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Jane Coaston and Alexander Chee on Politics, Storytelling, and the Midterms

In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, reporter Jane Coaston and writer Alexander Chee talk to hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about the upcoming midterm elections.

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Readings for the episode


“It’s very difficult for people to parse out politics that doesn’t work on a standard left-right spectrum.” –Jane Coaston

Whitney Terrell: This concept of black conservatism is present in literature, but in the contemporary media, or the way think about the conservative movement, it is not. Is it just because contemporary media is mostly white, or is there some other explanation for that?

Jane Coaston: I think so, and especially because I think it’s very difficult for people to parse out politics that doesn’t work on a standard left-right spectrum. For example, talking about people who might hold conservative religious views, but vote Democrat, or talking about people who are hard core libertarians, and think that the state shouldn’t be involved in anything, but still vote Republican, because I think that how you feel, and how you vote, are two different things for many people, and I think that trying to make sense of that, and trying to make sense of how black voting works, and black political involvement has worked, I think it doesn’t tend to work in a way that would be easily parsed out in a sound bite on television.

And so I think that, yes, the concept of black conservatism is—it’s something that people inherently know about this, before, obviously, everything that happened, Bill Cosby was espousing these ideals of a personal form of black conservatism: that if we just act right, good things will happen, and I think that that’s not new, and you see that even in the early 1900s. You see that from figures like Marcus Garvey, with this argument that black uprising and black uplift, not having anything to do with the government but if we just are really good people, then some day good things will happen to us. And, it’s challenging, because, I think that it’s been—in some ways, there’s a sense of black conservatism and black Republicanism being two distinct things, and we talked about this—there’s a Weeds episode “I’mma Let You Finish,” about Kanye West—

WT: Yeah! That was a great episode. Talk about Kanye—I’d love our listeners to hear some of the stuff you had to say on that.

JC: One of the biggest things I tried to make a point of is that this is not Kanye West espousing conservatism, this is not Kanye West being, you know, after a great deal of thought, in looking, kind of a Burkean analysis of who the—


JC: You know, I’ve come to believe that the government is more, standing in the way of true freedom than acting as a thoroughfare—no, that’s not what he’s doing. This is, there’s a view of conservatism in 2018 as anti-left, that’s the only thing, that if the left says “jump,” you say “don’t.” If the left says “go right,” you turn left. It’s reactionary.

WT: Right.

JC: And so, I think that that’s what you’re saying, from the Candace Owenses of the world in Turning Point, USA, this idea, like, conservatism as whatever Democrats are not doing, and so it’s actually a really shallow and hollow form of conservatism because it all depends on operating on an axis that is the opposite of whatever someone else is saying. It cannot operate in a vacuum, and I think that a political ideology—and I know that ideology is a very unpopular word right now for a lot of people—but a political ideology needs to be able to operate without any other political ideologies around it. There are a lot of conservatives and a lot of liberals that would be conservative, or liberal, if no one else was around. And yet the kind of conservatism we see from Kanye, or from this type of conservatism, it only operates in opposition to something else.

WT: I’m assuming that in this, just to bring this back to the election at hand, that’s going to be happening next Tuesday, I’m assuming that the Democratic candidates will get a huge percentage of the black vote, so none of these things that Kanye is doing, or this Turning Point group that Trump was addressing just the other day is actually affecting this election, but is it going to affect the future at some point? Can you say how this will affect electoral politics going forward?

JC: I personally don’t think so. I like to talk about people who are quote-unquote very online, and Turning Point USA is very online, it gets a lot of funding, and they’re very busy on Twitter, and they get a lot of funding from older, generally white conservatives, but in terms of what people are actually interested in terms of voting, it’s very difficult, and I think we’ve seen—Democrats have seen this earlier, it’s very difficult to start a political movement that’s all based on either—a long lasting political movement that’s based on either a specific personality or an opposition to something else.

And I’ll take opposition first: one of the challenges with—in 2004 was that a lot of people saw the voting for John Kerry as not necessarily voting for John Kerry, but voting against George W. Bush, and so that kind of politics of opposition, it’s easy, but it’s difficult, in a way, and I mean easy to explain, difficult to keep people on board for, and also a conservatism that’s based inherently on being supportive of Donald Trump. What happens without Donald Trump? You know, there is no replacement for him. I think that there’s this kind of idea that people that voted for Trump are going to vote for Mike Pence, and that’s not how this is going to work. They appeal to extremely different audiences, and so I think that it’s—I don’t think it’s going to have a big impact because Turning Point’s a thing that I know about, and you know about, and your listeners might know about, but I like to joke, you know, my parents live in Ohio, and I like to occasionally do this thing I call the Mom Test, where I call my parents and ask, have you heard about this, and they never have heard of it, and you know, these are pretty with-it people in their mid-to-late 60s, early 70s, who are following the news and understand—if you’re following the news you’re reading the New York Times, and occasionally watching ABC News, and to understand Turning Point takes a little bit more of a deep dive into a very strange political world.


