Read Her Like an Open Book returns from the Year of Living Stressfully

 

Hello book-loving friends. I’m glad you’re still here.

You may have noticed that Read Her Like an Open Book was much less active for the past year or so, with only intermittent posts. My blog was quiet because my life was not. I changed careers and was busy getting my freelance writing-and-editing business, Argus Editorial Services, on its feet. I was also developing a photography sideline, Inner Light Photography. Both my mother and my mother-in-law experienced health issues due to advancing age. (My 87-year-old mother passed away in January.)

And, frankly, I was suffering from a condition that began in 2016 and developed into a disorder in 2017. You may know it as Post-Trump Stress Disorder. As a news junkie, former high school Journalism teacher, and even more former attorney, I simply could not ignore what was taking place. But my preoccupation with keeping up with the daily drama (and trauma) took a toll on this blog, which I regret.

I decided last month that, with its five-year anniversary approaching in June, I would revive this blog, which means so much to me and has more supporters than I thought. I’m happy to report that when I approached several dozen writers about contributing to my weekly guest author feature, they responded with enthusiasm and many encouraging words. So far, I have received firm or tentative commitments to participate from over 40 authors.

In the coming months, you’ll read essays, interviews, and reviews by the following  writers: Robin Black (whose previous essay is the most-read post in the history of this blog), Chantel Acevedo, Karen Bender, Jessica Anya Blau (who will be interviewing Jane Delury), Michelle Brafman (interviewing Mary Morris), Gayle Brandeis, Siobhan Fallon, Wendy J. Fox, Stephanie Gangi, Lauren Grodstein, Yi Shun Lai, Krys Lee, Karin Lin-Greenberg, Margaret Malone, Marian PalaiaJodi Paloni, Keija ParssinenElizabeth Poliner, Anne Raeff, Elizabeth RosnerGina Sorell, Rene Steinke, Amanda SternThrity Umrigar, Ellen Urbani, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

We’ll start tomorrow with a wonderful essay by Bernadette Murphy about reclaiming your life by overcoming your fears. Watch for a new guest author post every Tuesday.

You can also follow the social media accounts connected to this blog: there’s a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which is personal but mostly limited to book-related tweets. And I would certainly appreciate your sharing the word about this blog if you are so inclined.

This blog has always been an expression of my literary activism and feminism. My goal, as always, is to bring more attention to all the great literary fiction and memoirs by women writers. (And to encourage more men to read fiction, especially literary fiction, and even more especially by women authors.)

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The Dictator of Our Imagination: Karen Bender on Trump’s Exploitation of Conservatives’ Fears

Karen Bender

The writer Ursula LeGuin says: “The imagination is truly the enemy of bigotry and dogma.” This statement makes perfect sense—the imagination can take us out of ourselves to help us inhabit the world of another person, thus creating empathy. But after the spectacle of the Republican National Convention, and the unending and confounding popularity of Trump, I also think that bigotry can be a result of too much imagination—or imagination manipulated by a demagogue like Trump, settling in the fertile ground of fear.

As a writer, I am wary saying that we should be careful with our imaginations. For imagination is one place where we can, as individuals, be completely free, where we cannot and should not be censored. But the problem with imagination as manipulated by authority figures for power was clear to me during the RNC.

Imagination that resides within a person, controlled by oneself, is what makes us unique as humans—our own imaginations are a free entity, and yes, can lead to empathy, to innovation, to solution, to distraction, to comfort. But imagination directed by another, toward simplistic generalization, is something else. At the RNC, the Trump campaign only too happily directed the audience’s imaginations in ways that were intended to frighten, and could, with their vitriol, lead to harm.

An imagination in overdrive led to one of the eeriest moments during the  Republican convention, when grieving parents described the death of their children. As the parents spoke, a tag ran under their names that said: Victims of  Illegal Immigrants.” The children had indeed been killed by individuals who were illegal immigrants. But the focus of the label and the  imaginary threat were misleading. It was the first time I had ever seen someone speak on television in which a speaker was labeled as a victim of an entire group of people. I had seen descriptions of victims of say, a hurricane, or victims of a school shooting, or victims of a terrorist attack, but never as a victim of a group. The usual emphasis in this construct would be the action itself. In fact, the labels that would generally have been used in this situation would have been Victims of Drunk Driving or Victim of Gun Violence. But labeling a group had a different potential outcome. It gave the audience a specific group of people to worry about. This had the effect of demonizing all illegal immigrants, which, of course, sparked an unsubstantiated fear.

