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.
Editor of The Polity of Literature
When a school is too punishing and racist to teach a child, how will he learn to read and write? Harry Gamboa Jr. shows us how.
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.
The 27th piece in the Polity of Literature series proposes that we leave the drama of “speech versus writing” behind and speak of an “imaginary politics” in reading and writing.
The 26th piece in the Polity of Literature series describes an extensive archive of 1970s and ’80s gay poetry collected by literary activist Charles Shively.
The 25th piece in the Polity of Literature series looks at the special features the comics form brings to politics, and the uses various North American countercultures have made of them.
The 24th piece in the Polity of Literature series unpacks the implications of reading and writing literature that brings us into the contentious plurality of politics.
The 23rd piece in the Polity of Literature series considers which metaphors are best-suited to the writing and reading of fan fiction.
This addendum to the Polity of Literature series offers a list of physical and digital safety considerations for writers who plan to report on the U.S. 2021 Presidential Inauguration.
The 22nd piece in the Polity of Literature series maps a detailed geography of “tactics” that readers use to convert the text through reading.
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.
The 20th piece in the Polity of Literature series tells the story of rescuing books lost in the rubble of bombing raids in Damascus.
The 19th piece in the Polity of Literature series tells the story of one neighbourhood’s effort to make its own reading room when the local library branch closed.
The 18th piece in the Polity of Literature series describes the range of tools Kathy Acker used to work freely outside the literary establishment.
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.
The 16th piece in the Polity of Literature series contemplates Arendt’s idea of a plurality that can be enacted in the agora of a written text or in the public square.
The 15th piece in the Polity of Literature series tells, in video, the story of Muhammed, a deaf, mute boy who experienced the Syrian war.
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.
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.
The 13th piece in the Polity of Literature describes the illustrator’s process in making a graphic novel about Hannah Arendt’s life and work.
The 12th piece in the Polity of Literature series is an excerpt from The Faces of Justice (1961), a description of trial court procedures observed with the writer’s fierce sense of justice.
The 11th piece in the Polity of Literature series looks at the various rules set by courts and immigration authorities, from the perspectives of artists working to critique those systems.
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.
This addendum to the 10th piece in the Polity of Literature series describes the unique challenges of queer asylum seekers facing adjudicators skeptical of their credibility.
The 10th piece in the Polity of Literature series studies the encounter of the asylum seeker with the host nation, and the processes that determine the refugee’s legal fate.
This addendum to the 8th and 9th pieces in the Polity of Literature links to Megan K. Stack’s profile of Behrouz Boochani who wrote from Australia’s Manus asylum facility.
The 9th piece in the Polity of Literature series reports on the power of writing to heal human bonds ravaged by the inhumane conditions of asylum detention.
The 8th piece in the Polity of Literature series surveys a collection of prison books—from the ancient Greeks to Civil Rights leaders and the incarcerated refugees of today.
The 7th piece in the Polity of Literature series recalls the work of Angela Davis and Bettina Aptheker reading and writing together—one in prison, the other free.
This addendum to the 7th piece in the Polity of Literature series republishes the preface to a collection of texts by writers inside and outside of prison, edited by Angela Davis and Bettina Aptheker.
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 5th piece in the Polity of Literature series introduces over 2,000 works held in the online archive—many unread, unedited, and free of intervention by publishers.
The 4th piece in the Polity of Literature series invites prisoners to tell about the books they read, how they got them, and what reading means to them.
The 3rd piece in the Polity of Literature series covers the 2020 trials of sixteen people charged with threatening to overthrow the Turkish state in 2013.
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.
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.