Notes from a Swing State

Zoë B. Thompson writes back about the US election and the recent violent attack at Ohio State University

Columbus from OSU campus

The view from Thompson Library, Ohio State University © Zoë Brigley Thompson

by Zoë Brigley Thompson

1. The Day of the Election

I am driving home from work. The sun is setting. Did I tell you that we have the most incredible skies in Ohio? I couldn’t get used to it at first. I grew up in a town in Wales, where the sky is a flat lid, and the valley bends round like cupped and comforting hands. But here, the sky is a down-turned bowl, and we are so small underneath it.

Anyway, I am driving home, and the sky is reddening, great slashes of white from vapour trails, and flaming trees like torches. I am listening to a sad song on the radio, and I feel as though something is ending. Like sitting in an empty house when someone you love has closed the door behind them with no possibility of return.

A few weeks earlier, I am canvassing for Hillary Clinton. I am driving round my neighbourhood with Sandra, a white nurse from a multiracial family who is worried about her son. We knock, and they open the door saying, I am so glad to see you, the warmth so palpable: as if they might hold us in their arms, they are so afraid.

One house is at the end of a long drive, trees and pastures all around, and there, with his back to us, a bearded man sits cross-legged on the ground whittling a piece of wood, a chainsaw lying beside him.

Sandra walks towards the man, her slim, tidy figure buffeted by the breeze. He continues to sit, his bulk on the ground, his eyes on the wood.

Sandra asks him if he is voting for Clinton.

He says, No, I can’t stand Hillary. I can’t say how much I hate her.

Sandra warns him that he runs the risk of a Trump presidency.

He doesn’t care, he despises Hillary so much. She wants power too much, he says.

Sandra asks if she can turn the car around in his drive, and when we pull into the yard, all the windows are blanketed, but the corner of a face emerges at the edge.

Someone else lives here too, I say, looking at my list. A woman.

2. The Day of the Attack

It has crossed my mind, of course. When I begin teaching a new course, I check out the room, look for viable exits, and consider how I would secure the room. When an Ohio State University police officer trained the department in emergency protocol, she told us to Run, hide, fight. But many of the classroom doors are impossible to lock. The people who do these things, she tells us, they aren’t superheroes. If the worst comes to worst, you have a good chance of taking them down if you work together.

But when the worst does happen, I am sat at home, watching the university shutdown via rolling news. There’s the car park I use being stormed by a SWAT team. The building I walk by each day is sealed off by tape. There is the spot where Abdul Razak Arkan, a former refugee from Somalia, ran down a crowd with his car, got out and started slashing with a butcher knife.

He was interviewed a few months before for the ‘Humans of Ohio State’ feature in the student newspaper. He told the interviewer that he was afraid to pray in the open. I don’t know what is going to happen if I do, he said.

The next day, I am teaching. One student begins to cry. I tell the class that life is random, that we cannot anticipate what is coming next. I tell them to please, look out for our Somali students. I tell them that they have to be prepared.

OnCampus Today mails out counselling resources. I think of students I taught in the past. The ones who took Alertec to work for 48 hours straight. Some with anxiety attacks. Others that cracked under the pressure, and just stopped coming to class, not even a goodbye.

3. Post-Election

After the election, I find myself looking at familiar faces with suspicion and unease. Is my child’s teacher a Trump supporter? My doctor?

The woman who serves my morning coffee wears a headscarf. My husband blurts out that I canvassed for Clinton. The woman looks relieved.

I wonder if I should start wearing a safety pin. A friend of mine writes to me that safety pins are lame. I can’t take off my race like a safety pin, she says.

News is circulating on Facebook, and if I read it before bed, I have trouble sleeping. Almost as though they sense the trouble, the children start climbing into bed in the middle of the night, their small, knobbly bodies nuzzling in, and I hold them very close.

At night, I revisit the women I have written about. From Welsh myth, Blodeuwedd, the woman of flowers, created by a magician for the pleasure of men: how she fought against it, followed her own desire, became an owl under the cover of night. From Latin America, La Malinche, who lived her life as a slave of one kind or another, no choice except to survive as best she could, even as the woman of a Conquistador. From America, Tamzene Donner, a colonist going west, caught by snow in the Hastings Cutoff: the party reduced to cannibalism, she stayed behind with her dying husband. Even if they did not exactly succeed, these women faced the worst. Suddenly, I am far more certain.

We are writing letters here, writing postcards, contacting politicians, applying pressure. We are using pen and paper or the telephone, because online petitions are ignored. We are marching on capital buildings. We are rallying in our lunchtimes, squeezing in protests around school-work, and children’s bedtimes. We are putting our money where our mouth is. We are contributing to the fund for the recount of votes. We are donating equipment and warm clothes to the people of Standing Rock.

That sense of an ending on the night of the election, it meant that there is no more easy, comfortable life. We have to refuse. We have to say no. We have to stand up for each other. This is the only option. There is no other choice.


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