by Alexandra Panic
As the CNN election night coverage began, I was calm. Before the culminating night of the 2016 presidential campaign, I had believed that only in fiction Donald Trump could be elected president. However, while I was in the classroom, teaching my students about writing in scenes, the fiction was happening.
After the class, I returned home to take my luggage and kiss my family before heading to Sea-Tac airport to catch a redeye flight to Newark, New Jersey. A couple of months before, I had signed up for a literary conference in New York City organized by the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses. Never had I expected the awkwardness of traveling on election night nor the feeling of guilt – the American ground was shaking and there I was choosing between two cocktail dresses.
In our living room, my husband and our friends were breathless in front of the television. A couple expecting their first child was silent and attentive to the broadcast, especially the mother to be; another friend was more talkative, trying to grasp what was happening. I still believed there was hope. They did not. I believed I would board my plane and arrive in New York the next morning to realize that last night was a humorous short story.
I passed through security control in silence, holding my fingers crossed that something would change. As I approached the gate and joined the line of passengers, I noticed how they all stood: like mannequin dolls, immovable and silent, staring at a big and muted TV screen. The newscaster was opening his mouth; his eyebrow twitched a few times, and terror darkened his eyes even though he had been trained to conceal his emotions.
Following the instructions of a crew member, we all boarded the plane and found our seats. The repetitive click-click of seat belts closing was the only sound on the plane, and it resounded in the limited space. Click-click. Click-click. Click. No passengers talked to one another. Nobody commented on what had happened. Only because I knew how Seattle had voted, I understood that the silence came as a result of shock, not indifference. I spent hours in sleepless disbelief, still hoping that I would land to a different reality. But what I found there when I arrived and took a train to Manhattan was even more silence. An odd, eerie silence broken only by various sounds of traffic. Vooorrrr; varoom; beep, beep; honk.
My Goddard friend Anna Martin joined me for the conference. November 9 was her birthday. As we had planned before – we were going to celebrate the first female president of the United States, Anna’s birthday, and our upcoming graduation. But what we ended up celebrating was the completion of her Canadian citizenship: we ate poutine on the street, under the light rain, in silence.
On our way back to the hotel, our path intersected with a river of young protestors walking along 5th Avenue and heading toward the Trump Tower. Their shouts “Not Our President” echoed long and wide across the city. It was encouraging to hear the noise again, especially the noise of resistance. But when the protestors moved along and the sound of their voices faded away, the silence returned. This time, it was a different kind of silence. The silence that came from my bloodstream, from my memory.
I tried to get some sleep before the conference, but the images of the protest sent me to my past. I was the seventeen-year-old girl again with jacket pinned with slogan buttons and voice raspy from the countless hours I had spent on the students’ protest in the freezing and fierce Belgrade wind. “Not our president” was among the lines my people used during the dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević. And it was certainly the line they could shout out again, addressing the man in charge of the country today. Ultimately, I took a sleeping pill to return to the silence of today, believing that it hurt less than the echoes of yesterday.
On November 10, 2016, Anna Martin and I joined the group of writers gathered for the conference that took place at The New School in New York City. The panels focused on publishing. I am sure one could feel the weight of the silence that occupied the room full of writers thirty-six hours past the elections; thirty-six hours after our co-citizens elected a tweeting reality show host for their president.
That day, I had the opportunity to meet literary agents. Each conference participant got assigned three ten-minute meetings. I wasn’t overly prepared to pitch my thesis novel, but I took the chance to meet a few agents and chat with them. When I mentioned that I was about to graduate from Goddard College, they said, “Goddard is a GREAT school.” Their acknowledgment boosted my confidence. Yes! I am graduating from the amazing program, and I got this. I wrote a novel I believed in. When the agents asked me what the title of my book was and I said, Should We Keep On Dreaming, they followed my words with seconds of silence, then they responded, “How timely.”
These hours of the post-traumatic silence among writers helped me realize that I had so much to say. I had so much to say that I could just keep on talking. Because the silence that ruled after the elections was a sentiment that I knew very well. The disappointment, the loss of hope, the implausibility of tomorrow. And that sour feeling toward the unwanted president.
That constricting sentiment that I grew up with was the very reason I became a writer, the very reason I was getting my MFA, and the very reason I wrote my thesis. I did all that so I could resist the repressive silence, so my words could resonate, offering some sense and hope to the world in bruises.
