Writers Respond: Inauguration Essays

On the eve of the inauguration, we asked writers and journalists to share short essays of strength, hope, reflection, and resistance. These essays are part of a series that demonstrates PEN Center USA's continued efforts to defend freedom of expression.

Natashia Deón


For almost two decades, I have been a professional defender. As human beings, our capacity to damage and deceive one another still astounds me. And the ones of us with integrity, who are acutely aware of such (and have been for some time), have stood in the gap as protectors trying to hide the sharp edges of these realities from those who thought they were secure here. Or, we’ve taken the brunt of the blows. I am also a Black woman.

And now, many more of us are aware and this saddens me. Not the awareness but because no one who’s suffering wants to give their disease to the people they love so that those people can suffer, too, and at last understand. Really understand. I would have rather shielded the harshness and fixed it first with the help of the half-sleeping, naïve—like children. I am a mother.

Yet, here we are.

And now, many more of us can intimately answer the question, “Why are those people so angry? Why are they burning down their own neighborhoods? Why are they marching? Why don’t they just get a job?”

We know it.

We know it.

We know it…


Not just in theory. We’re all in. We’re grown-ups. And it’s uneasy.

So now we need to be sure that we are the heroes we’ve been waiting for. Let’s be lovers.

Because in that, there’s hope. Active hope is active love. The kind that causes us to stand for each other, together, for protection and, above all, for strategy. Because the war is made up of small battles on the ground every day. Of showing up for each other in meaningful ways. Because the answers have never been only in the hands of politicians or a chosen few, but in ours. Because it’s in our pens, our unity—which doesn’t mean we have to be the same in thought or action—but we have to be actively decided in our daily lives. Because there is where our power has always been.

I have hope that, in this great awakening, we will at last tap into what so many writers talk about—what it means to human—then BE the human you are called to be.

Natashia Deón is a 2017 NAACP Image Award Nominee and author of the critically-acclaimed novel, GRACE (Counterpoint Press), which was named a New York Times and Kirkus Review Best Book of 2016. A practicing attorney, law professor, and creator of the popular L.A.-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit, Deón is the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship. Her writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, Buzzfeed, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, and other places.


Chiwan Choi

It Begins with No

This is a time for resistance. That’s what I hear these days. (Fact: it always was.)

So what does this resistance look like? Specifically, as a writer and publisher, what does it look like to me?

Resistance always begins with NO. No to tyrants. No to registries. No to surrender. We march. We protest. We sit in. We scream. We study and vote and argue and gather and battle.

Specifically for me, as a writer and as a small publisher, I have to say no in this world in which I work and live.

It’s not enough to just make art. That time has passed. We have to force accountability in whatever world we live in daily, which for me is the publishing world. We are disgusted when Simon & Schuster imprints shell out six figures for Milo Yiannopoulos’s hate speech (except those who mistakenly think this is freedom of speech issue).

But so much of that goes on daily unnoticed in the indie lit world, in the poetry world, and even in the resistance itself. A Writers Resist event includes a person who has compared literary activists to ISIS. An editor brings some of the best writers in the country together…and sets up a reading at a place famous for stealing public money and for being sued for racist practices.

Just because you write poems or books, it doesn’t mean you’re resisting. Just because you own a bookstore, it doesn’t mean you aren’t the source of exclusion and erasure. And running a publishing company doesn’t absolve you from predatory and discriminatory behavior.

No is a difficult and complicated word. But resistance begins with no. And like everything that begins, it begins in the places where we live and work.

Chiwan Choi is the author of 3 collections of poetry, The Flood (Tía Chucha Press, 2010), Abductions (Writ Large Press, 2012), and The Yellow House (CCM, 2017). He wrote, presented, and destroyed the novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015. Chiwan is a partner at Writ Large Press, a downtown Los Angeles based indie publisher, focused on using literary arts to resist, disrupt, and transgress.


Alex Espinoza

One of the first things I did when Donald J. Trump announced he would be running for president, and after he famously bashed Mexican immigrants by calling us rapists and murderers, was to post a long tirade on Facebook. I included several pictures of my father in that post, and I talked about his sacrifice and determination, about how all the work he endured led him to become an alcoholic, and how he died alone beside a set of railroad tracks one evening back in 1989. I guess I could say that the one “bright spot” (there aren’t many, so I’m going to cling to what I can here) to come out of the racism and xenophobia coloring this candidate’s entire platform is that I have found a new appreciation for the struggles and sacrifices my father put himself through for me. I can say that nothing else has ever made me feel closer to him than this very moment in my short and uneventful life. Walls can’t hold a people back who have revolution in their blood. Walls can’t hold a people back whose dreams and hopes are so powerful, so urgent, that they’re willing to sacrifice what little they have so that their children can soar above the poverty and hopelessness that tethers them to the ground. Nothing has ever held my people back, I often catch myself thinking. Certainly not this.

Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico and earned an MFA from UC Irvine’s Program in Writing. His first novel Still Water Saints was published by Random House in 2007 and was released simultaneously in Spanish under the title Los Santos de Agua Mansa, California. Random House also published his second novel The Five Acts of Diego León in 2013. Alex has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Huizache, The Southern California Review, the American Book Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, and NPR’s All Things Considered.


Litsa Dremousis

I come from a very large, Greek-American family. Most of us are inclusive in life and in our politics. As a whole, we're a loving, courageous, welcoming group. My generation won the Chronological Lottery and grew up affluent in the U.S. Many of our forebears lived under Nazi occupation in Greece and then through the subsequent Greek civil war. My paternal grandfather was in the Greek resistance and fought Nazis and my paternal grandmother died at 26 under Nazi occupation when my dad was six. We don't know where her remains lie; just that they were tossed into an unmarked mass grave. We don't even know her birthday because the Nazis burned the town's records. 

Yet somehow, I have at least five family members who voted for DJT. They know history, they have graduate degrees, they have means. They know I've been disabled by Myalgic Encephalomyelitis for 25 years and that one of our cousins is wheelchair-bound because of Multiple Sclerosis. Through us, they've witnessed how even highly accomplished disabled persons are treated differently. I believe they would take a bullet for either of us; they couldn't, however, change their political allegiance.

I started writing and calling my Congressional representatives when I was 14 and have done so my entire live. I've marched for Black Lives Matter and Seattle Stands with Standing Rock on my crutches. I was a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate in my twenties and began volunteering for the LGBTQ community in 1994. I know how to fight smart and fight hard. Now I actively resist DJT and his supporters in Congress, for obvious moral and sociopolitical reasons and because I love my young nephew so much. Literally and metaphorically, he deserves the safest possible climate. I will ALWAYS love those in my family who voted for DJT. Always. But I don't see them the same way. They know this. And they no longer see me the same way. They think I'm "making too big of a deal of it" and that I'm "not giving him a chance.” I'm undeterred. But my heart is broken in places I thought would always remain intact. 

I continue to study and learn from those who fought harder battles and won. I cry (sob, some days) then keep at it. But I know my relationship with some of my family is irrevocably altered. I never thought an election could do that to us.

Litsa Dremousis is the author of Altitude Sickness (Future Tense Books). Seattle Metropolitan Magazine named it one of the all-time "20 Books Every Seattleite Must Read". She is an essayist with The Washington Post and her work appears in myriad publications.


Bill Minutaglio

The writer Molly Ivins was once listening to an Attila the Hun blowhard thundering at a national political convention and trying to scare his audience into thinking the nation was on a highway to hell because of humanistic public policies. (Sound familiar?)

Afterward, Molly remarked that his speech "probably sounded better in the original German." Another time, she was listening to a different braying politico. Molly said, "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day." (She also once observed that Arnold Schwarzenegger looked like a condom stuffed with walnuts.) More than ever, one of the weapons, maybe the armor, will have to be wicked humor. Most of all, it's also high time to revisit the sage, front-line plan laid down by the godfather of modern investigative journalism in the U.S.—I.F. Stone. Through the dark 1950s, Izzy was on a lonely island, speaking truth to power at moments eerily reminiscent to whatever the hell is happening now. He saw it all: Fear-mongering. Accusations that he was peddling fake news. Red-faced hate. (Sound familiar?) In time, Stone arrived at a famous conclusion—that all governments lie.

And that they will certainly lie about the people who are exposing their lies.

So, you would think Stone must have also fallen in the drowning pool of cynicism. But he preferred to be a healthy skeptic, hoping that reason and empathy would prevail. And he wasn't just idly waiting for some rising tide to come along, some movement he'd wade into and be carried along by. He saw himself in a way that might provide the guiding words for Now: "In the worst days of the witch hunt and cold war, I felt like a guerrilla warrior swooping down in surprise attack on a stuffy bureaucracy where it least expected independent inquiry." Everyone, anyone, can do that. It takes many forms. As I write this, my wife and daughter are preparing to travel from different cities so they can converge on the Women's March on Washington. They'll be fighting and they'll keep smiling.

