Who We Are

Shelley Ettinger

Over at my blog Read Red, it says this is my complete profile: “Compulsive reader. Late-blooming writer. Worker: secretary at a university, no doubt till I drop. Communist. Lesbian. Anti-Zionist Jew. Activist against racism and imperialist war.” Accurate, yes, but hardly complete. Here’s a slightly plumper version.

I have indeed been a political activist for nearly 40 years now. As a teenager in the late 1960s I was radicalized by the movements for civil rights and Black Liberation, against the war in Vietnam, for women’s liberation. The 1967 Black rebellion in my home town of Detroit had a profound effect on me, as did an uprising by Black students in my own suburban high school a few years later. Once I went to Ann Arbor for college, I was soon exposed to the nascent gay movement, joined a women’s consciousness-raising group, figured out who I was, and came out of the closet.

There in Ann Arbor in the 1970s I became an organizer, first as a student, then with a radical third party that got involved in local electoral politics, then as a trade unionist when I was a city bus driver at the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. I did support work for the second BAM strike by Black students at the University of Michigan. I co-founded an Unemployed Council during the 1975 recession. I ran for school board on a Youth Liberation ticket. But my most important experience came in the summer of 1980 when I helped lead a six-week bus strike.

This was shortly after the UAW had agreed to its first concession contract, with Chrysler, and the AATA tried to follow suit, demanding a load of givebacks. Our union had in previous negotiations managed to win some impressive gains including the world’s first contract language recognizing employees’ same-sex relationships. We’d worked hard to build unity among the workers—drivers, mechanics and secretaries; Black, Latino, Asian and white; men and women; gay and straight—and our leadership team reflected this. All this saved us from a slaughter. We managed to ward off the worst of what the bosses wanted to take back, but we made no gains. It felt like a defeat. Now, looking back, after 30-plus years of the capitalist class’s assault on workers, I find it remarkable that we held on to as much as we did.

Soon afterward I joined a Marxist-Leninist party, Workers World. I moved to New York. I spent 20 years in intense activism, doing what I could to support all the struggles of the working class and oppressed people. I worked as a secretary, and as a technical writer, did some freelance editing. For almost 10 years I was a full-time organizer and writer, serving as a managing editor of Workers World newspaper, writing a weekly column about the labor movement, traveling—to Cuba for a union conference, to Minnesota during the Hormel strike, to Illinois during the Caterpillar strike and the Staley lockout, to New Orleans to organize against the KKK gubernatorial candidate David Duke, and many times to Washington to march against U.S. wars and interventions, for reproductive rights and LGBTQ liberation and AIDS funding and affirmative action and the Palestinian right to return and the ANC’s fight to overturn apartheid.

In the late 1990s, in need of a regular paycheck, I returned to full-time wage work at my old secretary job where I’ve been ever since. Although I’m no longer the kid who could put in a 40-hour work week and still go to meetings every night and various activities every weekend, I remain committed to the same ideology and try in whatever ways I can to support the fight for revolutionary socialism.

So where do books come in? Everywhere. Before, during, after. Under, over, in between. If the class struggle is the great cause of my life, social justice the great quest, books and reading are the great joy. Literature completes me.

It nevertheless came as a surprise when I started writing fiction  myself in 1999. An idea for a novel came to me and quickly overcame me. One novel and dozens of stories and poems later, I’m now at work on a second novel. Everything I write has a political core. I want my work to somehow make a contribution. Meanwhile, writing has deepened my reading life. It’s made me think harder about books, about what literature is and what it might be, most of all about literature’s role in the struggles I care so much about. Can fiction contribute to the fight for progressive change? How? What books can inspire, feed, fuel the fighters? Who’s writing these books? Does a novel have to be explicitly revolutionary to fit the bill?

Today Detroit is in ruins, the city capitalism destroyed, nearly a million oppressed people left to try to survive in post-apocalyptic conditions. Michigan—land of the Flint sit-down, the Battle of the Overpass, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement—is nominally a “right to work” state. Police wage a war on the Black community under the guise of the supposed “war on drugs.” There are U.S. troops in over 150 countries. The worldwide traffic in women is expanding. Climate change threatens global doom. But the first duty of a revolutionary is optimism. To continue to believe that the workers and oppressed are capable of bringing the great change that must come.  To hold fast to the project of building a better world.

