With the election four months behind us and enduring action in the protest realm, you might say nonstop aggravation and disruption is the new contemporary norm, at least in liberal New England. As such, along with demonstrations on the ground, there is also an uptick in the number of rebellious art events, from club venues to bookstores.
Enter Carissa Halston and Randolph Pfaff of the Boston-based Aforementioned Productions. Playing their part in the resistance, they convinced their allies at Brookline Booksmith to open their doors overnight, so they can join a chorus in reading from the Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here. The satirical dart about fascism in the United States has grown quite popular of late, and in the spirit of bringing the movement against authoritarianism out of the living room and into public spaces, Aforementioned is organizing an all-nighter with “subversive classic literature” plus free coffee, pizza, wine, and cupcakes” that will start in March and end in April.
We asked Aforementioned co-founder Halston about how such a badass event came to happen here.
What is Aforementioned Productions?
Aforementioned Productions is a small press and theatre company. We publish collections of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, as well as a literary journal, apt. We also produce live events. Last November, we produced Nassim Soleimanpour’s experimental play White Rabbit Red Rabbit at OBERON. And for nearly five years, I hosted and curated Literary Firsts, a quarterly reading series that ran [from] 2010 [to] 2014 at Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge.
Does your organization think the United States is headed toward fascism?
Our organization doesn’t think anything, insofar as it isn’t a person. But the person who runs our organization is me, and I think the new administration is threatening Americans’ First Amendment rights.
Within a week of the inauguration, there was a gag order affecting all staff of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of the Interior (which oversees the National Park Service), the Department of Transportation, and the National Institutes of Health. The work done in those departments and agencies directly affects the public, which means a gag order stops these employees from talking to the people they directly serve (a violation of freedom of speech).
The current press secretary is telling journalists what they should write about (a violation of freedom of the press).
Two executive orders have been signed banning travelers from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, and making re-entry into the United States for Muslim citizens, green-card-holders, and residents increasingly difficult (a violation of freedom of/from religion).
And in North Dakota, where protesting had been successful in blocking work on the Dakota Access Pipeline (which Donald Trump had invested in as a private citizen), state legislators introduced a bill that would allow drivers to run over protesters obstructing a highway as long as the drivers did so “accidentally,” and another that would sentence protesters at private facilities with up to 30 days in prison, and still another that would punish protesters who cause $1,000 in economic harm with five years in prison and a $10,000 fine (a violation of freedom of assembly).
Fascists don’t want an educated public willing to voice dissent. Removing our First Amendment rights diminishes the power we have to gather together and speak out against our officials’ actions and proposed legislation. But considering the number of hate crimes that have been committed since the election, I’d say the threat of fascism in the US has exceeded the administration’s reach. It’s also being taken up and lauded by their supporters. We’re not just heading toward fascism—in many parts of the country, we’re already there.
Why do you all believe a marathon public reading is an effective protest against authoritarianism?
In an age that’s increasingly anti-intellectual, the study of history is gravely necessary, and this novel reminds us that this threat has come before. But, now, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know how World War II ended. We know Nazis killed over 11 million people in the Holocaust. We know what’s possible when people are led by prejudice and fear. While that isn’t necessarily the same as knowing precisely what we’re currently up against, revisiting the details from that era reinforces the need to fight.
Further, the reading itself is a public gathering, and public gatherings can be powerful, especially in response to the rallies Trump has said he wants to hold every two weeks. The violence, and threats of violence, at those rallies is well documented, is actively encouraged by the gathering itself—people feel emboldened to act when they’re among like-minded people, especially in a crowd. But I believe that call to action can work for us in the fight against their violence. Just getting together to stand for peaceful action is itself an effective protest.
Also, and I can’t emphasize this enough, we place so much value in stories. And we do so across party lines. Two easy examples: “It’s good guys with guns vs. bad guys with guns” is a story. “The people united can never be defeated” is a story. I’m obviously biased in this sense because I’m a fiction writer, but novels are hyper-nuanced stories. There are stories within stories in It Can’t Happen Here. Looking at the life of Doremus Jessup, he’s a newspaperman who gets up in the middle of the night and reads after his wife thinks he’s gone to sleep. He’s an aging New Englander with a clutch of children in various stages of adulthood, and he’s dealing with the question of what he can give them to assure their safety once he’s gone. And, of course, there’s also the political story, a delightfully smart satire that parallels the current danger we’re facing.
Being in a room of people who are worried about the same things you are, communing with them while we all reflect on this familiar story (and the familiar stories within that story), can reach an audience personally in a way that straight rhetoric sometimes can’t.
Do writers have a special role to play in defense of democracy?
The tenets of democracy speak directly to freedom, but US laws and legal documents have often been written (or interpreted) according to a privileged bias, so, for every right and civil liberty we’ve got, there have been at least two amendments that had to be introduced later to make it clear that women and people of color are also entitled to that basic human right. To that end, in any country where democracy is touted as the foundation of society, the writers of that country need to chronicle the many ways democracy fails. Who democracy fails and how often and why. It’s deadly important information, especially when democracy fails so many people on a regular basis.
There are dozens of problems inherent in capitalism, but since it’s the system we have, our best and brightest writers need to shape narratives that reveal the dangerous byproducts of that system. And let me be clear, I’m not talking about immigrants taking American jobs, and I’m not talking about “other people’s babies.” I’m talking about xenophobia and homophobia and misogyny and how they’ve affected the US for centuries. As soon as we accept that, which is not the same as tolerating that some people believe that discrimination exists while others would prefer we all just agreed to disagree, but once we accept that discrimination is dangerous—once those highly valued stories get under our skin—we can then start working toward solutions. And it’s up to writers to help us accomplish both.
What advice would you give readers that would like to organize a similar marathon reading in their city or town?
Get permission to read the work in question in-full as an event. I wasn’t sure who held the rights for It Can’t Happen Here, so I contacted the Director of the Sinclair Lewis Society, Dr. Sally Parry, who was immensely helpful and gave me the name of the literary agency that handles Lewis’s estate. Also, I’m incredibly lucky to be part of Boston’s supportive literary community, and so, I’ve been able to reach out to so many of my friends (writers, editors, actors, scholars, historians, booksellers, etc.), and as a result, I’ve got a great, varied line-up of readers for the event. And I’m over the moon that we’re getting to have this event at Brookline Booksmith, because their staff has been so kind, especially in agreeing to stay open overnight to host us for the reading. Plus, our mutual enthusiasm for this event has fueled it steadily along.
So, the short version regarding advice is: get permission and ask enthusiastic friends if they want to help you. And it never hurts to know some writers who are willing to read late into the night.
DigBoston is a media sponsor of the Aforementioned Productions reading of It Can’t Happen Here.
AFOREMENTIONED PRODUCTIONS PRESENTS A MARATHON READING OF ‘IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE.’ FRI MARCH 31 – SAT APRIL 1. BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH, BROOKLINE. AFOREMENTIONEDPRODUCTIONS.COM.