Active Voice: Writers Respond | Erin Coughlin Hollowell

As summer turns to winter in Alaska, with a brief interlude long enough to weigh three-quarter ton pumpkins in Palmer that some might call fall, we are excited to announce the return of the blog series Active Voice: Writers Respond, a forum for Alaska writers to respond to current events and controversies on the national stage.

And what a summer it’s been—from the nail biter of a 49-51 vote in Congress over healthcare reform which turned on the opposition of Alaska’s senior senator, to the recent white supremacist rally and tragic death in Charlottesville, Virginia, national news has been packed with issues and events that surprise, divide, shock, and sadden all of us, no matter what your background or political philosophy. When we embarked on this project several months ago at 49 Writers, we never thought we would be contemplating the role of writers in a country where a man called “The Mooch” could be the director of communications for the commander-in-chief, even ever so briefly.

This week, we turn to a story that puts an Alaska twist on the old adage “all politics is local.” Shortly after the national controversy about sanctuary cities raged in places like Chicago and Boston, the immigration debate pitted neighbor against neighbor in one of the most unlikely of places: Homer, Alaska. Three city council members found themselves facing a recall election over a resolution they said was about inclusivity and tolerance, but which recall petitioners said was “anti-Trump” in nature and would turn Homer into a sanctuary city. I won’t attempt to sort out exactly what happened during the recall election here—as Homer poet Erin Coughlin Hollowell recounts in her essay below, “It started because it started, and then it just kept going.”

The debate over the recall effort grew so heated that it even drew national attention, including coverage from NPR’s “This American Life.” While the election ended in June, the ripple effects of the campaign remain in the quiet fishing town at the end of the road that is home to so many talented Alaska writers.

In the piece that follows, Hollowell recounts how she found herself in an unexpected position during the election—running the Facebook page for the No Recall PAC in Homer. The role gave her a front-row seat to see how some of her neighbors expressed themselves behind the relative anonymity of the Internet. Read on to find out how the experience changed how she looks at her community, and at her own role within it as a writer.

Do you live in Homer, or were you impacted by the recall election? Share your experience in the comments!

~ Charles Boyle
Active Voice Editor
49 Writers, Inc. 

Erin Coughlin Hollowell | Active Voice: Writers Respond 

It started because someone wanted to push back on anti-immigrant rhetoric. It started because someone’s wife was increasingly subjected to racist remarks. It started because Alaska has always been a place where people with strong opinions live. It started because someone thought that someone else was disrespecting the President. It started because it was that long slow end of winter in a small town. It started because people felt like they weren’t being heard. It started because it started, and then it just kept going.

I’m not going to recap the bitter ideological fissure that opened up in Homer this year. I wouldn’t be able to be unbiased. Even though I don’t live within the city limits, even though I can’t vote for city council members, I listen to their meetings and I count many of them among my friends. What happens in Homer impacts me because when I go into town, that’s the town I go into. I work in Homer. I use the library, shop at the stores, visit friends, go to the Farmer’s Market, walk on the beaches. When one faction of the town began to actively attempt to recall city council members who didn’t align with their beliefs, that affected me.

On a day so sunny that I had to squint into the cold wind, I ran into one of the city council members who was one of the subjects of the ire. This is a woman whom I admire because she does her homework, reads the giant tome of information for each council meeting, tallies columns, asks good questions. She was visibly shaken. At the end of the last city council meeting, a member of the public had basically shouted at her, pointing a finger, and declaring her a liar.

The rhetoric on both sides rapidly escalated. On internet forums, there were posts that fanned the flames. Everyone was feeling righteously indignant. Political Action Committees were formed. Schisms grew. Friends started to see each other on opposite sides of the matter. Bad information was slung about with increased fervor. It was possible to remain neutral, but only if you didn’t know the city council members. It was possible to remain neutral, but only if you consciously decided to and didn’t come into town.

I wasn’t neutral. When the No-Recall PAC was formed, I went to the first meeting. I didn’t want to be a leader, but I wanted to help. I felt as someone who didn’t live within the city limits, it would be inappropriate for me to be a spokesperson or leader. But, I personally knew that several of the people who were up for recall were good citizens, members of our community concerned with fairness, equity, inclusivity. In my heart, it was hard to argue with inclusivity. By the end of the meeting, I’d agreed to run the PAC’s Facebook Page, mostly because no one else knew how to do it. I didn’t have any idea how this would color the way I looked at my town.

Facebook Pages are, by nature, faceless entities. No one knew that I was the person behind the page. I made up my mind that there would be no censorship unless comments were factually incorrect or libelous. I hadn’t even considered the “back-channel” messages when I volunteered. They began to trickle in, a few each day. Some were pointed questions, some badgering, but some were entirely something else. They were frightening. I responded to most with the same message, “Thank you for your response. America is built on freedom of thought and the ability to respectfully disagree. Have a nice day.” I simply copied and pasted and sent, then deleted the originating messages. I didn’t share them with the PAC or the city council members. It didn’t seem productive to do so.

