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  • Leslie Jill Patterson

just out! 19.1 state of the union

Well, here we are.

I admit: when we first conceived of the IHLR State of the Union issue, I believed Hillary would win the 2016 presidential election, and so I envisioned this issue as a text of hope: Look how far America has come. Look where she will go now. Isn’t she beautiful? Instead, in the days after the election, I found myself struggling to grasp the magnitude of living under rabid conservative rule again, especially when led by a man whom I considered mentally unstable, narcissistic, vulgar, even obscene. Where, in the darkest days of our history, did this group of “leaders” plan on returning us so America could be great again for white heterosexual males?

Here’s the reality check November delivered to me: for centuries, America has been a country unsafe for men and women of color, the LGBTQ community, and women in general. I simply never acknowledged how deep my country’s hatred was for its female, black, Latinx, indigenous, Asian, Muslim, and/or queer inhabitants. I’d been living my life with the help of some privilege, which I hadn’t “seen” until November 9th, when everything became all too clear, all too late.

Once my thoughts turned toward the darker truths of America, and once I got a foothold on functioning despite my new understanding, I remembered this issue. I remembered we hadn’t yet set the contents. When I began looking at the stacks of submissions that had made it out of the slush pile and into the next round of selections, I suddenly “saw” truths in the words that were not initially there for me. These manuscripts were not about hope at all, but rather despair. Every poem, story, and essay I had initially read as optimistic, even reassuring, now hinted at trouble in a sinister kind of way.

I had thought the parents in Elizabeth Horneber’s essay, “American Pastime, 2016,” were just an older couple learning to reconnect, patching and fortifying their nest emptied of its children. Just two Americans late in life, forging new identities, based, perhaps, on America’s wild frontier myth. Now, though, the parents were our country’s two political parties, unwilling to bury the hatchet, one party licking its bloody wounds while the other raises the ax and prepares to throw again—all while the awakening children watch. In Annie Lighthart’s poem, “Public Singing,” I had pictured the voices of Americans raised in unison, singing a mending anthem, but now what I heard was the fear of a dark season, a voice resounding in the air, a voice no one wants to claim and no one recognizes. The burglar’s voice in Mark Brazaitis’s story, “The Thief,” was the vulnerable one society had pondered but conveniently dismissed or maybe stashed out of sight . . . until now, when its pitch was driving half the country to threaten, humiliate, slander, and deport it. Brazaitis’s story no longer read like a fable, a moral operating under the guise of speculative fiction, as it did a piece of nonfiction, the way metaphor sometimes represents an ugly truth better than factual details can. In fact, lots of these manuscripts have loosened metaphor from its figurative meaning; now, every possibility feels not even like probability, but rather like enduring reality.

We end with Michael Chin’s “Prophecy,” a story whose title and plot ask readers to ponder what would happen if a bully became the class president in junior high. Again, we’re just pretending here, right? We’re just imagining what that would be like, correct? But when I see the instructions children are supposed to follow in the event of a school shooter—run, hide, fight—I realize that we’ve let the bully into the classroom. We held the door open for him. We handed him the gun and the bullets. The last two words—what if?—no longer signify a game of make-believe. Instead what if this happens? reads a lot more like what’s next now that it has?

Along those lines, Ruth Goring’s concluding poem, “America, if,” doesn’t seem like conjecture either, but rather an eerie sci-fi look backward: When the world went dark in November 2016, what if we had fought harder? what if we had been ready? what if we hadn’t let them build all the walls?

It feels like such a small gesture afterward, but in the back matter of this issue, we offer an inspiring interview with Jaswinder Bolina, founder of Write the Power, and, also, in our regular column Bits & Pieces, some tips for becoming activists. I’m hoping, as Bolina hopes during his conversation with us, that if writers and readers use the power of words—if we read, write, speak, protest, rally, submit our work, run for office, call our senators, and thereby resist, resist, resist—then maybe, in the future, the outpouring of apocalyptic poems, stories, and essays we’re seeing now from our submitters might only represent the historical record of long-ago dark days rather than continuing topics of concern. Remember when America nearly lost it all? we will ask. Remember all those words we wrote back then? Thank god, we’ll hopefully say, we survived.

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