A literature of hope, then. That’s what I’m looking for. That’s what the world needs.

Meredith Sue Willis

I have always read for pleasure, and to learn how to live. When in college I was exposed to the concept of Writer as Hero, Great Literature, and Art-for-Art’s-Sake, I tried to remake myself as a sensitive and oracular artiste, but I never really succeeded.  I had been raised among people who valued hard work and a moral life. Writing for me, like reading, was an essential but quotidian part of life. It’s what I do.

Furthermore, the lives I most admired were activist lives.  I tried to be an activist for a couple of years: first I dropped out of college to be a VISTA volunteer in Norfolk, Virginia.  Here I got a crash course in basic principles of Marxism. The local power structure supported and loved us college age VISTAs–  as long as we provided cute photo ops of us with happy little black children.  But when the children’s parents said what was really needed was cheaper groceries, we came up together with the idea of a food buying co-op.  People would pool money to buy meat and vegetables wholesale. It seemed pretty harmless to us, but it set off a firestorm among the local Powers. We were called communists and forbidden to be involved in anything smacking of commerce.  It turned out the head of the local poverty agency had investments in grocery stores. The end of the story was that our supervisors back in Washington, D.C., told us to go ahead with the co-op– but quietly.  We did it through a local Baptist church where people spoke in tongues on Sunday, but distributed cheap pork chops and greens on Saturday.

I went back to finish college as a transfer student at Barnard in New York City where I joined SDS and participated in the anti-war, anti-racist sit-ins at Columbia University.  Here I learned some important lessons about political process, notably what I call the Big Bladder theory of political leadership: the people who made decisions at our SDS mass meetings turned out to be the ones who never left the meeting room and stayed till the bitter end in the wee hours of the morning, when group decisions were more than once reversed by the Big Bladders.

I wasn’t one of them. I never joined a party, never went underground, ultimately chose a contemplative and private life with my writing and a room of my own. I became an early Writer-in-the-Schools with a group that thought we were overturning oppressive institutions by bringing children’s real lives into their schools.  This, too, was more complicated than it appeared at first glance.  Making art with children was deeply satisfying, but of indirect political impact at best.

Slowly, over much time, I have come to see myself in for the long haul as a writer who also teaches and attempts to make regular but small contributions to social change. I still admire the full time activists, but my life is about finding long periods for reflection and writing.  During the last twenty years, I’ve been chair of a social action committee at our Ethical Culture Society, and I’ve also worked hard on stable racial integration in my local community. These things are not revolutionary, but I believe they are part of what makes change in the world.

In the mid nineteen nineties I had another flash of understanding, about literature this time.  I laboriously read a scholarly work on proletarian literature in the United States. It drew my attention to some books I might have missed otherwise, but the important lesson I derived from the volume was that a good novel can be political.  There are certainly stupid and tendentious novels that are political, but there are also excellent ones that are self-consciously proletarian, political, even didactic.  In other words, quality and authenticity are not tied to subject matter.  Group struggles for power and economic change are also part of the proper area of interest for fiction.

You’d think I would have figured this out already.

I wrote my first novel in this new consciousness, about a poor West Virginia girl who leaves home determined to get her share of the good life, and is finally drawn back– in a very small way– to deciding which side she’s on in a labor dispute.

Since then, I’ve been far more conscious in seeking out books that not only inspire me with individual stories and struggles, but also give consciousness to poor and oppressed people and don’t merely use them as objects of pity or robots for cleaning the messes of rich people.

I yearn for more writers who try to do what Chinua Achebe does. I’ve discovered writers like Jose Saramago who have simply (but profoundly) lived whole lives informed by politics.  I already knew certain great nineteenth century books that took on social issues like Zola’s Germinal and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  There are portions of contemporary novels by Barbara Kingsolver and others  that are political in all the best ways.

So for me, this Politerature project is about searching out more such books, and thinking about them and participating in a public discussions of them and the issues they raise and how they succeed or fail.  And I also have a hope that these books will inspire how I write and how I live.

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