Writing as Citizenship: A New Voice (Part 1)

For months I had struggled with how to write about the homeless issue. I had written pieces here and there but they felt scattered and lacking purpose. This frustrated me. I was hoping a voice would emerge because my interactions with the homeless seemed to be ratcheting up and I didn’t want the writing to be aimless. Sometimes writing an aimless piece of writing or even a book is a good thing. But not on this issue, at least to me.

I felt an urgency to define this voice.


I was sitting on the couch waiting for a friend to finish her remote work. As soon as she finished, we were going to walk in rain during and get a meal from a food cart. We would pass homeless people on our walk, a sight on almost every walk in Portland, and thus the homeless would be part of our experience.

I asked if she had some reading material around and then remembered the book about William Faulkner’s views on the Civil War and segregation that I had given her for Christmas. Critics had lauded the book for its unique investigation into Faulkner’s racial ideas as expressed through his novels and private and public statements. Many of these ideas were outright bigotry and disgusting, and he basically approved a segregation, but it wasn’t as simple as that in his life and books. For whatever his faults, Faulkner knew that slavery and the legacy of slavery were the great evil in American society and that it was never going to become merely history.

Look where we are today and some elected officials in the South saying the 3/5 compromise to Constitution was a good thing.

My friend retrieved the book for me and I started reading the preface. In it, the author, an academic, described his writing about this subject as an “act of citizenship.” He made that claim because he felt a duty to try and make sense of Faulkner and his writing because of their relevance to racial matters today and why real progress seems so slow and so many Americans, including politicians and law enforcement officials, are so obviously racist.

As I read the preface, I asked my friend for some paper and a pen to take notes. A light bulb had come on. No, it was a ballroom chandelier that lit up.

I finally had figured out how I wanted to approach the writing about the homeless: make it an act of citizenship.