Snidelines: Talking Trash to Power, By Susie Day, Afterword by Dan Berger, Illustrations by Maria Pia Marrella, Abingdon Square Publishers, 142 pages, $12 paperback, $9 e-book.
Oscar-winner actor and dramatist Peter Ustinov (1921-2004) once quipped that “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”
Ustinov’s jibe could have been written for Susie Day’s Snidelines: Talking Trash to Power, a collection of 20 largely satirical essays about everything from love and commitment to Islamophobia and government surveillance. Most of the pieces in the anthology were published previously – in Truthout.org and elsewhere – but that does not diminish their power, and whether readers are seeing Day’s words for the first time or not, they’ll likely be smiling, or maybe even laughing, at the absurdities she’s highlighted.
Still, this is not entertainment for entertainment’s sake. In fact, every entry in the book has a barbed edge, and Day does not miss a beat in opposing racist, sexist, homophobic or just plain silly, policies.
She’s fierce. She’s smart. And she’s a hoot.
My favorite Snidelines essays, however, are more poignant than humorous. In “Herman at Hogwarts, Day describes visiting former Black Panther Herman Bell in the upstate New York prison where he is serving 25 years to life for the 1971 murder of New York City police officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones. On the day being referenced, Day and her partner, former political prisoner Laura Whitehorn, are joined by friends Tynan, Lise and Frankie at Eastern Correctional Facility; they are at the ECF to celebrate Bell’s 58th birthday.
“The five of us enter a huge grey building which manages to achieve a look that’s both looming and funky,” Day begins, “sort of like Satan’s version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, if Satan were clinically depressed. We go through the usual inane procedures of emptying pockets and taking off jackets, shoes, watches, earrings to get through the metal detectors. . . . Afterwards, the guards stamp our hands with the ‘security’ ink that can be recognized only by the prison’s UV readers, identifying us as nonterrorists. Then they unbolt the door to the visiting room.”
It’s hard to imagine not being on edge after this welcome, but Day and her pals manage to pull themselves together and spend a lovely afternoon with Bell, a man who once coached the prison’s football team and is, by all accounts, a “model prisoner,” a teacher and mentor to the hundreds of men who are locked up beside him.
Day depicts Bell as gentle and kind – far from the mainstream media’s portrayal of him as a monstrous killer. What’s more, Day makes clear that she believes Bell should be released from prison immediately. At the same time, she is not naïve and knows that this is a long shot.
Or is it? After all, Whitehorn got out after serving 14 years, so the unlikely is, in fact, possible.
In a beautiful piece called “In Handcuffs, Smiling,” Day recounts her first meeting with Whitehorn, the “leftist lesbian prisoner who bombed the US Capitol.” What follows is a love story, however untraditional, that is guaranteed to make even the most cynical reader shake his or her head in wide-eyed and gleeful amazement.
The story harkens back to the mid-1980s when Day was hired by an unnamed feminist newspaper to write a story about the four women [and three men] who, in 1984, had launched explosives at the US Capitol as a protest against a raft of imperialist policies. Day traveled to the prison where the women were held and interviewed all four – Marilyn Buck, Linda Evans, Susan Rosenberg, and of course, Whitehorn.
“I agreed with them; I disagreed with them,” she writes, “I needed to know who they were.”
Still, politics aside, Day admits that it was during that first meeting that she became smitten with the “small, grey-haired [woman] with deep brown eyes.” Not only that, she writes that thanks to Whitehorn’s ability “to combine complex layers of fact with a gut-level identification with suffering,” the details of the case began to come into clear focus for her as a reporter.
For many years thereafter, the pair exchanged letters, and Day visited Whitehorn whenever she could scrape together enough money to travel to the far-flung prisons where Whitehorn was detained. It was obviously not an easy courtship, and Day’s account of living with the “low-grade terror that comes from loving someone who is in constant danger” is stirring. “She could be beaten up, or put in ‘the hole,’ for various infractions. Like other political prisoners, Laura could at any time legally be confined to a sensory deprivation unit. She could die of bad medical care,” Day writes.
But she didn’t, and after 14 years and three months, in August 1999, Whitehorn walked out of prison, a free woman. “All these years later, Laura and I are together and, last time I checked [about a second ago] we plan to be for the rest of our lives,” Day notes.
Are you grinning yet?
If not, perhaps “Miracle on Pennsylvania Avenue: Santa Confirmed as NSA Head,” will tickle your fancy. Here, the jolly man in red reveals the secret of his political ascension: “Magic powers to look into the hearts of every human being.” This talent means that “he needs no permission to monitor email, phone calls, or financial records. . . . Simply by riding around in his sleigh, says Santa, he can circumvent the courts in a way previous administrations could only dream of doing.”
Still not feeling it? Then try: “Dead Iraqis Occupy Wall Street.” Unlike breathing OWS participants, the dead Iraqis in lower Manhattan “never sleep, so they don’t need blankets or tents. They’re clearly not going to bug the local merchants to use their bathrooms . . . According to an unofficial count, the number of deceased Iraqis is around 126,000. Interestingly, this figure coincides with the conservative estimate of Iraqi civilians killed as a direct result of military violence since the war began in March 2003.”
Day’s wit is on further display in the fictional White House reaction to the Occupation that she’s concocted: “‘Imagine what we’d have to deal with if the 3.5 and counting million Iraqis made refugees by the war were to come here,’ speculated one source. ‘We wouldn’t have the faintest idea what to do.’ “
You betcha, we wouldn’t.
Other essays in Snidelines feature cameo appearances from Poppin’ Fresh, the “chubby little standard-bearer for the mass marketing of lip-smacking glutens;” disgraced businessman Bernie Madoff; and the “real” Che Guevara – “bald, no more than five feet, two inches, in height, about 87 pounds, with acne, buck-teeth, a crooked nose and chronic flatulence.” Indeed, Day snipes that Che’s true face could derail the political merchandising industry since the dead revolutionary’s comely visage has made many a dollar for corporate America. Lest this not be enough, the Virgin Mary, the ultimate personification of maternal “greatness through sacrifice,” and her wily son, also play prominent roles in Snidelines.
Both figures are vociferous in their claim that they have heard more than enough nonsense from blow-hard evangelicals. Enough with the hate, they say. Enough.
Needless to say, Susie Day is a masterful – and entertaining – satirist. Her goal, however, is anything but playful. As she writes in the book’s introduction: “Satire points out an absurd amount of amorality embedded in everyday life.” That she can poke fun at this immorality is a huge gift, and even if we grin through gritted teeth, her wordplay and vision are fortifying. We’ve long heard that laughter is the best medicine – but we’ve now been reminded that it is also an essential ingredient for community organizing, resistance, and a principled defiance against wrongs and indignities.