Bill Minutaglio wrote the original magazine story about The Dallas Buyers Club that sparked the interest of filmmakers. His book City on Fire, about the greatest man-made disaster in American history, was named that book one of the "Greatest Survival Tales" ever written by Esquire magazine. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Outside, Newsweek, Texas Monthly, The Washington Post, The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientist, and The Guardian, among others, and he has been a featured guest on “The Today Show,” NPR's Fresh Air, CNN, and the BBC. With coauthor Steven L. Davis, he was the winner of a PEN Center USA Literary Award for Research Nonfiction for Dallas 1963. He is a Clinical Professor of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, where he received The Outstanding Teacher Award.


Sam Quinones

On Inauguration Day, my thoughts will be with Americans who saw Donald Trump as a way forward from years of economic catastrophe in their lives.

I’ll be hoping he becomes the leader they believe him to be.

I’ll be waiting to see how–whether—he addresses their concerns, which I believe have been ignored for a long time, and with great distress to the community fabric of our country. I’ll be hoping that his administration will hear them and fulfill the promises made to attack, with the seriousness and maturity required of the world’s leader, the complicated factors that have so negatively affected them; that he will enact legitimate policies to reverse or soften, insofar as the government can, these effects.

I’ll be hoping that they also keep in mind that a lot of Americans need to be heard; that many of our countrymen and women have a much longer history of not being heard, and of confronting economic catastrophe or other impediments to a fulfilled life. And that they’ll remember that there has to be more that unites than divides us if we hope to survive as a republic.

With that survival in mind, I also hope all Americans will commemorate the day by permanently disconnecting from their lives all 24-hour cable news—a format which, in the way it isolates us, is less like news than it is like heroin.

Sam Quinones is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist and author of three books of narrative nonfiction. His latest book is Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic (Bloomsbury, 2015). He spent 10 years living and working as a freelance writer in Mexico (1994-2004), then another 10 years as a reporter with the L.A. Times, covering immigration, gangs, drug trafficking, and the border. Contact him at www.samquinones.com.


Robert Jensen

The election of Donald Trump reflects the failure of America. The tough question: Who is responsible? Whom do we blame?

Is the problem Trump’s self-aggrandizing authoritarian charisma? Or is it really the fault of the wealthy—the top 10%, or maybe just the top 1%, or the 0.1%—who as a class seem incapable of empathy and solidarity? Or Trump voters’ willingness to embrace a carnival barker rather than think critically about who really rigs the system? The Republican Party’s ideological fanaticism? The hypocrisy of the politicized evangelical Christian community that suddenly decided a candidate’s character was irrelevant?

The Democratic Party’s preference for the three-decade-old Clinton program of privileging wealth and “experts” over an energized grassroots? The bitterness of some Sanders supporters that led them to minimize the danger of Trump? The apathetic who don’t engage politically because they believe the system to be corrupt beyond redemption?

What about the failure of systems, notably of capitalism and U.S. imperialism, not only ignored by conservatives but downplayed by most liberals? The collective failure to face the everyday realities of patriarchy and white supremacy? The failure of humans to recognize the catastrophic impact of our high-energy/high-technology indulgence, with the United States leading the way to the edge of the cliff?

Wherever we drop the blame, I’m tempted to scramble to make sure it isn’t too close to me. After all, I’m an activist fighting illegitimate structures of authority, but one willing to make pragmatic decisions about political choices at any given moment. I’m a teacher who brings critical perspectives into the classroom. I’m a writer who uses his limited visibility to challenge systems and structures of power.

But I can’t ignore reality: I’m a failure, too. More accurately, I’m part of the great American failure. We are not all equally responsible for that failure, but we all are part of the failed American project. “America”—the country itself, and its affluence—is built on a domination/subordination logic that immiserates the most vulnerable and relentlessly degrades the larger living world. That is the America we all live in, live with, are haunted by.

America is a failed project. Trump asserts “make America great again” as a promise. I take it as a threat.

It’s a bad feeling, the awareness of this failure, and I can’t shake it, and I shouldn’t try to, and neither should anyone else. For the next four years (let’s not ponder the possibility of eight), there are opportunities for resistance that we should take up, vigorously. But let’s let that bad feeling linger. There’s something to learn from it.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin and the national group Culture Reframed. He is the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (Spinifex Press, 2017). Jensen’s other books include Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, 2015); Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (City Lights, 2013); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); and The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.  
Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/.

We want you to join us and become a Champion of Free Expression.

Your tax-deductible donation will support our current literary programs and our new domestic advocacy initiative to celebrate the power of words to inform, inspire, and create a better world.