On the 5th anniversary of the first #SayHerName vigil and as we mourn the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed at the hands of police, we consider the impact of narrative and storytelling. #SayHerName is about building a different narrative around those names of murdered Black women whom history has ignored. Social justice is narrative reconstruction. We engage a range of storytellers - Kiese Laymon, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Arundhati Roy - to help us think through how narrative helps us embrace not just a different set of facts, but a different frame to engage the world around us.
In the first segment, Kiese Laymon talked about the narratives that have guided his home state of Mississippi, not only in this crisis of COVID-19, but for centuries prior. Essential, unpaid workers in Mississippi have been undervalued and ignored by their presidents from Washington and Lincoln to Obama and Trump. In answering the question about what lies America is telling itself today and how are they shaping the story of this pandemic, Laymon calls our attention to what he refers to as “The Politics of Humiliation.” The poultry plants in Mississippi have become a site of outbreak during the pandemic, but a year ago, when those same plants were raided by ICE, no one was concerned about the children left behind or the conditions that workers were living in. While death is our primary focus with COVID-19, humiliation is the primary dish being served to essential workers by their fellow citizens and their own government.
Building on these themes, Viet Thanh Nguyen discussed the death counts, from COVID-19, but also during the Vietnam war. Indeed, most Americans have no idea about how many Vietnamese, Laos, and Cambodians died in the Vietnamese war. That American individualism -- and the belief that only American lives matter -- is tied to how we view death counts, but also how we navigate the need for communal action and sacrifice in a pandemic. This virus has revealed the underbelly of our rugged individualism to ourselves and to the world.
Arundhati Roy explored the convergences between the US and India during this pandemic. COVID-19 is creating another class in both countries, reinforcing the ideas of untouchability and impurity in India, while further isolating the most vulnerable Americans. In the same way that COVID enters those bodies ill served by the healthcare systems in America and India, the disease infiltrates the weaknesses in nation states and societies. In India, this has meant that hundreds of thousands of Indian citizens without homes, whose stories have been ignored since the 1990s, have become a visible presence once again. They’ve forced their own narratives into the mainstream. In the weeks after the lockdown in India, hundreds have been killed, held like animals, harassed and beaten by the police, and left further unprotected by their own government. This virus has further humiliated these individuals and workers around the world who feed American and Indian capitalism.
Laymon challenged us to consider how we think about our desire to humiliate others as well as our complicity in that. In his most recent writing, he’s considered how we talk about white neo-liberalism in America without centering it. Nguyen asked whether we are going to retreat into tribalism and exploitation or lean into our connectedness in our pandemic storytelling -- in order to combat the visualization of Asian Americans as compliant and grateful, his goal has been to refuse apology and docility in his own narratives. In response, Roy worried that COVID has made us further emphasize national borders while capitalism has made us a world of refugees, fleeing state violence, greed, and exploitation.
In a fascinating roundtable, Nguyen talked about the capacity for great joy and absurdity in the storytelling that emerges from this time. He encouraged us to maximize the democratization of media and see storytelling as a collective act. Laymon asked poignantly, “What would Americanism and patriotism look like if we really loved and valued the labor of the people, especially Black women, who have made the economy move and grow?” Again, Roy pushed us to consider how much of the world has been devastated to build America, even or perhaps especially, in this time of global suffering.
In closing, our panelists encouraged us to use narrative to both channel the terror of this moment and to tap into the connections and introspection that writing can foster.