“It’s about changing the culture, changing who gets to write a story, which changes who gets to hear the story as well.” –Alexander Chee

Whitney Terrell: We’re asking you on here because the elections are about to come up, they’re incredibly important, and you are, and have been, for a long time in your life, one of the most politically active writers that I know. Your Facebook feed and your Twitter feed are always talking to people about what they can do and how they can get involved, and we’re going to get to some of those specific suggestions later in the podcast, but I guess what I just realized is that I never thought about this, but I’m going to ask you this: it seems to me that you’re saying, in a way, implicitly, in that passage, in the way you answered the question that teaching writing is a political act, also.

Alexander Chee: Yeah, most definitely. And I think, for example, James Alan McPherson, our teacher, believed that quite deeply. That not just teaching writing, but also lifting those students up afterward—writing letters of recommendation for them, putting them up for awards, you know, all the ways that you could support them the way that you can support them. It’s about changing the culture, changing who gets to write a story, which changes who gets to hear the story as well.

WT: I know that both of you have had experiences of this in your life, and I have too—when you write something that actually does make a difference, politically, in some small way, and one of the things that I discovered that I do with my students a lot is try to convince them that this can happen, that there is—that writing is one of the few ways to leverage power if you don’t have money, right? In other words, it’s a thing that’s available to the people without power because you can write it, as you said, anywhere, the story can come to you anywhere, and yet, sometimes, those stories can make a difference. Do you ever talk to your students directly about that, and I also wonder if Sugi does, too.

AC: When I’m teaching them I think it’s not something that I start the class with, say, but I would say I build it into the class, the—I’m trying to think of—even just the idea of what a fiction class can do for a student, for example, especially in an undergraduate context. I talk to them about how it’s very difficult to tell a story that you don’t want to tell.

WT: Right.

AC: You have to find something that you really want to tell in order to tell it well, and tell it all the way ‘til the end. In that sense, studying fiction writing, whether or not you go on to become a professional fiction writer, teaches you how to know what matters to you, and how to think your way around it, as well. And to use your empathy and imagination in the same process.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: And when you talk about, in your essay, teaching writers to get up and leave that theater of pain that seats one, is that what you’re telling them? Can you boil it down to a sentence that will save us all, Alex?


AC: Well, that question of who is listening, who do you think is listening, is huge, it’s a huge question.

VVG: Yeah!

WT: Yeah!

AC: You know, one writer—Blanche McCrary Boyd, whose The Tomb of the Unknown Racist just came out this year. It’s kind of an unsung hero of the season, as a novel, you know, it’s the end of a trilogy for her, that she’s been publishing and working on for 20-some years, and she’s a lesbian activist, it’s about a lesbian activist, it’s about white supremacy, and terrorism. When I met her in the 80s, she had a great answer to the question of who is listening, which was to just always imagine that you are speaking to the most intelligent person you know, when you’re writing a story, and never to think of anyone else. And that everybody else would catch up.

Marilynne Robinson had a kind of a funny answer—sort of an answer to the same question, that I recall, which was more about the question of how do you write if you think your family is going to read it. She said something to the effect of, you close the door, and you imagine that everyone you know has died, and could never respond, and it’s a terrible tragedy, and you must go on without them, and then you open the door when you’re done, and they’re alive again, and it’s a miracle.


VVG: Do you feel like that’s what you do? I feel like that’s a pretty good description of what I do, sort of in the same way that when I go to the dentist, I fill every minute until I’m actually lying in the chair with work so that I can’t think about what would happen. I’m actually not that afraid of the dentist, so it’s maybe not the best metaphor. I try not to—in a way that I’m sure in some flip side is problematic—I try not to think about consequences when I’m writing, or not to think about consequences for me, at any rate, of what I’m writing. When you were asking about how we talk about this in the classroom, I remember Jim McPherson talking to us about, he would really explicitly encourage us to write about big things.

AC: As would Marilynne. It’s why she wanted us to read theology, philosophy, she wanted us—I remember her saying she wanted us to think bigger than the domestic drama. Even if we were going to still write domestic dramas, at least we would have these other themes in our mind.

Transcribed by Damian Johansson

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