On the plane headed to the Goddard residency in Port Townsend last week, I watched The Music of Strangers, a documentary about the international Silk Road Ensemble established by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998, but more than that, about the role of art in the world. One of the musicians, Kinan Azmeh, a refugee from Syria, spoke of watching his country in crisis: “I found myself experiencing emotions far more complex than I could express in my music. The music fell short. I stopped writing music. Can a piece of music stop a bullet? Can it feed someone who is hungry? You question the role of art all together.”

Since our election, I too have stopped writing. Everything I might say about what is going on around me has felt thin, and redundant. Anything I’d begun in the past seemed irrelevant and the act of continuing to write it – which requires turning away from the horror show of the news – vaguely disloyal and privileged. I have been living in a liminal space, making phone calls and going to community meetings and protest marches, while I wait for something to break open so that I can find my voice again.

When I got to Goddard, I found, as always happens in a gathering of writers, that I was not alone. Although the theme for our residency was Risk and Revelation, it quickly became clear in the keynote presentations that our conversations would swirl instead around writing and resistance. My colleague Keenan Norris spoke of illiteracy as the “disastrous inability to describe what is before us.” Bea Gates spoke of “the need to unravel the horror before it unravels us.”

But it wasn’t until Keenan evoked Ralph Ellison’s comment that there is no peace in art but only “a fighting chance at the chaos of living” that I was reminded of the truth I already knew: the hate and violence, exclusion and separation that is currently imperiling our country is as old as recorded history, and it has always been my subject. It is the Japanese American internment my family endured; the dropping of two atomic bombs. Racism has been a part of us for centuries – in exclusion acts and Patriot Acts; redlining; prison for profit; slavery; colonization; outright theft of home and country. The difference now is not in degree but in speed. Thanks to the Internet, our world assembles itself out of a continuous pinging of tweets, posts, petitions, and action alerts that insist there may literally be no tomorrow if they are not immediately followed and shared. In her keynote, Bea talked about “Living inside a picture I could not see or read” and that was me: plucking what I could out of the torrent of scrolling insults, lies, jokes, leaks, and rumors, all conveyed in the truncated language of emoji and emotion, as if the world was at stake, and the right retweet would save it.

As Keenan reminded me by sharing the words of writers who have come before – Ellison, Hannah Arendt – the world is always at stake. And what’s more: “In art,” he said, “of course, each singular human life is the world— the world in a grain of sand.”

We writers traffic in the singular human life. My own books evoke racism, internment, bombings and trauma, through the choices, fears, actions and sacrifices of individuals. I interview people to create my worlds. I know myself well enough to know that everything I will ever write will begin with blood, breath, tears, joy, memory. Not as immediate as a tweet, in fact, just the opposite: writing from the body and visceral experience is quite a slow process, but perhaps it is no coincidence that creating a lasting society rooted in justice and humanity also takes time. So many of the readings we heard at the residency were prefaced by, “I wrote this [in some past moment in history] but it seems more important than ever now.”

With all of this so much on my mind, I facilitated a discussion for students and faculty to talk over where we, as writers, go from here. Borrowing from the post-it note explosion in the New York City subways after the election, we used a color-coded system to navigate the layers of our experience.  The shock and awe of fake news and the fight or flight cortisol spikes of the resistance came out in the first two. That cleared some room for us to explore what matters most to us second two:

1: WTF?!!? Say something. Get it out. Whatever blurt you are feeling right now, as a writer in the world, write it. (purple)

2: WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW: What’s urgent, necessary, essential? (This is global.) (blue)

3: HOW ABOUT YOU? What are your own urgent themes, your preoccupations? What themes, situations and fears have you ALWAYS explored in your work? (yellow)

4: LOVE, LOVE, LOVE: Your essential heart. What do you care about? What moves you? What do you live for? (red)

The exercise took us through the stages of anger and fear, to sorrow, and then to love: where even our heartbeats slowed as we reconnected with what we lived for. That glorious and felt experience of living is, I believe, what our current climate of fast fear is trying to replace. The project was a powerful way to remind ourselves of the role of art, and the reason we write in the first place: to locate our humanity and make meaning.

I invite you to write your own post-its and add them virtually to our wall by sharing them in the comments below.

How to Stop a Bullet
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Rahna Reiko Rizzuto is the author of the memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, which was a National Book Critics Circle Finalist, an Asian American Literary Award Finalist, a Dayton Literary Peace Prize Nominee, and the winner of the Grub Street National Book Award. Her first novel, Why She Left Us, won an American Book Award in 2000. Her third book, Shadow Child, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2018. She is also a recipient of the U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellowship, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. She was Associate Editor of The NuyorAsian Anthology: Asian American Writings About New York City and is a Hedgebrook alumna. Reiko has been interviewed widely on motherhood including on The Today Show, 20/20, and The View. Her articles on motherhood, Hiroshima, the Japanese internment camps and radiation poisoning have been published globally, including in the L.A. Times, Guardian UK, CNN Opinion and Salon, and through the Progressive Media Project. She is a faculty member at Goddard College in the MFA in Creative Writing program, and is the advisor of the national literary journal, Clockhouse. Reiko is Japanese/Caucasian and was raised in Hawaii. She is the founder of the writing retreat Pele's Fire on the Big Island of Hawaii.

