By María J. Estrada, Ph.D.
Please welcome Penned in the City creator, Owner of Barrio Blues Press... Maria J. Estrada better known to most of us as Jesu... to the Writers Journey Blog this week!
Are you someone who cares about social issues like the increased environmental disasters, growing poverty, or vile police brutality?
Do you cringe about books being banned in the United States? As a writer or artist, do you struggle with how far to stretch your political message or include it in your work? For many writers of the past like Roque Dalton, Richard Wright, or Louisa May Alcott (yes, she was a Feminist), this inclusion wasn’t even a question. They incorporated the reality of what they saw and experienced, organically and without hesitation. Without apology.
However, as contemporary artists and writers, we are often told not to proselytize or not to push our “political” agendas. While there is truth to those suggestions, you can incorporate the political without losing the integrity of your work. I am confident enough to say that all aspects of our artistic production can be political if we take a balanced, organic approach.
I have been teaching Creative Writing at Harold Washington College for almost 10 years and in higher education for almost 25 years. As a scholar and writer, the question of balancing the political and artistic is one that I grapple with. My students and I debate this question every semester. It is one I ask more accomplished, prolific writers that visit my classes, like Tongo Eisen-Martin, Poet and 8th San Francisco Poet Lareaute or Cynthia Pelayo, international award-winning Bram Stoker horror novelist and poet.
Creatives have varying answers such as, “Beautiful writing and art is political–in and of itself.” Or, “The political reflects the reality of characters and will emerge naturally. It doesn’t have to be forced.” The more radical guests will assert: “The political must be part of the art.” However you get to that political point, it has to be natural to the main character or narrator. It has to emerge from the reality of the characters or poem, but that inclusion can’t be forced.
For example, if your main character doesn’t feel like ranting against increasingly erratic tornadoes, but wants to recycle and teach their kids to care about the planet, you go with that. As much as I love a good rant, I hate it when the writer inserts their voice which often breaks the narration of the work! I don’t care if I agree with the political position or not. What irks me is that the soap-box screaming or unnatural shift in tone has interfered with my pleasure of reading. If your political point is ruining the story and your beta readers or readers are telling you so (and they agree with you politically), there’s a clue you’ve gone too far.
Currently, I am finishing a queer dystopian novel The Harvested: A Novel. The story is about a future where women are in charge and subjugate men. Did I mention that the planet is environmentally devastated, and the women blame men for it? People struggle hard to survive an inclement environment. To top it all off, the government has regular harvests of people, and no regular citizen knows what happens to the disappeared. Enter Ashley the main character who is always questioning what happens to the harvested, but will she do anything to make things better?
Ashley is more focused on surviving, even though she hates how her best friend, Alan, is treated; her main goal is to keep her mother safe and just survive. Her curiosity about her social existence is more of an intellectual curiosity than a revolutionary conviction. She won’t outright denounce the corrupt matriarchal government or brutal economic policies because she’s not built that way. Could she change later in the story (or a sequel)? Of course. That realization, though, has to be hers, one that emerges from her journey.
Now, as an artist or writer, it is okay if you have a separate venue for your political writing. I tend to merge the two as an author and independent press owner because politics are so entrenched in my life. I own a press, Barrio Blues Press, an endeavor that Elaine supported and still champions with regular contributions. The purpose of the press is simple: The mission of Barrio Blues Press is to elevate the voices of emerging writers and to help build a cooperative society. 100% of the online sales go to a charity or a grassroots organization, and authors often contribute the royalties to a cause.
In a few months, I will be producing Nightmare with a Twist! a horror anthology, Sojourns: Selected Poems (John Drudge), and Unity, Volume 2: A Speculative Anthology. All royalties from Unity anthologies go to Doctors without Borders.
I have been an activist since I was 19 years old. I’m just built this way with an entrenched hatred of poverty, racism, and injustice and exploitation, in general. But, sometimes, I need a space where I can shout from the soap box. Recently, I have been writing short political work in my substack, “Jesú's Barrio Clowning & Serious Politics”; Substack is an interactive platform for authors that has many convenient social media features like resharing or “restacking” other blogs. Whenever I write political articles, I header them with “Political” as part of the title; otherwise, I write about my personal life and writing journey.
A few weeks ago, I co-wrote a piece, “Repose for Jismary: “Victim of Immigration Politics” with my friend Tim Noonan, an activist and mutual aid warrior from the Beverly neighborhood in Chicago. After co-writing that beautiful piece, I came to the realization that my political writing was just as important as my creative writing. I plan to write more of it.
That epiphany was HUGE! Huge. Yes, to you, dear reader, this may be a, “Duh, of course!” It took me a while to come to this liberating realization. I’m not sure how it will shape my future work, other than the creative plane being clear for me. I have reached a point in my life where I am secure within myself, as a writer and activist, and I have a lot to say about transforming the world for all humanity. Whatever I produce, I will strive to maintain that balance of speaking the characters’ truth and what they want to change about their world, if anything at all.
Bio: MARIA J. ESTRADA (they/them/elle) is an English college professor of Composition,
Literature, and their favorite, Creative Writing. Estrada grew up in the desert outside of Yuma, Arizona in the real Barrio de Los Locos, a barrio comprised of new Mexican immigrants and first-generation Chicanos. Drawing from this setting and experiences, Estrada writes like a locx every minute they can—all while magically balancing their work and family obligations. Estrada lives in Chicago’s south side with their wonderfully supportive husband, two remarkable children, and a menagerie of animals. You can learn more about her at http://www.barrioblues.com/. She is the creator and host of YouTube’s “Radical Books and Activists,” and is always looking for guests.