories of people who aren’t normally fleshed out in three-dimensional ways, whose interiorities aren’t typically displayed when we talk about people in the West.
Gayle Brandeis: I really think that all writing is a protest against silence. Unless we use our voices, we’re kind of lost in this morass of silence. And every time we put pen to paper, it is an act of protest against that. It’s also an act of affirming that we’re alive and that we have something worth saying.
I’ve always been a shy, quiet person, and so using my voice has always been a tricky thing for me. In my memoir I talk about how my mom kind of shut me down. I lived in a family where we just didn’t talk about negative things, and so I never really learned how to do that growing up. Being able to put voice to the things that bother me, to the things that anger me, to be able to even acknowledge my anger, took a lot of gumption. Breaking my own silences has been so important to me as an essayist, as a memoirist—realizing that I have something to say, that it’s okay to put my voice into the world. I’ve swallowed so much down in my life, I’ve kept so many things hidden within me.
“Unless we use our voices, we’re kind of lost in this morass of silence.”
Alisson Wood: For me, as I’m sure for everyone up here, the personal is very political. I worked in domestic violence for many years, specifically with teenage girls around issues of domestic violence and teen dating violence; so for me, that was a very visceral, concrete, “I’m doing the work” helping to keep young girls from being silenced.
In the past few years I’ve pivoted a little bit to my own writing—all of my published work has been very explicitly around the issue of being silenced and around the issues of trauma and sexual violence. I’ve really strived in my work to not just talk about myself and my experiences, but, you know, that whole fiction idea: if you’re very specific, it’s actually very universal. So that’s what I’ve always aspired towards.
I also run a reading series here [at PowerHouse Arena], Pigeon Pages, and we’re starting to publish writers in our online literary journal, and one of our biggest goals is to uplift voices who might not otherwise be able to sing. Really, that’s what’s very important to me as a person, as an artist, all of it—doing the work of breaking silences.
T Kira Madden: I’m with Gayle here, that writing alone and creating art is breaking the silence, is protest, by your point of view alone, regardless of subject matter. I’m an Asian-American-Hawaiian-Jewish lesbian woman, [laughs] so no matter what story I write, it’s breaking some sort of boundaries that have been set historically.
I think it’s just about broadcasting our voices and speaking loudly and helping others do the same. And I know there are many voices in the audience and people I know who are writers, and there are so many different individual points of view, and we just have to help one another get those out there for other people to absorb and read. I’m just really happy to be with this group of people.
AW: There’s an excellent James Baldwin quote that I think is so pertinent to the work that I do, and from what I’ve read, the work that we’re all doing, which is—“The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: she has become a threat.”
MF: Speaking of quotes, Gayle, in The Art of Misdiagnosis, you talk about the pain of losing your mother to suicide, and for a long time certain words or images related to the idea of suicide would really upset you.
You write, “And at some point, I tricked myself into believing I was coping just fine. I pushed my pain beneath the surface, where it grew grotesque in silence and darkness, like a potato sprouting eyes.” I can’t stop thinking about this image. The idea of silence leading to an unwanted extension of the self. I’m wondering how you learned to confront your pain and write about this very painful experience.
GB: Time helped. My mom took her own life a week after I gave birth, so it was this very intense time of birth and death together, postpartum hormones, and the shock of her suicide. Getting to a point where I could utter anything was challenging. Reading other people’s accounts of suicide loss helped so much. Just knowing that people could give voice to this pain, to this complicated kind of grief—gave me courage to write my own story. As well as just reading memoirs in general, like Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, Nick Flynn’s memoirs—and slowly, slowly, I was able to creep towards my own pain and give it voice.
MF: I’m glad to hear that. Kira, your essay “The Feels of Love” in Guernica is about being sexually abused by older boys when you were 12 years old. Since you published this essay, you’ve dealt with ongoing harassment from one of the abusers. I’m wondering, what has been your coping strategy for dealing with this?
