Polity of Literature

Polity of Literature

This series asks how writing and reading can become the site of politics, especially for those excluded from state politics (such as prisoners, refugees, or children).

This project of ArtsEverywhere was developed in response to the widespread failure of nation-states to provide citizenship for those who need it most. Across the globe, in myriad differing circumstances, oppressed ethnic and religious groups, poor people, economic migrants, and those displaced by war find themselves unwelcome in both the nations they come from and the nations to which they flee. Borders are closing. Those crossing them are criminalized. The human need for inclusion and rights inside a jurisprudence that casts us all as equals goes unmet. At the same time, within the borders of nation-states, growing numbers of similarly disadvantaged people lose their rights as citizens every day, when they’re arrested and imprisoned. Despite the infinite variety of these lives, their unique backgrounds and possible futures, the state’s response has become uniform—to withhold citizenship and the rights that go with it. As Hannah Arendt commented when facing her own statelessness, “The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion—formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities—but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever.” Rejected by the state, the displaced today fall back on the communities that have survived their long journeys and hardships, and, with them, shape what is called a “profane citizenship,” independent of nations.

As the project’s opening essay, “Potatoes or Rice?“, observes, “Dehumanized, often by the state, no one simply stops being human—they find profane sites for their humanity, a realm for their politics that their enemies cannot destroy. Often it’s in their religion, their family, gangs, a neighborhood, or a declaration of war. In my case it was in literature.” The author is an American novelist, exiled in the Netherlands, who is prevented from returning to the U.S. by an unlawful indictment that threatens his human rights. His essay functions as our starting point for examining the ways that literature—the political space of writing and reading—can host the gathering of equals that Aristotle calls a “polity,” and grant agency and belonging to the stateless, incarcerated, or displaced.

“Potatoes or Rice?” concludes with a series of questions that ArtsEverywhere will pursue as the project unfolds: “What keeps the polity of literature alive? Lacking the robust physical immediacy that is so useful for politics, what will help literature fully host its contentious plurality of readers and writers? How can we keep the discourse open and ensure that power never congeals in the hands of this-or-that few? How can we leave behind our inequalities—the differences that we are born with—so that they never become credentials for the right to be heard? How can we bring the faces and voices of those in this plurality into view, even in a disembodied realm? How can our bodies—and our lived, collective “activity of thinking”—come fully into literature? And, how can we extend the reach of this polity? Can our literary selves become legible within legal systems or state bureaucracies? Will the stories that we tell person-to-person regain their power despite digital policing? Can literature’s “truth” be aligned with, or become part of a broader community of truths, as in story-telling cultures or indigenous traditions of “circle convening” justice? How will the world rush back in to find us, and recognize our citizenship in the stories that we share, in how we read and write?”

“The Polity of Literature” proposed in “Potatoes or Rice?” is both a lived experience and a bold provocation, a thing so unlikely-seeming it jars our sense of the possible. ArtsEverywhere hopes to inspect both of these aspects—documenting the quotidian encounters that stateless people have with the political space of reading and writing, while also reaching for an impossible imaginary, a vision that jumps the narrow track of pragmatism to make us think and take action in the realm of the unknown—and change our collective future.

Matthew Stadler
Editor of The Polity of Literature

Escaping Moria

Escaping Moria

Karima Qias was seventeen years old when her family arrived at the Moria refugee camp, on Lesvos Island, Greece. She knew immediately that they had to get out to survive, and this is how they did it.

Wood Sprites

Wood Sprites

The 21st piece in the Polity of Literature series, written in prison, shows us the power of writing and reading to erode, if not undo, the state’s intentional injustice.

Building the Parallel Polis

Building the Parallel Polis

The 17th piece in the Polity of Literature series looks at two political models that resist oppressive systems and offer possibilities for the future emergence of a polity of literature.

Plaza Girls — a diary

Plaza Girls — a diary

In this addendum to the 14th piece in the Polity of Literature series documents a lived, embodied experience of a polity of literature in refugee camps in Greece.

Refugee Zines

Refugee Zines

The 14th piece in the Polity of Literature series shares examples of zine-making in refugee camps in Uganda and Greece, and by exiled Bangladeshi and Iranian writers in Scandinavia.

Werkinstructie 2019/17 from the Dutch IND

Werkinstructie 2019/17 from the Dutch IND

This supplement to the 10th and 11th pieces in the Polity of Literature series contains the Dutch Werkinstructie, the primary document of guidelines for decision-making by Immigration & Naturalization Department interviewers of LGBTQ asylum seekers.

The Zines of Terezín

The Zines of Terezín

The 6th piece in the Polity of Literature series looks at the zines and communities of resistance created by resourceful children in the Nazi’s horrific Terezín ghetto.

The Writer’s Paradox

The Writer’s Paradox

The second piece in the Polity of Literature series was written from a Turkish prison, smuggled out by the writer’s lawyer, and published in multiple languages.

Potatoes or Rice?

Potatoes or Rice?

The first piece in the Polity of Literature series examines the ways that literature—the political space of writing and reading—can host the gathering of equals that Hannah Arendt calls a “polity,” and grant agency and belonging to the stateless, incarcerated, or displaced.

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