Peter Balakian

Balakian Is Founding Member of Writers Movement Against Trump

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HAMILTON, NY — Several months ago, Peter Balakian helped found a group called Writers Against Trump (WAT, writersagainsttrump.org), which includes a number of noted Armenian-American authors. The group has nearly two thousand members in all. Its forceful mission statement does not mince words, proclaiming “We believe that this presidency is uniquely dangerous to our present and future society.”

Balakian expounds on it as follows: “We are American writers — now 1,900 of us — who have come together to work for change in November’s election. We devote our lives to language and thinking and ethics. We who founded the organization are in agreement that Trump’s presidency has been mired in corruption, incompetence, and astonishing assaults on democratic institutions and norms, and he has displayed an overt racism and misogyny never seen before in the White House in the modern era. The sheer crass, self-absorbed, indecency of Trump has had a damaging effect on American identity both at home and globally.”

WAT’s goals, according to its website, include collaborating “with organizations seeking to encourage voter turnout, promote candidates who resist the Trump apparatus, protect the election from fraud and theft, and mobilize in the event of post-election trouble.”

Balakian said, “Writers Against Trump started in the first week of August, when the eminent writer, journalist and political activist Todd Gitlin approached me and asked whether I thought I could bring together a few writers together to do some campaign work. I then called a few of my friends, and Todd called a few of his, and before long, we had a wonderful, very strong group of writers.”

The Pulitzer Prize winning Balakian is a poet and writer who teaches as the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of Humanities at Colgate University. Gitlin, author of 14 books, is a professor and chair of the doctoral program in communications at Columbia University. He was a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society and tis third president.

By mid-August, a steering committee of ten was formed comprised of distinguished writers including novelists Paul Auster, James Carroll, Siri Hudtvedt, Askold Melnyczuk, poets Natasha Tretheway and Carolyn Forche, as well as well as younger writers Sophie Auster, Julia Lattimer, Shuchi Saraswat.

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“Our committee spans a couple of generations and that’s been important,” Balakian said, “because within a week, we went digital thanks to the younger members like Sophie, Julia and Shuchi. WAT now had Instagram and Facebook pages along with a website.” Balakian said that hundreds of writers began signing up and posting their written or video statements about why this election is so important for the future of democracy.

This moment goes beyond partisan views, he exclaimed, stressing: “There has been so much corruption and so much destruction of democratic norms, values and institutions under the Trump Administration that people are really keyed to the big values of American democracy.”

Though there are no formal local or even regional branches, WAT has created a network throughout the United States. Balakian said, “We have almost 2000 writers who have joined this in name, which suggests that there is a groundswell of leadership coming from the literary community. That is something to note.” This network, he said, “is being an energizer, a facilitator and a bonder, with all of us trying to make phone calls, send postcards, and find people who can be poll watchers.”
There are also some writers who are not US citizens who have joined, Balakian said, out of concern about the US and its commitments to democracy.

Among the well-known writers who have signed on to WAT are Margaret Atwood, Jericho Brown, Maureen Corrigan, Enrique Krauze, Tyehimba Jess, Robert Jay Lifton, Jacki Lyden, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Joyce Carol Oates, Jayne Anne Phillips, Salman Rushdie, and John Turturro.

There are a number of Armenian American writers who have joined in addition to Balakian, including Nancy Agabian, Jan Balakian, Chris Bohjalian, Carol Edgarian, Armine Iknadossian, Olivia Katrandjian, Lola Koundakjian, Nancy Kricorian, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Peter Najarian, Aline Ohanesian, Alan Semerdjian and Patricia Sarrafian Ward, and some of them also have posted their statements on the WAT website.

Balakian commented on the lack of engagement of the US in the Karabakh peace process until recently as a secondary factor that might motivate Armenians. He said, “I feel, and I am sure other Armenian American members of this organization would concur, that parts of the State Department have been gutted by Trump, and US leadership in complex parts of the world has waned.”

WAT in Action

One of the ways WAT is working to achieve its goal is through plenary sessions every other week with swing states for the presidential election, including Texas, Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. In these online meetings, there is brainstorming on strategies to get out the vote, poll watching and protecting the integrity of the election. Balakian said, “These have been very rich 90-minute sessions. We hope that they are helping propel energy and galvanize ideas.”

Both writers and political figures have participated in the sessions. Among the politicians, the mayor of Durham was involved in the North Carolina session and Assemblyman Steve Doyle from western Wisconsin in the Wisconsin session, while Rick Wilson, one of the founders of the Lincoln Project, a group of former Republicans who state they are working to defend democracy in the US, spoke in the Florida one.

Balakian served as the online host for the Wisconsin session on October 3. As a founding member of WAT, he said he sent out a lot of emails and eventually a group was formed which spoke on the complexity of the situation in Wisconsin. He said, “The idea is that we are here to listen and gather knowledge as well as to provide ideas and impetus.” The group included Assemblyman Doyle; poet and fiction writer Mauricio Kilwein-Guevara, who is the author of five books and a play; activist Iuscely Flores of Milwaukee; John Nichols, a major political writer for The Nation magazine, associate editor of The Capital Times, and author or coauthor of over a dozen books; and poet and graduate student Eric Jefferson.

In addition to the effort to get out the vote, Balakian said there is a plan for a possible election and post-election crisis, in case President Trump loses and attempts to interfere with the results. Part of the plan is to hold a national plenary session on the night of November 5 with major writers which will be conducted by writer and film director Paul Auster. At the moment, three eminent writers, Salman Rushdie, Rebecca Solnit, and former poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey are onboard to discuss the election results and what should happen next.

There will also be a series of local events during the day facilitated by bookstores and their partners.

Balakian speculated about what will happen with the election: “Wouldn’t it be nice if it were just a normal election? Yet there has never been so much heightened tension because of Trump’s persistent efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the American election process. Much will be written about this, no doubt.”

“I think many of us feel,” Balakian said, “that the work of democratic activism will not end with the election. We hope WAT will have a longer life. Our medium is language and there is commitment to the belief that words matters and that ideas and messages can be generated by writers that can have meaning and value in times of crisis. I think we all have a belief in the ethical value of literary culture.” He elaborated that this is a time-honored idea, which the Victorians believed, and that “the present is the moment for literary culture to stand up and get to work. This certainly has been true in the Armenian tradition since the period of the 19th century Armenian renaissance.”

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