TKM: I don’t think I’ve found the coping mechanism yet. I don’t know if there is a real answer to that. But for me, art has always been my method of any sort of spirituality or dealing with anything. So just working on this book that’s coming out, shaping that pain into something that I have control over in some way. Every day I wake up and I’m of two minds. One is, “I want to disappear and float away from this situation,” and the other is, “I have to be louder. I have to post on social media, I have to write about what he is doing.”
MF: Rene, in The Child Finder, one of the characters says, “I always wondered what happened later to the people we rescued. What became of their lives? We always think about people in crisis, waiting to be found. But no one talks about what it’s like later.” The media tends to focus on the immediacy of tragedies, but oftentimes the worst pain comes later, as people attempt to recover from what they’ve been through. I’m wondering if that’s always on your mind as you’re writing.
RD: One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of fiction writing is that a lot of times, historically, when people have written violence, particularly against women, we end up dead. And I think it’s a convenient way to make sure that they don’t have to deal with the outcome of trauma. Nobody has to deal with recovery, no one has to deal with prevention—violence has turned into a form of titillation in that way.
I’m interested in what happens after the violence happens. I’m interested in, how do we help people heal? How do we help each other go through these traumatic events? What do we need to do to prevent them from happening?
It’s very much informed by my own history. I wrote a few years ago about—after decades of silence myself—about the man I consider my father, who is a registered predatory sex offender. I had kept this family secret for decades. I finally wrote about it for The New York Times. And it’s been interesting.
I have to say I have so much admiration for people who not just come forward and speak, but who continue to sit in the fire of it. Even though my stepdad was a registered convicted predatory sex offender, I still had people accuse me of making it up, and I just felt like, this is what we’re up against, this is what happens when we start speaking our truth, is people will still deny it.
MF: Alisson, you also have this incredible essay published by Catapult, which I’m wondering if you can talk about, too—but I want you to talk about the memoir you’re currently working on, because it’s very much about breaking the silence. It deals with something you kept a secret for quite a while, and I’m wondering if you can talk about the process of writing that, and what that’s been like.
AW: I’ve actually been very consciously thinking about how all of my published work right now—I mean, not all of my work as a writer, but all of my published work—has been specifically in regards to trauma, in some way, and trauma from a man. It has been artistically—and politically—breaking a silence. My first piece was about being raped by my boss, in a case that went nowhere, of course, like they do—which is very unfortunate.
My Catapult piece was about how seven years ago I walked into a neighbor’s domestic violence incident, where my neighbor’s daughter was being stabbed by her husband, and I was almost killed. The whole time [my neighbor’s daughter] was saying, “I love you, please don’t kill us.” I escaped, I ran, the man kidnapped his wife, etcetera, and I didn’t talk for, like, two days. I self-silenced, in some ways, like what you were talking about, where it’s just like, “I cannot talk about this.” I talked to the police, and then I just stopped talking for a good 36 hours.
Then my mother—this was when I was still living at home in Connecticut, so my mother was nearby—she was like, “Okay, we’re going to start going to the mental health center every day,” and I saw a therapist every day for about a month. I personally needed that kind of professional support to be able to talk about things that traumatic.
The memoir I’m working on is about how I was in an illicit relationship with my teacher when I was in high school, and it’s much less grandly traumatic, in the way that there was no blood, there were no knives, there were no threats like that—so “it doesn’t count.”[Laughs] Because it’s all about power and it’s all about those sorts of dynamics, which are things that are much harder for us to talk about. And I actually think that the Harvey Weinstein break has been a lot about talking about issues of power and consent and all of those things. Because I think it’s so easy when there’s a woman being held at gunpoint, it’s like, “Oh, well yeah, that’s rape.” But other things are much trickier.
“I’ve actually been very consciously thinking about how all of my published work right now. . . has been specifically in regards to trauma, in some way, and trauma from a man. It has been artistically—and politically—breaking a silence.”
