Getting Somewhere: A Novel Beginning

"Getting Somewhere" by Michelle Renee Matisons.

“Getting Somewhere” by Michelle Renee Matisons.

While our social movements depend on the idea that people can change their ways of thinking in the “right conditions”, the study of political consciousness is a thorny bramble of contradictions, pseudo-scientific speculation, and pop-psychology — for the most part.  Marxist theory initially located the origins of revolutionary class consciousness in the workers’ relationship to the means of production, but proletarian consciousness did not lead to the inevitable revolution of the means of production and the abolition of private property — as Marx expected.  Thus, “consciousness” became one of the great challenges of twentieth century Marxist theory, with Lenin offering the theory of the vanguard party as a solution, and the Frankfurt School offering its “Culture Industry” theory to analyze revolutionary proletarian consciousness, or lack thereof.

Flash forward to the post-Civil Rights era’s new social movements. Consciousness remains a central theme, as revolutionary organizers seek to expand movements by appealing to people’s instinctual desire for freedom, despite the obstacles blocking the realization of this desire– especially the Cointelpro-enhanced state. Black Panthers emphasized the need for self-defense, popular education, and community organization around food, housing, and healthcare needs to form revolutionary consciousness. Some women’s liberationists employed “consciousness raising” circles as a tool for mass movement building. Both movements were infiltrated and persecuted, the Panthers to a much greater degree, but they (along with all other anti-imperialist movements of that time) leave a treasure trove of theory and practice that successive generations should relish as a great gift.

Today we grapple with the legacy of these movements as we scramble to apply relevant past lessons to the rapidly changing world around us: a renewed focus on murders by police parallel Donald Trump’s ascendancy in presidential polls. Strange days, indeed, but let’s not get sidetracked.

Once ballots get counted and election dust settles, we are left with our same problems, and our own devices, too. How do people come to think what they think? What moves us as individuals? Collectively? What causes people to change their minds about the world, politics, and their own complicity or engagment with it all? Just as Angela Davis stated that the purpose of demonstrations is to demonstrate something, the purpose of movements is to move us somewhere new. Movements rely on the idea of motion: yet we can’t go anywhere unless people desire change and are willing to take risks and make sacrifices in the process. We have to collectively participate in the cause of universal freedom, while also retaining what’s unique about ourselves, our families, our communities, and our histories.

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My debut novel, Left to Our Own Devices (LOOD), is motivated by these questions.  How do we get from inertia to motion, individually and collectively? From demoralizing stagnation to liberating movement?

LOOD is narrated by a white “disabled” (a term she  prefers) woman, Estelle Peters, who leaves her caregiver husband. Inspired only generally by my own mother’s decades long battle with the same disease, Estelle suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and is paralyzed from the waist down with the use of her right arm. Although physically confined to either a hospital bed or wheelchair, her mind compensates for this confinement by going all over the place. The mother of one adult-age son and two daughters, who are both partnered with Black men, Estelle gets an intimate introduction to contemporary race relations through her daughters’ own eyes.  That’s the backdrop of the novel’s plotline, which is set in the Florida panhandle’s Bay County in the days before Occupy and Black Lives Matter.

The other factor in Estelle’s life that challenges her to question all of her assumptions about the world she thought she lived in is the incarceration of Jamal, her radical daughter Azalea’ s life partner. Azalea and Jamal bring their hefty college experience as organizers in Atlanta and D.C. to the sleepy towns of Lynn Haven/ Panama City, Fl. Eventually, Jamal is locked up on assault charges for a bar fight defending himself against a “racist cracker” at a local karaoke bar. Azalea and Jamal believe his charges and incarceration are politically motivated due to his earlier activism around the case of Martin Lee Anderson’s murder. Estelle agrees with them: her blinders have been lifted. She may be unable to walk, but Estelle’s vision is just fine.

Meanwhile, Estelle’s conservative husband, Richard, grows more formal and  removed from their relationship: she grows suspicious he is hiding something from her… And he is.

Intended to be an antidote to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic novel “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which has our heroine confined to bed rest only to lose her mind, Left to Our Own Devices is a story about a paralyzed woman’s struggle to take charge of her own life “while she still can.”

Intentionally written as a stream of consciousness travelogue of sorts into the inner workings of Estelle’s own logic and reasoning, as she moves in her own words “from an NPR tote bag carrying, Harper’s and The Nation reading, liberal democrat to a radical crip, a revolutionary of sorts” LOOD emits the struggle between inertia and motion in the form of casual, chit chatty, gossipy, and, yes, sometimes almost pedantic, long-winded, “We get it already” soapbox-like prose. You remember how valuable ideas were to you when you first came into your own radical consciousness? Please have patience with this “piecing the puzzle together like a frantic 3 year old” woman — our late-bloomer, Estelle. She changes considerably, gaining more confidence, in the second book, “Everbody Carries a Heavy Load.”

Readers are invited to join Estelle amidst her recounting of the throes of her own changing consciousness and marital status. Not always a smooth ride, her feelings are equal parts claustrophobic, sardonic, and exuberant. And she leaves no topic unturned: her medical care details, 9/11 conspiracy theories, Obama vs. Clinton, the well-worn prison abolitionist script, hegemonic European beauty standards, Joni Mitchell in blackface, Nina’s Simone’s “Suzanne”, narcissistic American yoga, inter-racial wedding planning, marriage as an institution, food porn, sex porn, friendship, tarot cards, Scrabble, children’s toys, bourgeois dinner parties, social media, nature writing, holistic health doctrines, tensions between community building and cop bashing tactics, cars running down bikers, comparative religion, Guantanamo-esque U.S government torture in a local boys’ home, Rob Zombie films…It’s no surprise Estelle’s whole family is immersed in the American horror genre– a coping mechanism for Multiple Sclerosis’ horrific neurological uncertainty.

Changing our minds and lives isn’t always easy. It can be quite painful, and even a nightmare at times. (This may account for why more people don’t do it!) One woman’s distinctive willingness and ability to radically alter relationships in her own life, (negatively affecting her immediate finances), serves as an analogy to the consciousness raising process itself, urging readers to connect their own lives to her story, as if the novel was a mirror reflecting back something from each readers’ own story. Different reflections emanate from the same basic source: the struggle for political freedom, personal self-realization, and most importantly– the relationship between the political and personal as captured in my ideal of non-doctrinaire but well-read, flexible but militant, innovative but time-tested, humorous but deadly serious anti-capitalist/ imperialist struggles.

In the neoliberal/proto-Fascist era of simultaneous white male deflation/ anti-immigration backlash, with class bludgeoning at an all time high, and military/police state expansion, Left to Our Own Devices seeks to tame (through sheer literary force) the beasts of fear and insecurity through humor and truth-telling. Hardly naïve  in its inception, it upholds the possibility of political momentum, as we come down from the cloudy illusions of our own greatest expectations and disappointments to work with what is right before us and, like so many clouds, will never fade away: each other. This is altogether unglamorous, like Estelle herself.

We may be “Left to Our Own Devices”, but we share this condition with each other: we are the multitude. And we’d all really like to get somewhere, right?

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