Then there was the moment in which the NRA President, Chris Cox, set out a scenario that is supposed to justify all gun ownership: the dreaded specter of home invasion. He talked about the mother at home alone with her child (of course), the “three-time loser released” because of a politician’s “empathy,” and, of course, the myth that a gun in this situation would save you. It was a story created solely for the purpose of promoting gun ownership and creating fear, and the audience loved it. The problem is that home invasion is not what the public should actually be worried about; gun ownership itself is more dangerous. According to Evan DeFillipis and Devin Hughes, writing in Slate, the per capita chance of death in a home invasion is 0.0000002 (basically, zero). Gun ownership doubles the risk of homicide and triples the risk of suicide. Thinking based on reason, then, would point to not owning a gun. But Cox’s story used imagination to create fear of an unknown stranger coming to attack that trope of vulnerability, the mother alone with her child.

We live in a nation in which imagination and fear are acutely bound, in ways that are often deadly. Trayvon Martin, a young man, walking down a street, is killed by George Zimmerman, a man who imagines, for no reason other than his skin color, that Martin is a threat. Police officer Darren Wilson kills Michael Brown, describing him as a “demon.”Writer Claudia Rankine says, “Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying.” An imagination corroded by fear leads to the image of a transgender person assaulting a woman in a bathroom, which leads to a law like North Carolina’s recently-passed HB2. According to an article in Identities.mic, spokespeople from the Transgender Law Center, the Human Rights Campaign, and the American Civil Liberties Union said that “no statistical evidence of violence exists to warrant this (HB2) legislation.” (However, 70% of trans people had experienced harassment as they tried to use a restroom.)

Imagination can lead to deadly consequences when it is focused on defining a group. Trump delights in manipulating the nation’s imagination in this way. He declares Mexicans to be “murderers and rapists,” and calls for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S., with the imaginary story that they are all terrorists. He declares himself (“I alone”) to be the one person who will save our country, inserting himself into our imaginations as an omnipotent father, a hero. Trump’s cronies jump in and carry out his work for him. David Duke, the former KKK leader, who traffics in hate fueled by the imaginary existence of Jewish world conspiracies, blamed Melania Trump’s plagiarism on Jewish speechwriters who sabotaged her. Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative and Trump advisor, uses his imagination in a way that leads him to make a threat that he finds acceptable to share with the nation: “Hillary should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”

On what Trump offers the Party, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham recently told ABC News that “he’s appealing to fear and prejudice, and there’s a market for that.” (Graham went on to say that this wasn’t good for the country, even though “a market for this” was in place.) I was struck by the idea of fear and the imagination being appropriated in a marketing scheme. One could say that Trump is combining fear and an overactive imagination in a diabolical marketing scheme, creating a narrative in which he sells the electorate stories of Muslims, Illegal Immigrants, and Crooked Hillary as the terrifying figures who will destroy them. Essentially, Trump wants us to purchase the idea of him as the savior, which is also relying on our imaginations—our vision of him–an ignorant, impulsive, inexperienced, often bankrupt businessman and reality show star–as somehow a solution. Our imaginations are his currency.

We need to access our rationality to combat Donald Trump’s abuse of our imaginations. During this election, right now, we need to be especially aware of the distinction between fiction and reason, and we need to stand up against bigotry and stereotype that is arising from the misuse of fiction. We need to vote for Hillary Clinton, the candidate who respects science, the candidate of knowledge and a breadth of experience, who understands the importance of reason, of fact, in governing a nation. Let’s commit to the very real-world action of voting against the dictator of our imaginations, Donald Trump, in November.


Karen E. Bender is the author of the story collection Refund, which was a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and longlisted for the Story Prize. She is the author of the novels Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker,Granta, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize series. Bender is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University in North Carolina.

