Early on November 8, I cast my vote for Hillary Clinton for US president at my son’s school. The school was closed for the day and my children were at home. Then, the wait began. The writer Chang-rae Lee was doing a reading that night on my campus. It was a pleasant night and as the two of us walked to the venue for the reading, Lee expressed some disquiet. He feared that Donald Trump might just win. I tried to calm him, telling him that it was unthinkable. We will raise a toast when Florida is called for Clinton tonight, I said.
There was no toast that night, only tears. But the morning after, I felt even worse.
Truth be told, I remembered the French soldiers during the First World War bleating like sheep in protest as they marched past the generals.
I had read about the soldiers in an essay by Geoff Dyer. The event described took place during the early months of 1917. The French regiments had borne the brunt of the destruction: thousands mowed down each day by German machine-guns, poor food and unremitting war without leave for three years. The French replacements marching to the front were baa-ing because they were being led like lambs to the slaughter.
But we were not there yet, I thought – although, had we not acted like sheep in choosing Trump? Here is my response to Trump’s election in pictures from my notebook.
11/9 and 9/11
Over the years I have maintained a habit of pasting – in small notebooks stacked on my bookshelf – cuttings from newspapers. These cuttings offer small stories that emerge in the margins of large events. Here’s one from the Washington Post; it appeared two days after the September 11 attacks in 2001, when passenger airlines hijacked by Al Qaeda terrorists were flown into the World Trade Centre buildings and the Pentagon in the US. The report quoted a “forensic suicide expert” who was attempting to explain why some people had chosen to leap out of the burning buildings when the planes hit.
In a class I was teaching on the day the election results came out, I discussed this cutting. What was my point?
My students were very young when the September 11 attacks took place, but I was trying to tell them that yes, 11/9 this year felt very much like 9/11.
Did I think that many voters in white America had committed suicide and that we should understand and empathise with their reasons? I do not think my thoughts extended that far. No, at that time, in that unnameable place of plain, incomprehensible grief, I was asking my students to find stories that would help them find their way out of the dark.
Here’s another cutting from even earlier – December 1999 – a book review of a memoir written by a gay Holocaust survivor, Gad Beck’s An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin. I had forgotten about it, I found it while looking for a different cutting, one about the inhabitants of a particular village in France forgetting the hangings and killings at the hands of the SS commandos. (The villagers now remember instead, with the sort of logic that dreams impose on us, the Germans stealing all the cherries from the town’s trees.) I did not find that cutting but discovered the one below and it spoke to me. It made me wonder whether, with half of the voters rejecting our idea of America in favour of the one touted by a racist and misogynist demagogue, the rest of us were now going to grow up and what it would mean to do so.
On Instagram, on November 9, writer Hanya Yanagihara posted a photograph from the Second World War. It showed people in tears, but we did not immediately know the source of their suffering. I liked this element of uncertainty about the image.
The reason for those tears has been surmised and refuted over the years, but the real point of the photograph, as Yanagihara saw it – and I did too most poignantly on that day – was that it showed the faces of people who had “realised that their country was forever changed.”
As I looked again at the picture that Yanagihara had posted, I thought of India – about Independence and the horrors of the Partition. About 12-14 million people were displaced when India and Pakistan were separated, leading to the largest migration in recorded history. I thought of the images that we had from that terrible time. For instance, Margaret Bourke-White had taken pictures of the columns of migrants streaming across the new border or huddled in camps. I posted one of those pictures on Twitter and then on Instagram.
I also thought of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his landslide victory in 2014. Earlier, under his rule as chief minister, more than 2,000 Muslims had been slaughtered in Gujarat during the 2002 communal riots.Muslim women had been raped, and children, even infants, killed. Did those who had opposed the violence and the killings – and these couldn’t have been Muslims alone – feel that they had lost their country when they heard the news of Modi’s election?
At 11.29 am on November 9, the American Civil Liberties Union sent out the following tweet:
A couple days later, the ACLU placed a fiery full-page ad in the New York Times addressed to Trump. It promised that if Trump did not “reverse course” he would have to contend with “the full firepower of the ACLU.” In the week following the election, the organisation received an unprecedented $7.2 million from 1,20,000 individual donations.