MF: I think it’s so important that so many people are coming forward about sexual assault and misconduct in Hollywood, but what I’m concerned about is that we’re focusing on celebrities, when this is a problem that happens to regular people all the time—to mothers and daughters and fathers and sons and sisters and brothers.
And I feel slightly jaded, because after the news broke about Trump and “grab them by the pussy” last fall, I was like, “Oh, there’s no way this man will ever be in the White House.” And look where we are now. So, are we on the precipice of something? Are things going to change?
RD: I have to say I’m relatively jaded too. We haven’t talked about the economics of silence, the economics of oppression. It’s not just that rich men get away with this because they’re powerful; it’s that part of the reason they’re powerful is that they’re being rewarded for perpetuating this.
This news keeps happening, it keeps happening. And every time it happens, people hope that this will be the sea change. But I just personally don’t see that happening, because we’re not confronting the deeper institutional causes for why people in our country believe that it’s okay to go up and violate other people, why we feel ownership and privilege to do that.
What I see sometimes is that, among pockets of privilege, there tends to be some change, saying it’s not okay; but until we’re advocating for the hotel maid, until we’re advocating for the child in prison, until we’re advocating for everyone, I’m just afraid it won’t happen.
“It’s not just that rich men get away with this because they’re powerful; it’s that part of the reason they’re powerful is that they’re being rewarded for perpetuating this.”
AO: From [my] experience reporting on systems that are oppressive and broken, the only hope that I see is in women who, are getting together, who are planning, who are meeting, who are trying to figure out ways to look out for each other.
GB: I agree with that, but I do feel grateful in seeing more women tell their stories. I think that there is a sea change. I have a 23-year-old daughter, and she’s been so empowered by call-out culture, and she has no compunctions speaking out against men who have behaved badly.
AW: There are a lot of conversations right now around, “what is fourth-wave feminism going to be?” And I’ve been hearing a lot of discussions about, “Oh, fourth-wave feminism is going to be about the call-out.” Which is so exciting to me, because I really feel like that’s how change is going to start, because in order to make any change you first have to acknowledge it, you have to speak it. And until we’re able to do that, until we’re able to break the silence around these things, we’re not going to make any systemic changes.
MF: Going along with that, Senator Kamala Harris tweeted the other day, “As the poet Audre Lorde reminds us, ‘there are many silences to be broken.’ So speak out. Be loud. Even when others are silent.” How can we help other women tell their stories?
RD: One of the myths of silencing, I think, is to devalue our capacity. When we’re silenced we think that we don’t matter, and that we can’t help, and that what we do doesn’t matter. But we actually all have this tremendous capacity to save each other, to help each other. And so rising out of the silence and breaking the silence is also breaking the silence about our helplessness. Because we’re not helpless, and we can actually do so much.
AO: I also think that as storytellers, there’s always the possibility of, even when trying to tell other women’s stories, of silencing them in a way, because we’re not letting them tell it in their own words, or we’re making our own moral judgments. Adding onto what you said, [Rene], as storytellers, letting women tell us their own wants, their own concerns, in their own words, and respecting that.
TKM: In my own experience, the most important thing has just been to say, “I believe you.” That has been so significant for me, and I think this is probably the case for many people. After I published that essay, and my abuser started coming out saying, “None of this is true, this is all a lie,” I doubted myself, and I think a lot of people experience that. “Did I misremember? Is this projected from elsewhere?”
If you’re my social media friend, you might’ve seen that he posted his version of my essay, with his account of what happened. And that was months later, and it was an assault scene from his point of view, but the basic logistics of his story were wrong. He used a department store that did not exist yet; he said that he called me on my cell phone—I did not have a cell phone yet. And it wasn’t until I saw that these basic facts were incorrect that I believed myself and my own story.
