In Our Words: Austin Bragdon

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Austin Bragdon at work
Austin Bragdon, personal photo

Poet, editor, translator, journalist, and teacher Austin Bragdon was born in the largely french-speaking rural expanse of northern Maine. He currently lives in Ypsilanti Michigan, and is a current creative writing graduate student at Eastern Michigan University, where he teaches undergraduate writing courses and serves as editor-in-chief of BathHouse Journal. His work has appeared in The Open Field and elsewhere.

Here is the thought-provoking text Austin wrote for Sarah’s recent visit to campus.

Welcome everyone to the first of three events featuring Sarah Schulman. Tonight we are here to listen to Sarah Schulman read from and talk about her 2016 book, Conflict is not abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. Sarah is a distinguished professor at the College of Staten Island. She is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, nonfiction writer, AIDS historian, journalist, and active participant citizen.

Sarah Schulman

Conflict is not Abuse, forces us to ask questions about the violence and conflict we see in the world around us. It forces us to wonder why institutions have so frequently become the arbiters of our personal relationships, and how our failures to successfully navigate conflict within our personal lives bleed into the larger social landscape. Rooting her perspective in queer and feminist analyses of power, Schulman explores how the dynamics of conflict in the personal sphere replicate power dynamics in the larger social landscape. As a writer, this perspective, placed outside what pop-culture might view as the normalizing structure of the family, allows her to write the characters she does, with different identity markers, all while being open to and accepting of the mistakes she makes while creating those characters. As humans who may or may not be writers, this kind of openness allows us the vulnerability required to navigate conflicts which we may otherwise dismiss reflexively.

Who, for example, hasn’t known a stalker? Or at least, someone your friend calls a stalker. Clearly, your friend believes, the only answer is to shun and condemn the stalker, potentially to report them to the authorities, to allow the state to arbitrate any conflict involved. Schulman suggests that this reflexive use of the word “stalker” to address what may be a nuanced conflict would be reductive to those who have experienced genuine violence and abuse at the hands of real stalkers. Instead, in order to make a real judgement, assessment, and potential resolution of this kind of conflict, you must risk the most frightening social dividend — honesty. She also explores how our understanding of honesty itself might be flawed, showing how our distorted thinking might lead us to think we are being honest, when really we are being honest about the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Navigating the kinds of conflict which might have led to the original confrontation, which may or may not be justified, requires vulnerability, and honest, genuine communication — the willingness to admit fault, to learn, to transform, and to understand. It may well be that the impetus to reach for the word “stalker” so reflexively, stems from an inability to correctly assess threat, an inability that can lead to the failure of a relationship.

In Conflict is not Abuse, Schulman explores this inability to assess threat at all levels of society, from our interpersonal relationships, to the governmental lack of ability to assess threat which lead the Canadian Government to require those living with HIV to report their status to the government, to invoke fear in their citizens and establish punitive measures for those living with HIV, rather than encourage more open communication between people, as Schulman writes “imposing itself as a substitute for learning how to problem solve.”

Schulman writes that “this is not a book to be agreed with.” It’s not composed of hard evidence, and it is not a list of facts. Instead it is designed to be engaged with, to provoke discussion, and to get a bit closer to understanding human behavior, so we can learn, both as writers and as people, to listen more closely to the stories of those around us. As Schulman writes, “it is the cumulative juxtaposition that reveals the story.”

On a more personal note, I found the process of writing this introduction difficult — the personal revelations this book provokes has made me rethink past and current conflicts with my partner, my friends, my students, my parents — the book often feels like years of therapy packed into a smaller, and frankly, much cheaper module, and it’s brought out a lot of guilt and curiosity, and optimism, much of which I’m still working through — I even found myself concerned for the person who flipped me off in traffic yesterday. It is my sincere hope that it can bring you towards the same kind of emotional labor it’s inspired in me. With that in mind, please join me in welcoming Sarah Schulman to the stage.

To purchase Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is not Abuse, visit the publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press. To read more of Austin’s work, click here.