What is the word ‘expression?’ An utterance, a declaration, a representation. Of feeling, of thought, of character. Becoming a radical against silence, expression is the form which we open ourselves to release stories, to wrestle with questions and disrupt the dominant narrative, often systemized and commoditized. In art, expression becomes action, which can be translated to words and language upon which we create a chain of reaction to story and poetry. Here, this combination—expression and liberation—is a woman’s ability to push against systemic patriarchy, to create voice and shine, to echo out into that wide space of the universe to connect, to feel, to empower.
I want to start with trains because, in essence, trains are an extraordinary example of our industry as human beings, and also a recognition of our freedom, or the potentiality of our freedom. The word train comes from the Old French trahiner, from the Latin trahere which means ‘pull, draw.’ Aluminum, the main component of contemporary trains, makes up 8% of the earth’s core mass, though because the metal binds so easily, pure aluminum is not found in nature. It cleaves itself to other elements. This aluminum though, once isolated and constructed into trains, allows the cars to reach high speeds across the country, offering escape, journey, freedom. On one end of the spectrum, you have a pull toward liberation en route to a possible transformation. On the other, we have an adherence, a bonding or cohesion, which allows for endurance and strength. What do you think of when you think of a train? Open country? Movement? Travel? Shipping? Freight? Industrialization? Think of the last time you’ve traveled on a train, what feeling did it evoke? What did you think of? What did you see? Doesn’t a train call for a sort of resonance of independence and a permanent resilience?
Trains are used throughout literature to represent a variety of themes: loss in Anna Karenina, disappearance or murder on the Orient Express, resilience in the Little Train that Could, fantasy and imagination in Alice Through the Looking Glass, and liberation in the recent novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, which recreates an underground trail system that takes Black slaves to freedom. Langston Hughes wrote a famous poem called “Freedom Train” in which he criticized the touring “Freedom Train” that crossed America in the late 1940s, a train that celebrated a false freedom when the country was still harshly segregated. How could America celebrate a metaphorical freedom with a history founded on discrimination and slavery? You can hear a recording of this poem by Paul Robeson, where the sharpness of the spoken words make the listener focus on ‘freedom’: “When my grandmother in Atlanta, 83 and black / Gets in line to see the Freedom / Will some white man yell, Get back! / A Negro’s got no business on the Freedom Track! / Mister, I thought it were the/Freedom Train!” Langston Hughes uses the train as a most cutting criticism of America’s failure at true democracy and freedom for all. There were no limits to his criticism, to his expression, and no doubt the poem is powerful. And the impact: President Truman, in 1947, announced a desegregation plan for trains, but it wasn’t enough. Many protests ensued by the NAACP, Rosa Parks, and others which resulted in many cities cancelling the stops of the “Freedom Train.” Assata Shakur, a Black Panther Party member and social activist who is currently living in political asylum in Cuba wrote, “…to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.” Hughes acknowledges the world as it is in its segregation, expressing through language a resistance to this injustice, which ultimately, I hope, and want to believe, leads toward liberation.
When I was a college undergraduate, just nineteen, for the first time I enrolled in courses that pushed my very notions of identity—of what it meant to be a woman, of what it meant to discover my voice as powerful, possibly important. I wrote poetry by the railroad tracks. I stayed up late reading Sandra Cisneros and Marge Piercy and the Nuyorican poets who slammed their words in ways I’d never heard. At the time, I didn’t think of this as a kind of freedom, but upon reflection, now, I know that it was. I had been raised in a patriarchal family, without any sort of investigation of this particular structural oppression, but it was then that I examined what it meant to possess voice outside of convention, to be independent. In my Introduction to Marxism class, we sat around on Wednesday nights with wine and food and discussed that week’s reading: materialism, labor struggles, class, the proletariat. While some of the complexities of Marxism surely bewildered me, the essence of that Marxist exploration was an examination of freedom of expression, freedom of community, and resistance against oppression. It wasn’t long after that class, I began writing for our school’s alternative newspaper, Brecht’s Hammer, which became a response to “an increasingly uniformed and homogenous political consciousness, embracing the productive force of contradiction that is possible in the dialog of seeming opposites.” Bertolt Brecht, German playwright from the early 1900s, was the model for this newspaper because of his political influence, his experimental genre and craft. Theater for Brecht, was a forum for political thought and our paper would follow in this tradition. I gathered with other budding socialists in dark rooms. I wrote about environmental justice, racism, and pollution of urban environments. It was 1998 and our digest was charged with stories of oppression and war. I helped to craft the mission of our free press. I was full of self-determination and autonomy with my train hopper anarchist boyfriend and free-thinking college just a segue into my true identity as a woman, as writer, as individual thinker.
