By Jørn Earl Otte
The holidays, however you may define them, will soon be upon us, and for too many in America, they will be spending those holidays in the shadows of grief and loss. Where I live, in the heart of Appalachia, while the tree-covered mountains have long since lost the robust colors of autumn, the houses throughout my neighborhood are covered in glittering lights, and as the old song says, “in the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas.”
Like many writers that I respect and admire, for me, there is a feeling in the air that has very little to do with the so-called joy of the season. Depression encroaches upon the heart of the melancholic writer as much as the eggnog, and turkey, and gift-giving seem to do. For those who suffer through this dark time, the anxiety, sadness, and grief they must deal with comes from a variety of places – memories of loved ones who died too soon, struggles with illnesses, divorce, financial difficulty, or a myriad of other issues. I have experienced depression through the holidays for many of those reasons, and in other years I have celebrated, and enjoyed the positive feelings synonymous with this time of year.
This year, however, I am faced with a depression that comes from a different place. It comes from a growing anger, sadness, frustration, and bewilderment I have at the way my country is treating its own citizens of color. As a white male who is perfectly aware that I come from a place of privilege, I feel the need to speak up, and acknowledge that my country is sick, and I am sick with it, and I don’t know the cure.
The written word is what I know, and it is all that I know, and it has brought me comfort before during the darkest times. So what to do? Some of the people who are near and dear to my heart don’t have the same kinds of conversations with their children as I have with mine. I have a 15-year-old daughter and a nearly 10-year-old son. Never once have I had to tell them how to behave if confronted by an armed police officer. But people I love have to coach their children in ways that I can’t imagine, and then they have to pray every single day that their child will make it home alive.
So again I ask, what to do? At times, I feel helpless, but I also know that I am privileged to have the opportunity to make a choice – I can either speak up, or I can be silent. Thankfully, I am both a writer, and an editor on the staff of a progressive literary magazine so I can speak up in multiple ways.
Writer and blogger Nancy Arroyo Ruffin wrote on her website recently that “Everyone agrees that there is injustice going on, and while some protest or burn down businesses to release their rage— as an artist, as a writer, I do the only thing I know how. I write. I read. I try and educate myself and others and then I write some more. My art is the only weapon I have. My words are how I fight back because in the end my words are all I have.”
I have suffered some of the worst that depression can bring – I have drowned the thoughts in alcohol, I have laughed in the eye of the storm, I have wrestled with the Almighty, and I have stared down the demons who wished me to end it all. In the end, I have found the most solace in the written word – both my own, and the works of others. Ruffin is spot-on. I can only use words to fight this battle. Whether they are the words of others (William Styron’s Darkness Visible, which chronicles his descent into the darkest worlds of depression, helped me come to a greater understanding of my own battle) or my own words, words are all I have.
Being a part of the staff of Duende during this time of year, I have found another weapon in this battle, and that is the wonderful opportunity to read amazing works from writers spanning the globe and representing such beauty and diversity that I can scarcely take it all in. But I will take it in, and then I will share it with the world in the virtual pages of Duende. For I have taken a solemn vow around a table of my peers in a small building in a remote college campus – to help make a literary magazine that reflects “the true beauty and diversity of the U.S. literary ecosystem.”
I am reminded of the words of the German Protestant pastor and anti-Nazi activist Martin Niemöller, who wrote, “In Germany, they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist; And then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist; And then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew; And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”
So as an editor and writer, I speak. I hope that my words and my choices can make some small millimeter of awareness and change in this violent American landscape. I hope that my fellow privileged white brothers and sisters will take a moment to reflect upon what is happening to our black and brown countrymen, and then, on the Holy Silent Night, lift up a silent prayer to whomever they believe hears such things, and then raise a loud voice to the people in power who can enact meaningful change.
Despite my growing frustration and anger at the country I live in, despite my sadness and fear for my brothers and sisters who have more melanin in their skin than I do, and despite the depression that has constantly and consistently for multiple reasons afflicted me each and every winter – dammit, I still love Christmas. And perhaps what I love about it most of all is the fact that it reminds me, at the most basic level, that we are to love one another. As a father, I love my children and can help them to be better members of society by raising them to love people of all colors, creeds, sexual orientations, religions, and so forth. As a writer, I can speak out about atrocities that are a disease in my country. As an editor, I can make a conscious effort to showcase the talents of people who are otherwise marginalized in the literary landscape. As a human being, I can give hugs, I can share food, and I can shout for joy and shout in protest. What I cannot do, what I must never do, is be silent, no matter how holy the occasion.