On November 16, at the National Book Foundation’s award ceremony, the poet ToiDerricotte provided a mantra for creative existence in this moment by saying, “Joy is a sign of resistance.” Yes, and what I have especially appreciated is when there has also been joy in resistance. Here’s an example: I was happy to learn of all the people who have donated to Planned Parenthood on behalf of Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Planned Parenthood will be sending a lot of thank you notes to Pence for all the donations made in his honour. Pence has long opposed the organisation and is also against abortion.
Such gestures open space and I, for my part, want to say: “Tell me where your camps are, I want to bring you water and sandwiches.” Talking of sandwiches, I have been touched by what I have seen in my own immediate community, the rallying around with friends and neighbors over shared meals. I have been grateful also for the ways in which teachers in schools as well as colleges and universities have stressed the idea of inclusion and diversity in their classes – the feeling of warmth and solidarity shared by people that are threatened by what the election has unleashed.
It is a war, of course. Let me cite just one incident which you, dear reader, can then multiply a thousand-fold. A man in Columbus, Ohio recently approached a Muslim woman and her family while their car was stopped at a traffic signal. According to the New York Times, the man banged on the car, shouted obscenities, took photographs of the children and told the woman that she didn’t belong in this country. Against the propaganda that results in such acts of bigotry, what can we say or do?
A critical response: In Pearl, Mississipi and other places in the country, an activist group named For Freedoms put up a billboard that radically reframes Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” The photograph used on the billboard, for which the slogan reads like a caption, is a famous civil rights-era photo of the armed state troopers stopping – before brutally assaulting – nonviolent protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965 – a day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”. The billboard was later covered.
Can we return for a minute to Modi? His introduction of a “demonestisation” plan invalidating high-currency notes, a populist measure, hasty and ill-conceived, with the prime minister openly gloating about the chaos this has caused. The sudden absence of cash has sent the rural economy into cardiac arrest. One of the most moving stories I read about the aftermath was filed from a village in Telegana by Rahul M.
The story is about a debt-ridden farmer, Varda Balayya, who wanted to sell his land to repay his debts. But after the demonetisation was announced on November 8, the potential buyer backed off and Balayya felt his chances closing. His debts were accumulating, he had met with failure, money was needed for his daughter’s marriage as well as education.
One week after Modi’s demonetisation scheme was put into effect, Balayya went to his farm and sprayed pesticide over the soya bean he had planted and then sacrificed a chicken in his field. He cooked the chicken that night – a rare, festive meal, unaffordable on ordinary days – and fed his family. Everyone who ate the chicken curry died because, unknown to them, Balayya had mixed pesticide pellets in the food. Ballaya’s father was the first to show the symptoms, and before long, Ballaya, his wife, and their son were all sick. Ballaya and his father died; Ballaya’s wife and son are in hospital. The two who didn’t suffer from the poisoned food were Ballaya’s daughter and the aged grandmother. They are vegetarian.
When I was in school in Patna, our prescribed reading would always include stories by Munshi Premchand, about debt-ridden farmers in a feudal, casteist society. When I read Rahul M’s story, I felt that if Premchand were alive today, he would be writing stories about the lives of Ballaya’s family members, who are pictured below.
One more cutting – this one is from about a decade ago, from the New York Times, a tribute to still-photographer Jerome Liebling, mentor to younger documentarians like Ken Burns. I include it here so that we know what we are to look for: “go figure out where the pain was, to show things that people wouldn’t see unless I was showing them.”
I’m thinking of the millions of Americans who will lose health care, the families that will be broken up from deportations, the growing number of people who are already the victims of hate attacks, all those who voted for the future that was promised them, a future which, once again, will be denied to them. Various people have rightly stressed in the days after the election that we must be kind to each other. We must be loving. We must be caring. I agree but I also know that one of the best ways to go about doing this is to go into places one ordinarily wouldn’t go and ask a simple question: “What’s your story?”
Amitava Kumar is a writer who teaches English at Vassar College in New York. His latest book, The Lovers: A Novel, will be published by Aleph Book Company next year.