MF: Silence isn’t always a negative thing, as we know. In Sara Maitland’s book A Book of Silence, she writes, “. . . there is an interior dimension to silence, a stillness of heart and mind, which is not a void but a rich space. What became obvious to me as I thought about this was that for me there was a chasm of difference between qualities like quietness or peace and silence itself.”
So how do we access that rich space, in an era when we are inundated with negative news, especially lately?
RD: In my first novel, I wrote about a character who has what they call selective mutism, which, people with trauma sometimes shut down and they stop speaking. And I think in our culture, what we do sometimes, is the trauma reactions—we label them as a pathology. And what we don’t understand is that dissociation and selective mutism are actually survival techniques, and we need to honor that.
AO: Yeah, I agree. What you said reminded me of something I talk about in my book around crisis in Northeastern Nigeria—I was reporting on the time when 300 plus girls had been kidnapped from a school. And in the first days of that crisis, I was calling a lot of people—I was calling parents, I was calling girls who had escaped, and every so often I would run into a parent who just couldn’t talk to me. They tried at first, and then they just couldn’t.
My reporter instinct was like, “Oh, should I just keep trying?” And then I just realized, “I can’t. I just have to leave them.” I mean, they’re recovering from an extremely traumatic experience that just happened, and there has to be a time when you step away from your role as a reporter and act like a human being, and respect the fact that people have their own coping mechanisms—and reporting people in the book who are dealing with intense trauma brought up a lot about the relationship between a journalist and her subject, and what responsibility do you have to your subject, who you’re asking to recount traumas again and again, but you’re also trying not to do anymore harm, and so how do you juggle that?
“There has to be a time when you step away from your role as a reporter and act like a human being, and respect the fact that people have their own coping mechanisms.”
GB: We’re so inundated with information, we can get the internet 24 hours a day if we want, or 24-hour news, and I think that dropping into a place of silence is so necessary just for our own grounding, our own mental well-being. For me, it’s about trying to shut off my mind and drop into my body, in whatever way that can happen, whether through a hot bath, or dancing, or people can do yoga or meditate if that’s what works for you—but just kind of dropping out of the constant whir of the mind.
I think that when we drop down into our bodies, too, that our stories are inside of there—inside of our skin, and so it can be so fruitful for us as writers to tap into that silence of the mind and just the presence of the body. That’s a silence that I like a lot.
AW: These are all silences that we are choosing, and I think choice and consent around silence is so much part of the issue. For instance, talking about what’s going on in the media with Harvey Weinstein, and all of these other terrible things that are happening, with celebrities and very powerful people—there’s the NDA (the nondisclosure agreement), there are settlements, there’s arbitration. There are all of these ways that women’s experience of sexual assault, of rape, are silenced—that are just sort of “fine” in our systems, in our society, in part of our justice system (or lack thereof). And that’s just so frustrating
MF: Are there any subjects that are off-limits for you for your writing, that you won’t write about?
RD: It’s interesting, I didn’t write about my stepdad and my childhood experiences, until my mother passed away in 2012; because, despite my very complex feelings about her, I still loved her, and still do. I think sometimes as storytellers and as writers we want to share, we want to tell our stories, and we do wrestle with the impact on people that are out there who are maybe partially complicit—you’re hoping for the reunion, you’re hoping for the apology, you’re hoping for the redemption.
GB: For me it’s about respecting the privacy of my kids. I have two kids in their twenties, and then a seven-year-old, and when my older kids were little, I wrote about them all the time, and then at some point they just weren’t really comfortable with it anymore. And my younger son is getting to that point, too. There are some things that I’d love to be able to write about, that I experienced as a parent, but their privacy is more important to me.
TKM: At this point, nothing really feels off-limits to me—because I once said that I would never write nonfiction, and now my first book coming out is a book of nonfiction, a memoir. So I can never say never. I will say I feel more nervous about writing about sources of joy in my life. If it’s a source of trauma or pain I can sit in that fire and I can take it and I can move forward with that, but I’m not willing to deal with any sort of criticism with the greatest sources of joy in my personal life.