After the two-day literary event, Anna Martin and I spent a few hours roaming around New York, breathing its magical air. Before we headed to the Megabus stop to catch our bus to Washington, DC, we had stopped by the Stand bookstore. In the window of the store, I noticed a familiar face on a book cover. The title read Walk through Walls. It was the memoir of Belgrade born and world acclaimed performance artist, Marina Abramović. Walk through Walls – the seemingly simple sentence conveyed the essence of every artist’s life. I got the book and held it tightly in my hands until we reached the bus stop. It was too dark on the bus to read and too silent to relax. It was seventy-two hours past the elections, and the silence had grown more hollow, more terrorizing. To resist it, I glanced at the opening of Abramović’s memoir. “I came from a dark place. Postwar Yugoslavia, the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s,” she wrote. “Perpetual shortage of everything, drabness everywhere.” I stopped there, realizing that I came from a darker place. Post Tito’s Yugoslavia. The nationalism boiled silently during the 1980s, then erupted in the early 1990s with a terrible noise of hate, gunfire, and explosions. I was too young when I cracked the meaning of the word hate and when I saw how this venom tore apart families, friendships, and people. Twenty-five years later I am still learning how to fight spreading of hate.
I was Anna’s guest in Washington, DC. It was my first time in the capital and again, the unfortunate timing. The silence that we felt in New York spread across Washington as well. White House was fenced, the sign “No Trespassing” glowed in the night.
On Saturday morning, we visited the Library of Congress. I stopped in front of the inscription on the wall, a quote from Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” saying, “Words are also actions. And actions are a kind of words.” Then I imagined Emerson’s voice asking me if I was ready to use my words in resistance to this depression? Yes, I was. I was just waiting for the right moment to speak up. A great book does not get written in happiness. Happiness is idleness. For a groundbreaking work, we need earthquakes. And the president-elect has just caused the first commotion. From my experience of living in a country whose people repeatedly elected wrong presidents, I assume that there will be more commotions measuring higher on the scale until this soil settles again. In the meantime, we must juxtapose the nonsense with our kind words. The words that will educate the future generations about the real values in life, about the importance of diversity, and the importance of our dreams.
In her memoir, Marina Abramović proposed an exercise for artists to encourage us to create through silence. “Sitting in a chair, look at a sheet of paper printed with one of the primary colors for one hour. Repeat with the other two colors,” she suggested. Once I completed a shorter version of Abramović’s assignment in Mark Rothko’s room in the National Gallery of Art, I recognized that the authority of Rothko’s point of view had come from the strength of his dreams. Mark Rothko dared to take risks to change the conventions of his time. As a result, his art will live forever.
I’ll glance at my past one more time. The seventeen-year-old girl lied to her parents, promising that she would not endanger herself and get out there to the streets, then she skipped classes and joined the stream of young citizens shouting against the autocracy of Slobodan Milošević. Upon returning home, she didn’t bring somebody else’s disappointment. She came back to her apartment, frequently without power, and she wrote poems under the candle light. She dreamed of becoming a writer reaching an audience larger than her home country. Seventeen years later, this girl became a wife and a mother of two American citizens. Seventeen years later, this girl became a writer who wrote in her adopted language and who felt finally ready to speak up in the name of her experience and her people. “Art is long, and time is fleeting,” said Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem “A Psalm of Life”. What Trump tweets or does during his time in the White House will be forgotten but what we make during this time will remain.
Embracing art we walk through walls, we attack the silence. We bruise, we bleed, and we suffer. Often we retract to silence to heal, to create. Although our battle is never-ending, it gets easier once we see the powerful effect of our work and words.
America was made of dreams. Of brave people’s dreams. A lot has been said during and after the last presidential campaign. So many words without meaning, so many insults. One of the texts I read after the elections said, “The American dream died.” As a future American, here I must disagree. The American dream is still very vital; I know this because I’m living it. Goddard College gave me the opportunity and helped me fulfil my dream of becoming a writer in the world. The Goddard community grew and empowered my voice, and for that, I will be thankful for life. As long as there are similar institutions and groups of people, as long as there are great teachers for our children, this country will stand strong. Because I have lived through many political disappointments that only made me stronger, I feel confident to say and write that no country has ever belonged to an elected president but to its people.
Aleksandra Panic lives in Seattle, Washington, where she organizes Mama Writes, creative writing classes and workshops for women, and reads and edits short fiction for Pif Magazine. She is originally from Belgrade, Serbia, although her soul is Italian. She holds a BA degree in Italian Language and Literature; in February 2017, she will be graduating from Goddard College with an MFA in Creative Writing. She had three collections of poetry published in the Serbian language and she wrote her first novel in English.
The painting is by Mark Rothko and entitled blue-green-brown.