But how do you respond to the message, “I hope if the recall fails, Muslims will come to town and murder your children”? After this particular gem, I began to look at people on the street more closely. Remember, I knew the names of the people sending these messages. They weren’t in my personal circle of acquaintances, but many lived in town or nearby. I could run into them in the Safeway parking lot. Not all of the messages were this ugly, but enough of them were that it made me unsure of what kind of hatred lurked just beneath the veneer of civility.

I tried to understand. I grew up in a very politically conservative household. At times in my life, I’ve been so poorly paid that I ate eggs and white rice for days on end before my next paycheck came. I’ve worked in inner cities as a teacher and at Goldman Sachs investment bank (in document processing, not as a banker, but still). I’ve lived in every quadrant of the United States, in big cities and small towns. I tried to understand so that I could continue to live in this beautiful place that I call home.

The Recall Election was in June. The proposition failed, and the city council stands intact. Following the election, I closed down the Facebook page with a sigh of relief. I spend more time in my garden then I do in town. I pay close attention to the way the fireweed moves up the stem.

What happened in Homer represents in microcosm what is happening everywhere in the United States. Polarization. Fence-building. Ugly rhetoric lobbed at digital avatars behind which are real people. Community members struggling to find the things that used to bind them. I write about foxgloves. Tides. Glacier light. I’m not sure what my role is bridging the political divide with my writing. I think my job is to remind people to look up, open up. It’s hard to hold onto hatred while watching whales breach in Kachemak Bay. It’s hard to be angry during the zucchini races at the Farmer’s Market.

All around us now, autumn is poking its sly nose into the fields. The pushki weed has crowned and sets seeds. Fields of purple blossoms will someday soon subside into a mist of smoke. There are mushrooms in the woods and the elderberries are providing a feast for the birds whose chorus is noticeably less enthusiastic than it was a month ago. One day, too soon, the ragged call of the sandhill cranes will trail overhead as they leave this place.

But I’ll be here, listening. I’ll still be trying to understand.

Erin Coughlin Hollowell published her first poetry collection Pause, Traveler in 2013, and her second collection Every Atom will be available in April 2018. She has been awarded two Rasmuson Foundation Fellowships, a Connie Boochever Award, and an Alaska Literary Award. She teaches for the University of Alaska Anchorage Low-Residency MFA Program and as an adjunct for the Kachemak Bay Campus. She is a core faculty member of the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference and is executive director of Storyknife Writers Retreat. 







10 thoughts on “Active Voice: Writers Respond | Erin Coughlin Hollowell”

  1. Thank you Erin for this perspective on what is happening in Homer and all around our still beautiful world. We encourage more writers to share your perspective on this troubling and trying time in American social, political and personal discourse.
    -Katie Bausler
    49 Writers Board

  2. Thank you, Erin! This is extremely thoughtful, beautifully expressed, and true to my experience in Homer.
    In a small act of healing, our city council recently passed a resolution asking the legislature to more clearly define the grounds for recall elections. They should not be used when voters simply disagree with decisions made by their elected representatives–normal elections are for that–but for actual misconduct or the inability of a person to perform the required duties.

  3. Great post, Erin. Thanks for sharing.

    I don’t have the answer either, but I agree that we have to start by listening. I am encouraged by the number of neighbors helping neighbors in the aftermath of Harvey. But I’m not sure how we tap into that love and generosity in day to day living.

  4. Thank you for this post Erin. I like your thought… “….look up, open up…” grace is always happening simultaneously with all that is challenging.

  5. Yes, Erin, thanks for writing this. When I first read the part about frightening comments, I thought maybe they were coming from out-of-town posters. It’s so disturbing to hear that this kind of vitriol from members of our own community.

    FYI the resolution asking for clarification from the legislature, which passed without discussion on the consent agenda, is now on the agenda for reconsideration at the next city council meeting.

  6. Thank you Erin. I really appreciate your perspective. My struggle to meaningfully respond to this division in our community and in our nation drove much of the art that I produced over the past several month. Whether or not this art contributes to a conversation that I feel is so necessary, at least I had the opportunity to process the conversation in my head through my art. ❤️ Thank you for sharing.

  7. thank you, Erin. This is really important. Here in the Bay Area, we argue, even on the same side about who has the right to assemble and speak and whether violence in response to threat is justified, and I feel like basic principles are slipping away. I have clearly taken a side, but does that mean I need to maintain that my side is 100% right and good and the victim 100% of the time? Should I never criticize my side? Does fighting fascism mean beating up fascists?
    I find the practical side of me asking: what works? Has extreme rhetoric, much less violence, ever convinced me of anything? Should we just give up on convincing or understanding and start slugging and shooting?
    I love the title “Active Voice.” Can we steal it for an activist chapbook we’re putting together?? 🙂

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