Karen E. Bender: Thoughts on the 2016 Election

Karen Bender

I was going to write about Bernie and Hillary. I was going to write about identity and what each candidate offered and who I thought should win, but what really I wanted to write about was the seventh grade school trip to Washington, D.C. that I helped chaperone a few weeks ago. We took 17 seventh graders on a tour of the U.S. Capitol building. As part of this tour, we had a chance to sit in the gallery overlooking the floor of the Senate. The rules in the gallery were strict: No standing or sitting in doorways and aisles, applauding, reading, taking notes, sleeping, taking photographs, or wearing hats. (Why no taking notes?) The senators were discussing funding to support research on the Zika virus. The kids tried to spot the senators. There was Rubio. Schumer. McConnell. Franken. There they were! It was unclear what the senators were doing. They seemed to be talking affably. It was three in the afternoon, the kids were excited, briefly, but their blood sugar was starting to dip, and some of them seemed to be falling asleep.

The Capitol staffers stood at the doorway, watching the audience in the gallery. The staffers had a specific job, which was to walk over and wake people up. Sit up! Don’t slouch! The kids sat up. For a while. Then they started to slouch again. We, the teachers and chaperones, began feeling annoyed with the staffers. Why couldn’t we just sit and relax? We were tired. What was this enforced respect? Then I started thinking about what was happening in this country. I started thinking about the fact that there was the appearance of order on the Senate floor, and that the senators seemed to be doing something productive (though I knew that some were not). I started thinking about the fact that there was a man, a reality TV show star and foul-mouthed billionaire, shouting somewhere in the nation. He was dangerous, and he believed he should be President.

It seemed, suddenly, a sad thing, the sight of the staffers trying to wave their arms and wake up the tired, low-sugar-level children.  Wake up! Wake up! But then I thought—this was it. We all needed to wake up. We needed to wake up to the fact that Donald Trump was actually going to be the Republican candidate for President. And we needed to see that mainstream Republicans, who vowed never to support him, were starting to line up behind him.

2016-Election

Suddenly, I felt the approach of his violence. There was the violence Trump was directly inciting across the country, there was the violence in his misogynistic, racist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic language and his ideas, the violence in his dismissal of truth, of his blatant disregard of the Constitution. I sat with the children in that gallery and the approach of that violence made my arms feel cold.

But then I thought–there were other forms of violence going on here, too. There was the quiet violence on the Senate floor, the impeccably polite senators talking to each other but not actually able to pass any bills to, say, stop gun massacres in this country. There was the polite violence of the staffer of North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, who had set up our tour of the Capitol, and was so nice, so nice. But when I asked the nice staffer if Senator Tillis could make a statement about the horribly unjust HB2 bill, he stepped back and said, “It’s a state issue, and you know, we believe in states’ rights.” But he could go retrieve the backpacks we had left in his office. The niceness of that.

But the violence of neglect, of inaction. Of not wanting to speak out against a bill that clearly, obviously discriminated against the LGBTQ community.

And the children kept falling asleep.

No wonder they were tired; we were all tired. We were tired of a long campaign season in which the Republican candidates wanted to compete to see who would reveal the least amount of empathy. We were tired of listening to two Democratic candidates, both of whom were qualified and had numerous good ideas, snipe at each other. We were tired of what this country had become. We were all just tired.

But what we needed to do, in the face of all this cruelty, both active and quiet, in this nation—was—wake up. We needed to unite against the polite violence of inaction, or neglect, or disinterest, which enabled wrenching economic inequality and no gun laws at all, and police brutality and still-not-quite affordable health care and failing public schools. And many people were starting to do just that.

But first, we needed to unite against the direct violence and cruelty incited every day now by Donald Trump. We needed to choose one Democratic candidate, Hillary or Bernie, and get behind her or him, because, yes, though you might prefer one of them, either of them would be better than a fascist. We needed to wake up and see that the violence directed at each other was, yes, a result of our deep frustration with this nation and how it had failed many of us, and that nobody seemed to be listening, ever, to truly change what was wrong. But that we needed to take what was good and decent and effective in all of us and stop Trump from becoming the leader of this country. We needed to use our human decency to stop a man who would use his presidency for his own profit, for God knows what, really (why is he even running?) and who would end this country as we know it.

Think about that.

We’re tired, but we can’t be. We don’t have a lot of time; we need to wake up; Trump cannot become president. Let’s stop him. And then let’s keep shouting and working together so that we are glad to live in this nation, and glad to be awake.


Karen E. Bender is the author of the story collection Refund, which was a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and longlisted for the Story Prize. She is the author of the novels Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize series. Bender is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University in North Carolina.

Refund

“Election 2016” graphic courtesy of Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, Cornell University