Radical Write

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Early on, editor Debra Busman sets the tone for Fire and Ink with this advice to teachers who want to bring social justice into the college classroom:

You gotta be ready for stories of border crossings, coyotes and cops, night beating, wife beatings, baby beatings, date rapes, gang rapes, daddy rapes, gunshots and chemo, pesticides, HIV, AZT, protease inhibitors, and the pink-cheeked 19-year-old who says: “Hey, next Tuesday I’ll have five years clean and sober; can we have a cake in class?”

For Busman and her co-editors, who teach creative writing and social action at California State University Monterey Bay, everyone has a story to tell, from college students to prisoners on death row. Dominated by minority writers, Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing is a collection of more than 100 poems, short stories, essays and interviews.

Several authors in Fire and Ink embrace slang and other languages. The technique celebrates heritage and indicts standard English as a tool of oppression. In “Persimmons,” Li-Young Lee recounts a Chinese-American child’s confusion over English words with similar sounds. In an essay, June Jordan recounts her experiment in teaching a college course in black English. When the police kill the brother of one of her students, the class complains to police in black English, though they know it will undermine their cause:

“YOU COPS! WE THE BROTHER AND SISTER OF WILLIE JORDAN, A FELLOW STONY BROOK STUDENT WHO THE BROTHER OF THE DEAD REGGIE JORDAN. REGGIE, LIKE MANY BROTHER AND SISTER, HE A VICTIM
OF BRUTAL RACIST POLICE, OCTOBER 25, 1984.”

In nearly every piece, personal is political. Japanese-Americans ponder the legacy of interment camps. Soldiers and civilians wrestle with the horrors of war from Vietnam to Iraq. The poet Aya de León imagines the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a woman raped by an American stepfather. Another strain of stories deals with childhood pain and disillusionment. Fathers abuse daughters. Parents and teachers shame their gay and lesbian children. In Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson,” poor African-American kids visit FAO Schwartz, where toys cost more than their families spend on food for a year. Near the end, the narrator wonders: “Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1,000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain’t in on it?”

As a themed anthology, Fire and Ink suffers from repetitiousness when read cover to cover. Most poems and prose are written in the first person. Many concern an episode that culminates in epiphany. While there are moments of levity and introspection, much of the emotional palette tends toward anger and frustration.

Still, Fire and Ink does assemble voices that chronicle, challenge and resist the lingering injustices in America. There is no shortage of victims, but the message is not despair or hopelessness. Instead, the book celebrates a genre of writers who document injustice and imagine a future that embraces tolerance, peace and love. These authors believe literature has the power to save lives—and maybe the world.

Keith Meatto is a fiction writer based in New York. He’s currently working on a collection of short stories.