Subversion has been on my mind for at least six months now. I like the way the word sounds when I say it out loud. It moves toward the front of my mouth, over my tongue and lips, rolls back toward my throat, and finally lands on the tip of my tongue at the end of the last syllable.
As the word “subversion” rolls around the mouth, it’s also a word, in action, that deconstructs and challenges. It’s a hard-working word, frightening to those who hold power. The word comes from the Latin subertere, meaning “to overthrow.” I love the definition of the word: “An attempt to transform established social order and its structures of power, authority, and hierarchy.”
I can think of writers who have subverted my understanding of the world—Rebecca Solnit, Sonya Huber, Alice Walker, C.S. Lewis, James Baldwin, Roxane Gay, Cormac McCarthy, St. John the Apostle. While the definition of “subvert,” as a verb, is more negative—“to overthrow; to cause the downfall, ruin, destruction of; to undermine the principles of; corrupt”—I prefer to think of their influence in my life as a something constructive, a gift. Being corrupted is only a matter of perspective. Sometimes being corrupted against the established power, authority, and hierarchy is, in reality, more like finding redemption.
Being subversive, of course, isn’t a prerequisite to becoming a writer. There are plenty of phenomenal writers who uphold and benefit from the status quo and who might be loathe to see it change. (I’m thinking specifically the number of men versus the number of women who are published in the most prestigious literary venues. See Vida, a subversive organization dedicated to women’s literary art, for their annual Vida Count).
I think I became a writer partly because I love ideas and I love figuring out how to subvert people’s perceptions and expectations. I recently had a conversation with a friend about our attraction to body art, including tattoos and piercings. I mentioned that part of the reason I like tattoos for myself is because they subvert people’s first impression of me. Since my husband is a pastor in a conservative evangelical denomination in the Midwest, I’m often pegged, at first, as a traditional pastor’s wife whose only significant use is having babies and offering emotional support for my husband.
In the past, when my husband has been interviewed for senior pastor positions, I’ve been asked how many children I have and how I see my role as his wife in the church (spouses of pastors are often interviewed along with the pastoral candidate). Both are disheartening questions. Being a mother is a job I’m not sure I would be very good at, but besides that, my husband and I have never been able to have children. In addition, I find deep fulfillment in my own job as a writing professor, rather than standing behind my husband as he ministers to a congregation. I’m not all tatted up, but I have a few tattoos, and they are a physical way I can reveal that the preconceived notions most of us hold are worthless.
The same is true with story and with writing. Story disarms. When you can get a reader emotionally involved in your own, personal story or the story of a human character, they’re more likely to see themselves within the pages and recognize that the status quo, which mostly benefits those who are in power, isn’t what it first appears. When someone’s on top, someone else is always on the bottom, and story can give us a picture of the person on the bottom in a way that helps us recognize her as human in the same way we, ourselves, are human.
In my writing and literature classes, I tend to assign readings that are in some way subversive. I’m always quick to point out how the writer subverts our expectations when it comes to a form or a character so that those students in the class who are drawn to the subversive can see how it’s done and why it’s important. Art as a quiet, or sometimes loud, protest can transform the individual in order to transform harmful power structures and ideas.
Jennifer Ochstein has published essays with Connotation Press, The Lindenwood Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Evening Street Review and The Cresset. She as published book reviews with Brevity and River Teeth blog. Follow her at her blog jenniferochstein.com.