When I was twelve, my physical education teacher in my private Catholic school decided that our “computer” class (which he taught in addition to PE) would produce a newspaper as a project. As a budding writer, I was terribly excited about this idea as was my dear friend and compatriot at the time. We promptly brainstormed our ideas and took them to our teacher, whose name I can’t remember now. We gave him layout and article ideas, and of course, we would be the primary writers. But for whatever reasons, reasons I can’t remember now, he decided to cancel the school newspaper project to our utter devastation. In reaction to this injustice, my friend and I created our own newspaper in opposition. We typed it up on our home computers on Sundays, made copies at my father’s Prudential office, and distributed the papers on Mondays at lunch. We wrote insignificant stories: gossip and the like, but eventually, despite our diligent efforts to collect the newspapers at lunch, someone turned us in and we were expelled. Which particular rules we broke, I don’t know. My father begged the administrator to reconsider: “It’s freedom of speech. It’s the first amendment,” though it didn’t work.
Trains, Brecht, Catholic school—this is all to say that my/our/your/her writing is a form of liberation.
The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal text published in 1949, deconstructs the treatment of women through existential philosophy, critical thought, and an investigation into the history of patriarchy. Beauvoir herself was a French novelist, essayist, feminist, and intellectual. The text has influenced all forms of feminism since it was first published. The first part presents facts and myths of women including biology, history, and the patriarchy. The second part examines woman’s life as it was in 1949, from childhood to marriage to social life, mysticism, lesbians, and sex work. In her conclusion, she goes on toward liberation, and what she calls the “independent” woman, which she suggests is based on economic freedom, but she complicates the argument as economic freedom does not necessarily release a woman from the structures that keep her oppressed. She goes on to venture that writers such as Virginia Woolf and Emily Brontë were true independent women, but much of the argument of this book centers around the question “what is a woman?” According to the author at the Think Philosophy blog, Beauvoir argues against the two prevailing notions: that woman is womb and woman is the “eternal feminine.” Beauvoir rejects both of these notions because if woman was womb, then it would be a matter of kind, and not degree, and I would agree that gender is a spectrum that cannot be reduced to cispatriarchal concepts of biology. Second, Beauvoir rejects the notion of femininity as defined by men, because this is an ideal that doesn’t exist, which brings us to the famous quote, “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.” Even Audre Lorde considered this question: her writing grew from this idea of the “theory of difference” in which an opposition between woman and man is simplified and the category of “woman” has many taxonomies.
Who is the independent woman? How might we define her now that our understandings of gender have become more complex? For me, in this case, the independent woman is any woman on the path of total liberation. Mary E. Galvin, in her preface to Queer Poetics, writes, “In a culture structured significantly by heterosexism, the mind that can imagine other sexualities and gender identities must also imagine other ways of speaking, new forms to articulate our visions of difference. In a cultural setting that deems us unthinkable, we’ve had to imagine our own existence.” Though historically, to acknowledge and understand this term “the independent woman” is to understand and acknowledge the experience and impact of the modernist women writers, women such as Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and Mina Loy, who were writing in service of their art, who were living as intellectuals, which at the time, was in radical opposition to the patriarchy. To know this history is to apply its relevance and resonance to contemporary society and culture.
