Friday 3 January 2020

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Notes from a Swing State: Writing from Wales & America" by Zoe Brigley

‘The personal is political,’ a central tenet of the women’s movement of 1960s and 70s, is as true today as it was then, but rarely has it been expressed with such eloquence.

In the first of this collection of essays, Zoë Brigley describes finding solace in the bleak indifference of the Utah landscape after the second of four miscarriages endured in an ‘unsympathetic medical system.’ She refuses to be ‘silenced by shame.’ In a society where abortion is a political battleground she reflects ‘Somehow in writing this I have moved from the sadness I feel about the miscarriages to the right of people not to be pregnant.' She continues, ‘The way I see it though, it is all bound up because both are a source of anxiety for Western culture. What do they do with the woman who miscarries, or with the woman who chooses not to have a baby at all?’

Brigley gives illuminating insights into living in Trump’s America, in a swing state where she canvasses for the democrats. As an Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University, in an unfamiliar  classroom  she must routinely check out the exits and plan how it could be secured in the event of a violent attack. When a man drove his car into a crowd on campus, then started slashing people with a knife, she is at home watching on television as the car park she uses is being stormed by a SWAT team and familiar buildings are sealed off with tape. Afterwards  she must deal with the students’ trauma.

As the mother of two little boys she describes how children are drilled in what to do in case of an armed intruder. Outside her son’s  elementary school is a sign stating that no unauthorised firearms are allowed inside the building, and there is a camera at the door where parents can be buzzed in. She describes how there is ‘something peculiar about American Halloween’ where ghoulish fantasies are played out alongside real life violence. In Pittsburgh a man kills eleven people in a synagogue, while participants in ‘fright house’ theme parks and ‘haunted houses’ wear swastikas while they are entertained with ‘simulations of the most appalling violence.’ Brigley writes: ‘The fright house tells us that violence is an illusion, or an act, but the fright house lies. The fright house is America.'

But paradoxically this is a book of hope and courage. Zoe Brigley is ‘an activist, an educator, a creative writer and a survivor.’ She refuses to believe that violence is inevitable and works to challenge violence, hate crimes and discrimination against anyone who does not conform to a supposed ‘norm.’ She believes at the root of it all is a breakdown of communication, ‘an act of violent refusal' to recognise the humanity and to empathise with  an individual perceived as ‘different.’

She argues that writing, and the sharing of writing, is a way forward. She cites Maggie Smith’s poem ‘Good Bones,’ which ‘seeks hope in the face of bleakness’ and which went viral in the summer of 2016, as an example of the power of poetry in ‘dealing with the dark undercurrents of society that we find hard to face.’ She suggests that ‘human beings are born into uncertainty yet human culture does its best to ignore this very fact.’ But poetry ‘encourages us to embrace uncertainty,’ and to empathise with, and recognise in ourselves, frailty and vulnerability.

She draws on her own experience of an abusive relationship to help others, encouraging students to come to terms with violence through creative writing. While ‘confessional poetry has its place,’ she suggests, ‘dream language, symbols and surreal stories – as a means to talk about the difficult or troubling moments from one’s life’ can be liberating. As Emily Dickinson wrote, ’Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.’

The classroom, Brigley argues, ‘has the potential to be a life changing, transformative space for all those involved,’ and she reminds us that the #metoo movement started in a classroom setting. At a speech given at a United Nations campaign Herforshe event at the Ohio State University, March 3rd 2018, she  told the audience: ‘So this is where we have come so far, finding each other, finding empathy and a kind of collective voice, a kind of collective power.’ But, she went on, it is not enough just to empathise with ‘white celebrities,’ there must be more practical support to protect the most vulnerable in our society, such as the #timesup movement which offers financial aid to women on low incomes who seek  redress for workplace harassment or assault. For those already discriminated against, whether because of their gender, sexuality, race, or poverty, are the most likely to experience violence and the least likely to have the means to deal with it. But there is a sense of hope, ‘For we have the language now both words and images – through which to express what freedom might look like.'

As an immigrant to the United States some might tell her to ‘go home and sort her own country out.’ She is both a pioneering voice in the U.S. and a role model for young people in post industrial South Wales. She reflects on how she got here from there, considering teenage influences which include David Bowie, ‘Breakfast at Tiffanys’ and Courbet. There are tender and tragic family stories, and many sassy women. A companion to these essays is her poetry collection Hand & Skull where many themes addressed in these essays are expressed beautifully with luminous imagery, ‘dream language, symbols and surreal stories.’

About the reviewer
Since gaining an MA in Creative Writing from Loughborough University what seems like a lifetime ago, Sue Mackrell’s poetry, short fiction and reviews have appeared in locations and publications as diverse as Leicester public toilets (an Everybody’s Reading initiative!) to Agenda Poetry. She is enjoying seeing the world anew through her four grandchildren. 

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