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20 thoughts on “How to Stop a Bullet

  • Pingback: Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Shadow Child to be published by Grand Central Pulblishing | The Writer in the World

  • March 7, 2017 at 1:36 am
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    Thank you for sharing this idea. I adapted it for my teaching practicum on our last night together. My series of classes is creative writing as an outlet for parents of children with disabilities. It was very well received! It gave the participants a chance to just get words down on paper and say what they need, fear and love. We created our own “wall” which led one women to adapt it for the adults with disabilities group she facilitates. At the end after we did our Post Its about our essential hearts, we wrote love letters to our children with disabilities. It was a terrific way to sort through our challenging feelings and circle it back to where our hearts are. Thank you for the inspiration!

    • March 7, 2017 at 9:10 am
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      Wonderful to hear! Thank you so much for sharing this experience and letting me know. Do you have a picture? Would love to see it.

      • March 7, 2017 at 1:58 pm
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        Yes! I couldn’t figure out how to attach it here so it is posted as a comment on the Facebook post where this article was shared.

  • February 21, 2017 at 2:18 pm
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    Witness to the world
    give voice to your truth of it
    embody the work of loving
    confront your fear
    and throw off the hands of despair
    Refuse a complicit silence
    in the sacred act of creation
    creation is defiance is celebration
    the light that reminds us
    of the breadth of this world
    a lucid dream of life
    discovering her form
    ~J. Morse

  • February 20, 2017 at 4:24 pm
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    Every time there is an exercise like this I can never think of a better phrase to stick on a post-it than Forester’s epigraph to Howard’s End: Only Connect. But, of course, later we have:

    “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

    That said:

    Purple: Insecurity. Always there nagging, subconscious, alive, even when it lies periodically dormant, a hibernating bear, a sleeping baby.

    Blue: Islam. The West still doesn’t understand a fucking thing. Then again, do I?

    Yellow: Belief. Doubt. Which is stronger?

    Red: The most interesting existence possible, even in those dull moments in between — waiting on train platforms or for the next Metro, brushing the cat, taking down the garbage — even these things, if done with purpose, can be magical.

  • February 20, 2017 at 2:47 pm
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    Purple: Fuuuuuuck!

    Purple: I’M FUCKING TERRIFIED!

    Blue: This is not the end. RATHER IT IS THE BEGINNING. Of the People’s Revolution. Stay Woke and we got this thing.

    Yellow: Art is the transformation of trauma. My art is the art of waking up. Waking up from trauma. Waking up to art. Turning up the volume on my living and loving to drown out the nightmares of small minds.

    Red: The most radical act is love, and it begins with me. I’m grateful I lost mind, and in the rubble of it all discovered a gorgeous soul that I am falling in love with. In this I am becoming the Warrior. Again. Again. Again. Always. Always the Warrior. The Writer. One and the same.

    Red: Thank you, Reiko Rizzuto for this gorgeous offering.

    • February 20, 2017 at 2:50 pm
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      It is most definitely the beginning! Always the warrior, the writer, one and the same.

  • February 20, 2017 at 1:34 pm
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    Wise and heartening words, Reiko, just like your beautiful spirit in our world. Thank you for reminding us of context as we deal with immediate moments. No matter what our art, even if it is simply that of taking our next inhale, we must remember to simply just do it and not to get in the way. And then, the other extremely vital part — exhale, fully, from the bottom of lungs and spirit. Far too often I have found myself holding my breath, containing my being, and how on earth can we adequately express our voice if we do not deeply expel our breath. Thank you for your instructive and encouraging thoughts.

    • February 20, 2017 at 2:51 pm
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      Thank you Rebecca. Good to hear from you. Writing is breathing, yes, and we must just do it.

  • February 20, 2017 at 10:47 am
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    Grocery list: Don’t forget Post Its for the weekend gathering . . . .

    (As always, thank you, Reiko ;o)

  • February 20, 2017 at 10:05 am
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    I have not read anything in a while that has penetrated the armor that I seem to be encased in. Thank you, Reiko, for opening me back up. I don’t like what is going on out here but I would rather be alive in it that fearfully or angrily skulking around waiting for something better.

    • February 20, 2017 at 2:54 pm
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      If we are not fully alive, we are living for nothing. Thank you, Dulcie!

  • February 20, 2017 at 9:16 am
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    Reiko, You so perfectly captured the experience–the macro (the world, the U.S.) the micro (the residency and the workshops and keynote). Thank you for this reflection, this prompt. (I can’t wait for the post-it sized comment explosion. :-))

  • February 20, 2017 at 7:40 am
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    Blue…. what the world needs now…

    color, in it’s many layers… I refuse to continue to wear black, I have painted my kitchen wall red and put purple flowers in a blue vase against it..

    There’s a small black rabbit that lives outside my house.

    A man with dark skin walks down the street. I smile

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