The word ‘liberation’ is of multiple origins, partly from the French, partly from Latin. From the 14th century Middle French, it comes from liberacion, the act of freeing or of being freed and from the classical Latin, līberātiōn-, līberātiō, which is the action of setting free, release, deliverance, acquittal, discharge, or release from debt. Here, I want to understand liberation as “freedom from restrictive or discriminatory social conventions and attitudes.” In 1888, the International Council of Women affirmed, “You can obtain the complete liberation of women only by working for the liberation of humanity,” a statement, to me, which advocates for empathy beyond discrimination. For acceptance. A woman cannot be truly free unless her equals across race, class, ability, and all other intersections, are all also free. I want to operate with the knowledge that liberation comes from expression as Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator and thinker, suggests in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
“…the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled.”
That’s what writing does for those of us who rely on it as a means of expression: we can launch into boldly choosing words and language to shift the narrative, to re-claim the power of expression. When we write, we can choose to write against stereotypes, barriers, against silencing. Adrienne Rich wrote,
“…poetry is liberative language, connecting the fragments within us, connecting us to others like and unlike ourselves, replenishing our desire. . . . In poetry words can say more than they mean and mean more than they say. In a time of frontal assaults both on language and on human solidarity, poetry can remind us of all we are in danger of losing—disturb us, embolden us out of resignation.”
A writing manifesto then: I write to wrestle with questions, to lay bare vulnerabilities, to lift up voice, to shock, for respect, to learn, to engage, to connect, for beauty, to find meaning, to fear death less, to prolong the day, to extend time, to enter the sky of imagination, to cross the threshold into the possibility of words, to share heartbreak, to understand when the moon comes up when it does, to know the ground, the beat of a drum. I write to feel my heart, to feel at ease, to see the stars in a new way, to expose, for exposure. I write to impress upon others the heartache and joy and awe of this world. I write to connect to a stranger, because story, sometimes, is all we have when the thunder is too loud or the barn has burned to the ground.
And history. I look to the tradition of those powerful women writers who came before me as a way to empower my own voice when in doubt, to examine how their writing was an act of liberation. In Audre Lorde’s famous essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” Lorde writes that the erotic is the unexpressed, that which has been suppressed. She writes,
“Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning in our lives. And this is a grave responsibility…not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.”
She argues for writing against normality, or the conventional, to demand that we engage with the power that lie within us, that with that connection to our deepest selves, joy will follow. Take the risks, she says. Poetry, essay, story is a gift. It’s a space for empowerment. Lorde also wrote, “Words are so charged.
They’ve been used against us with their connotations and denotations, but there’s also energy around a word; it depends on how often you hear them – in what context you hear them.” In her poem, “For Each of Us,” she rewrites the negative image of women, using the angel as a metaphor: that women, especially Black women, are divine and should be uplifted by culture. The poem is full of juxtaposition and opposition, recognizing the difficulty of accessing power, of the opposition that a woman may face in telling her history, of embracing her power. The poem acts as a call to arms. Against silence. Of poetry, Adrienne Rich argued, “…poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility.” In addition, writing, whether creative or critical, becomes a part of the intellectual conversation, becomes radical in its form. Adrienne Rich compares poetry as a resistance to capitalism itself. That “poetry, by its nature, will never become leashed to profit, marketing, consumerism.”
To return to the train as metaphor, Sylvia Plath wrote of, “…staring hypnotized at the blackness outside the window, feeling the incomparable rhythmic language of the wheels, clacking out nursery rhymes, summing up moments of the mind like the chant of a broken record: god is dead, god is dead. going, going, going. and the pure bliss of this, the erotic rocking of the coach.” In that spirit, we should embrace the chaos of the erotic, the rhythm of the train’s heat, and transpose it to the page, to craft the stories we all need to tell. Write ourselves out of silence and toward liberation.
MELISSA MATTHEWSON lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, Mid-American Review, River Teeth, Bellingham Review, among others. Her work has earned an AWP Intro Journals award and has been listed as notable in Best American Essays. She holds degrees from UC Santa Cruz, University of Montana, and Vermont College of Fine Arts. She currently teaches writing at Southern Oregon University and runs an organic vegetable farm.