On Thinking

and the significance of specificity in Sarah Schulman’s nonfiction work.

This isn’t a review of Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993. Those have been done, and very well. Read Parul Sehgal, Jo Livingstone, Daniel Spielberger’s interview at them. I am reading Let the Record Show because I will read all nonfiction that Sarah Schulman writes, because her work has taught me how to have a point of view, how to have a radical political analysis that is matter-of-fact, and how to make big arguments that are specific in scope. 

It’s that specificity that has driven 2012’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, 2016’s Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, and now Let the Record Show. (She’s written many novels and more nonfiction, too, that I haven’t gotten to yet but absolutely will.)

In these three texts, Schulman gives us a framework for cultural and political change outside of consolidated corporate cultural and political power. She gives us the significance of narrative—especially the significance of seizing it back from these forces of homogenization and pointless universalizing. Indeed, she proves that getting specific to experience is the way to real truths about how the world works; specific doesn’t mean esoteric. It means grounded in a reality and not a mealy-mouthed neoliberal perspective where all real feeling or opinion is regarded as dramatic or harsh, thus shutting down conversation.

The genius writer and publisher Charlotte Shane was who first told me to read The Gentrification of the Mind, which I’ve now done a few times. I had been criticizing the perspective of a major newspaper in my old newsletter, and in the book, Schulman was already there, explaining why this record’s political perspective seeks only to preserve status quo liberalism, through the example of which types of voices it will allow into its pages.

When she wrote about picking up a Village Voice and finding that Kathy Acker, a person she didn’t yet know and whom she couldn’t help in any way, had given her book a good review simply because she liked it, so many thoughts about the fucked-up ways the media industry into which I’d gone in starry-eyed operates had come into focus. I thought reviewing a book because you liked it was what we were all after, that we all wanted to tell our truths and bring up work by people who weren’t yet famous. But actually, this was a gentrified industry. When I could name it, when I could see that I wasn’t alone in feeling it, something inside me loosened—but also something inside me was charged: I didn’t have to comply.

Food media, especially, is notoriously conservative, as well as averse to change and self-critique. Just last week, in coverage of the forthcoming Netflix show High on the Hog based on the book by Dr. Jessica B. Harris and hosted by Whetstone publisher Stephen Satterfield, the New York Times “Food” section wrote that Satterfield “is well respected among people committed to social and political change through food.” What a dismissive way to describe the publisher of a Black-owned food magazine in the United States, hosting a show about Black foodways. Why do people who point out problems in industries and policy suddenly become activists and “social justice warriors”? Why aren’t we simply people doing work, work that should be engaged with on its substance rather than perceived political difference? 

While many writers are called “activists” in order to maintain social order and place a stigma upon those who question power, Schulman is an actual activist. Let the Record Show is an oral history of those such as herself who participated in ACT UP in New York, in which she works to undo the sanitized, well-to-do gay white male vision of AIDS activism that has been perpetuated by award-winning Hollywood movies and Broadway plays. “The enormous influence of women and people of color was hidden by corporate control of representation,” she writes in the introduction, and so she excavates that influence so that it cannot be ignored in the future.

When I saw that the first chapter in the book was titled, “Mechanisms of Power: Puerto Ricans in ACT UP,” I felt a small chill. Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans are so often erased from culture, from discussions of U.S. empire; of course Schulman would understand the significance of starting the text with the stories of Robert Vázquez-Pacheco, a Black Nuyorican, and Moisés Agosto-Rosario, white and born on the archipelago, and their specific struggles and successes working to improve access to information and treatment for Latino and working-class communities. 

By breaking down how ACT UP worked, from how power functioned within the organization; to how their first major action, Seize Control of the FDA, worked; to leadership; to the significance of art and image and media to their achievements but also to the perpetuation of false narratives, Schulman provides a historical document and also a blueprint, while reminding us that AIDS still kills and and ACT UP still exists.

At nearly 700 pages, it is not sprawling despite its chorus of voices and perspectives, but ceaselessly specific and consistent in its aims, in its authority. One can’t help but notice Schulman putting into practice what she’s discussed in her previous texts: homogenization and individual heroism are interrogated, and in discussions, she addresses oversights she sees the subject making without placing blame or making undue claims of harm. The effects of AIDS and AIDS activism are present in those prior two books, but here we see her experience in ACT UP illuminate precisely why her insight into power and conflict are so critical. Here is a text, yes, as well as a method of thinking and critique more than thirty years in the making.

The things I particularly like about Schulman are her commitment to her own vernacular, an acceptance of her non-academic role as interdisciplinary as a freeing not limiting perspective, and her understanding of her work as something to generate thought, not convince or sway.

Though I am not an activist, I now have means of thinking through how narratives are formed and perpetuated, and I know that as a writer, my role is to document and observe that which might go overlooked: to be specific, to know how narrative works, to know how power functions. Schulman gave me a new way of thinking as well as being, grounded in the specificity of my own lived experience and perspective, where I also am aware of how power is being distributed and thus whose lead should be followed. I am forever grateful.

This Friday’s paid subscriber interview is with Dianne Jacob, the longtime journalist whose fifth edition of the food writing guide Will Write for Food is out this week.

Reminder! Food System Conversation Starter T-shirts are available for preorder!

Programming Note: I won’t be publishing anything next week, because Monday is a holiday and also because I have a massive project due on June 1 that I need to finish up! See you June 7.

Annual subscriptions are $30; monthly, $5. Come summer, there will be recipes.

Nothing??? Stuff is coming!!! I’m working, baby!

The Edinburgh Notebook by Valerie Mejer Caso, which has the Spanish and English side by side for my pleasure. I would like to return to reading some Álvaro Enrigue. If you were the person to whom I lent the translation of Hypothermia, please speak up!

Everything with tomatoes because they’ve made their debut at the farmers’ market. Especially tomato toast and an extremely nice marinara on fettuccine. I will talk about making sauce in a post for paid subscribers when July arrives! The recipes (which will come out twice a month, in links from the Monday essay and in their own section, but not via email) will start with what I do with summer squash and a bounty of tomatoes.