Like many Americans, regardless of their politics or whom they backed for president, Michaela Papa, MFA ’15, woke up on November 9 “feeling a lot of things.”
A graduate of the Emerson College Creative Writing program, Papa immediately started putting those feelings into words. While she felt better when she had finished, something was still missing.
She needed a bigger picture than just her own thoughts.
The result will be States of the Union, a compilation of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, art, photography, and interviews that captures the sentiments of a broad spectrum of Americans during the time between the election of Donald Trump and his inauguration as president. The book will be published and sold on Amazon, as well as, she hopes, in independent bookstores.
“I think the idea of a tangible print book that is a little time capsule of this crazy, giant, historical event that we’re living through is really exciting,” Papa said.
Before she got started, she began researching books of election reflection, figuring someone must have done one in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected the country’s first African American president. But to her surprise, she couldn’t find exactly what she was looking for, she said.
One of Papa’s first decisions in conceptualizing the book was to not include the piece she wrote the day after the election, or any of her own work for that matter. She would conduct interviews with “normal humans” and write short introductions, but her role would be strictly as an editor.
“My thoughts don’t really play into this book…and I sort of like that approach,” she said. “I sort of waffled back and forth on where I wanted to be with this book, and I think observer is the best place. People are really willing to talk and express themselves, especially if they’re not met with opposition.”
Papa said the goal of the project is to collect as many different voices as possible; she and the 10 or so Emerson MFA alumni and students who are helping her are looking for diversity in race, income, religion, age, gender, and geography. Submissions are welcome from Hillary Clinton supporters, Trump voters, and everyone else, and can take any creative form a contributor chooses, as long as it can be reproduced in a book. (Although Papa said her “pipedream” is to have a companion website for material that doesn’t make it into the book.)
To gather all that material, Papa and her team have been using social media, include Facebook groups, and directly soliciting schools and organizations via email. The interviews Papa is conducting are with people she knows or hears about from various walks of life.
Already, she said, she’s been shocked by how enthusiastic people have been.
“I thought maybe my cousin would submit and I’d say, ‘Cool,’ and move on, but so many people are getting behind this,” she said. “I think people are really receptive to having a platform for their voice that won’t get interrupted by a screaming uncle.”
Papa said what really excites her about the project is that it’s preserving a discrete and fleeting moment of time. Deadline for submissions is January 27, 2017—just long enough to pull in reflections of Inauguration Day, but nothing from Trump’s actual presidency.
“I think reading this book 100 days into the new presidency will be interesting to see,” said Papa, who plans to date every piece in the book down to the day. “Going forward, you can place on an exact timeline when a teacher in suburban Connecticut said this, and where that falls in the timeline of the bigger history.”
Of course, there has been no shortage of reflection about the 2016 election since November 8 in the media. News organizations have gone to great lengths to talk to “ordinary Americans” about their lives and their votes, and professional writers and thinkers have poured their thoughts on where we are as a nation into the pages of prestigious periodicals.
But States of the Union will be a forum for ordinary people to express what they’re thinking, in their own words, Papa said.
Michele Stulga, a current graduate student in Emerson’s Creative Writing program who is helping Papa with the book, said recently, she and Papa have seen other attempts online to solicit voices from across America. What sets States of the Union apart is that unlike those other attempts, they welcome all manner of expression—including fiction and poetry, which can be a challenge when reflecting on a real-world event.
“I’ve been trying to imagine a [fictional] story I might write that might capture my reaction and my feelings and the process of grappling with the world we could be living in,” Stulga said. “And that’s tough.”
However people choose to convey what they’re feeling, Papa and Stulga’s hope for the book is that by experiencing these diverse voices, readers will feel part of a larger whole.
“This has been such a tense time, and if I’ve heard a word repeated too many times, it’s the word ‘divisive,’” said Stulga. “We need to put something out that challenges that perception, and I feel like a literary collection has the power to [do] that.”
Submissions are due by January 27 and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. The project is online at statesoftheunionbook.com, on Facebook (facebook.com/StatesOf), on Twitter (@statesof_), and on Instagram (statesoftheunion).