In preparation for our Issue 5 launch event this Wednesday, May 9th, here are some final reflections from our Editor-in-Chief.
Writing and Democracy. As students in the Riggio Honors Program: Writing and Democracy, we talk about these words a lot, saying them in tandem, often every day, sometimes multiple times a day, for years on end. We claim that writing and reading are engines of democracy. We claim these things can save us and change us, and can change and save the world. We make it our mission to do just that. Some days I believe in that mission, and I know just how to accomplish it. Other days, I disregard it as idealistic garbage. Others, I’m just not sure. Believing in this premise seems as abstract as believing in God, and in some ways an even bigger leap of faith.
But today, as we are about to send our fifth issue to press, I feel as though I have some ideas about writing and democracy. I feel I know something I didn’t know, even one year ago, before I started working on this project. Over the last eight months I’ve spent hours every week doing this job. I’ve come to know my colleagues well, and I’ve been privy to what they are like on good days and bad, at work and play. I’ve admired them, and been inspired and challenged by them.
I’ve noticed most of us have a theme in our lives that carries through in our own writing. We write about the environment, Queer issues, the Middle East, African-American issues, women’s issues, trauma, or grief. Here at the journal, however, we find ourselves with a different task. Here, our job is not to promote our own voice or theme, but to collect others’ voices.
Last spring, I went to an event at Highline Park here in Manhattan, not far from the physical 12th Street, where we do, in fact, compile these pages. The event, “Karma Chain,” was part of the PEN World Voices Festival, and was hosted by the festival’s founder, Salman Rushdie (whose interview in this issue I hope you will enjoy) and Lama Pema Wangdak, a Tibetan Buddhist monk.
I arrived at the Highline early, on a crisp, but sunny weekend day. Along with swarms of other clueless event goers, I was given a ticket, and told to line up along the Highline in single file, strictly according to the number on the ticket. Most of us thought we were waiting to be escorted into a building to hear Lama Pema and Sir Salman discuss something cerebral and spiritual.
I was in the shade and getting cold and aggravated. To my right was a middle-aged man, alone. He was a tourist from Denmark. Actually, he was an engineer, on his way to Arizona, if I remember correctly. But he liked New York, and had chosen to stop and do some touring on his way to engineering out West. To my left was a group of women overdressed for the occasion, in furs and gold jewelry. They were laughing and taking pictures of each other. I looked around and saw that everybody was doing what we were doing, talking to their neighbors in line, speculating about what would happen and when.
After quite a long time, the line grew to the hundreds. Then we learned that the Lama had begun the process by whispering a Tibetan sutra into the ear of whichever person was absurd enough to have showed up first. The first person whispered it to the second, and the second to the third. The message traveled down the line, mouth to ear, hand around mouth to protect the sacred secret. After the first message completed its journey to the last listener, he gave a second message. And after that one reached the end, he sent still a third transmission. I don’t remember what the messages were when I received them, or when I passed them on.
When it was all over, the whole group gathered to hear Rushdie and Lama Pema read the results of this experiment, and to find out why the hell we did this. The three sets of messages were, of course, wildly disparate from beginning to end. The messages that were sent out were not the messages received. We were there to hear each message, alter it, and pass it on. And that’s all there was. The simple act of participating was all we needed to do, an end in itself.
Now, in retrospect, I see the same is true for our work on this year’s 12th Street. Writing and reading are democratic acts as soon as we participate in them. Our job has been to find the message, cultivate the message, and pass it along. We have all been changed by engaging in the process of this work. Now we complete that process by giving you the message. It may not change the world. But it may change your mind, just a little. And that may be enough.