Freedom To Write - Emerging Voices Essay - Chinyere Nwodim

Every year, we ask our five Emerging Voices Fellows to answer the question, "What does Freedom to Write mean to you?" Over the next five weeks, each of our Fellows will talk about the role that freedom of expression, the keystone of PEN Center USA's mission, has played in their lives as writers, readers, and literary citizens.

Freedom. For a long time, I associated the word with physically being unshackled and unrestrained. For a long time, it held no real value because I didn’t understand what it cost to be free. I didn’t realize that freedom needed to be pushed, stretched, and exercised or it would atrophy like an unused muscle.

Over the last few months, more and more people have begun to realize that freedom is not a given—even in a “free society.” The United States, in its relative youth as a country, has not been subject to wild swings of political movements, vacillating, like some other nations, between dictators and democracy. The will of the people has endured. Or rather, the will of the most willful people has endured. Over the past two centuries, we as a nation have been pushed and dragged by unrelenting and impassioned marginalized groups towards extending the promises of our constitution to women and ethnic minorities. It did not come easy, and most certainly has not been fully realized. Yet, while most people at least pay lip service to the idea of equality between genders and races, many of us still openly question which rights should be afforded to the LGBTQI community or practitioners of non-Judeo-Christian faiths. We hold our own freedoms dear, while rationalizing away the rights of others.

Some of us see this clearly. For others, it is more opaque. The complex web of political and social influences can push us to choose a side in a war we didn’t know was being fought. Then nature kicks in. Our allegiances to family, community, state, and nation become more important than our identity as humans, our compassion for each other.

Story is one of the most effective ways to break through these barriers. Humans have no defense against story. Whether through fiction, poetry, or journalism, the ideas seep into your skull, crawl through your armor, and nestle deep in your psyche. Story helps to us to see ourselves in others. It restores humanity—to us and to people who are vastly different from us.

But is that enough? For a while I thought it was. I thought it was enough that I was free to read about people I didn’t know, immerse myself in cultures I knew nothing of for a few hours and then slide those books back onto the shelf, deeply satisfied with having “been exposed” to something new.

But freedom means something different now. Freedom to read and write means freedom to make choices. About who you are, what you want, who you love, and how you live. It also means the freedom to fight for others to have those same choices. Especially when that other doesn’t look like you, speak like you, or pray like you. Every progressive idea that we’re fighting for—race and gender equality, gay rights, religious tolerance—was once considered dangerously radical. The very fabric of society was to be ruined if women could vote, or if blacks could read, or if gays could get married. Even now as we fight to maintain those rights, there are forces at every level straining to quiet the malcontents, the whistleblowers, and the rabble-rousers who have dared to weave new ideas into the social consciousness. It is now and always will be up to us, as individuals, as artists, as citizens to push back against those forces, with our voices, our actions, and our pens.

Chinyere Nwodim was raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and attended Johns Hopkins University where she received a bachelor’s degree in biology and history of science. In addition to writing, she works in development at a regional community health center serving low-income populations in Los Angeles and Orange County. Chinyere currently lives in Los Angeles and is working on a short story collection.