The Unwritten’s Villa Diodati, cometstarmoon
Editor’s Note: This is one of the most beautiful, remarkable, and evocative pieces on the importance of even the most silenced of us staking a claim to defining voice that I have ever read. I, for one, am glad that Letson slipped it past the adjustment team.—Ruth McCambridge
1. The Breaking of Time
“I think poems are echoes of the voices in your head and from your past. Your sisters, your father, your ancestors talking to you and through you. Some of it is primal, some of it is hallucinatory bullshit.”
Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle
Long before I started working on State of the Re:Union (SOTRU), poet Sekou Sundiata told me “one of the biggest issues in America is the country’s collective amnesia.” Our ability to forget whatever didn’t work in the narrative of these United States. We consume the world, and if the bones stick in our craw we spit them out and fly away. In some ways that might be our biggest strength as Americans: the ability to move on, to put one foot in front of the other and face the future. On the surface, it may seem admirable, but moving on without cleaning up just leaves devastation in its wake. Sekou went on to say, “Our selective memory in essence has broken time”—we live only in the present and the acceptable past. Much of Sekou’s life revolved around reclaiming our collective memory.
And yet, time is still broken.
Sekou’s work affected me deeply. After he passed in 2007, I thought a lot about that conversation. How do you “fix” time? That was the idea that was taking up residence in my mind when I first started working in public media. It’s a big question I couldn’t let go of. It’d resurface every few years. I’d write it on walls in my office, scribble thoughts down on napkins in restaurants, talk to myself aloud in public (not recommended). I’d dream about it at night. I read and re-read A Brief History of Time, and any other book about quantum physics I could get my hands on, most of which I still don’t quite understand. In all that searching, the only thing I could come up with was a fanciful idea: where Marty McFly and Doc Brown swoop in with a pimped-out DeLorean and take me back to do some maintenance on the space time continuum. The answer, or my answer, didn’t come from studying the theory of relativity, or my love for 80’s movies. I found it in a comic book.
The Unwritten is an extremely meta book. An evil cabal uses writers to help guide the world into their desired outcome. There’s a bit of magical realism, but mostly it’s about the power of story, how it shapes society and human behavior. Twenty issues into the series, it finally hit me that the answer to the question of “how to fix time?” was already solved. Sekou was the answer to the question he inspired. The poets, the producer, the writers, the storytellers. Public media and other mediums are how we fix time.
2. The Adjustment Team
“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same.”
—Kendrick Lamar, “These Walls,” To Pimp a Butterfly
There are many parallels to the world of The Unwritten and ours. Stories have power and resonance and change the way we think and feel, and there is a hidden cabal that uses stories to shape us. They may not be specifically organized with evil intent, but they are, as Philip K. Dick might call them, an Adjustment Team; people whose job it is to set the world on the course they see fit. You can see the fingerprints of their work in our daily lives. Many people in this Adjustment Team don’t even know they are a part of the machine. Every day, the news cycle churns out story after story that builds on a false interpretation of America. They use facts from in the present without following their direct line to the past. Every time a story is told without context it adds to the growing chorus of misunderstanding. If you only look at current events, the issues of police brutality might seem a relatively new thing. The context connects back to the founding of this country and how black people have been treated since the nation’s inception. They stem from slavery, into the Jim Crow era, the fight for civil rights, to the present day. And while it may seem like a heavy burden for a news story to take all this into account, it’s necessary.
If you are examining the uprising in Baltimore, but refuse to acknowledge the crushing generational poverty in that city, and how that poverty was created, then you are doing a disservice to the people crushed by the weight of the system. In fact, you are serving the system, an agent of the Adjustment Team effectively breaking time.
The agents in this Adjustment Team are not bad people. Most don’t even know they’ve joined the bureau. There are no badges, secret handshakes, or decoder rings. You can be diametrically opposed to the concept and still be an agent. I know because I’ve accidentally worked for them on occasion. We strived so hard with SOTRU to be the exact opposite, but sometimes we missed the mark. On a whole, SOTRU bought texture, history, and forethought to the stories we covered, but not all, especially when we first got started. In our first season, we went to the Española Valley in New Mexico. The anchor story in the hour was about acequia, an ancient form of irrigation that has been around for centuries and used in Española to fairly distribute water to farmers. To tell that story, we had to give a quick history of the area. In doing so, we didn’t get into the indigenous population’s struggle with the Spanish colonizers; we went by it so quickly because we needed to move on to the big story. In the edits it didn’t seem like a big deal, but it was a huge mistake, because that conflict shaped the people just as much as the desert climate.
That’s just one example, but I can look back on a few other stories where we missed, and I’m sure there are others that I can’t see. I carry those mistakes to remember, so it doesn’t happen again. There is only one way to fight these adjustments—speak the truth; tell the stories that carry the full weight of the world on their backs. But how? So many news and storytelling organizations want—or at least say they want—to get it right but fail.
3. The True Face of America
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
—Langston Hughes, “Let America be America Again”
While working on SOTRU for over seven years, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to see the country in a way most people will never get a chance to. It sounds Hallmark-y. Trust me, I’ve tried every way possible to describe it without sounding schmaltzy, but the true face of America is beautiful, flawed, and diverse. Not just in her people, but in her landscape as well.
I think it’s easy to forget, the way we live in our cities, suburbs, rural areas, or wherever become the lens through which we view the rest of the country. In times when that view is disturbed by a news event, we shake our head and think that anyone unlike “us” is crazy. That thought process robs us of the true face of America and f