This Is What America Looks Like

  • Edited by Caroline Bock and Jona Colson
  • Washington Writers' Publishing House
  • 262 pp.

A poignant, winning anthology born from a nationwide rallying cry.

This Is What America Looks Like is a collection of poems and stories by 100 authors all living in or originally from DC, Maryland, or Virginia — an area affectionately known as the DMV. The book is at once flexing the power of a small press and honoring a particular region, which, funny enough, is something small publishers are especially adept at doing. 

Twenty-five years after publishing its last anthology, Washington Writers’ Publishing House realized now was the time to put together a collection that reflected the DMV of today. The inspiration for the project was born out of the familiar cry heard at the myriad national protests and rallies over the last four years.

“The impulse behind this collection hasn’t been so much celebration as — let’s be honest — rage. The chant ‘This is what America looks like’ — in all its racial, ethnic, gender, age and ability-diverse fury — which echoed down the January 2017 Women’s March, rattled through the brain of Caroline Bock, until she persuaded the press that it was high time we published another anthology…the chant would be its writing prompt as well as its title,” publisher Kathleen Wheaton writes in her foreword.

However, no one could have anticipated what was to come in 2020. Wheaton continues:

“Between the thought that sparked the anthology and the chosen submission dates came a deadly pandemic and the sickening police execution of a Black grocery customer named George Floyd, both disasters sparking a national reckoning with a painful past and a terrifying, feckless present. Could anyone compose polished poems and publishable short stories in such ‘uncertain’ times? Yes, it turned out, they could.”

Among the 111 pieces featured are a remarkable number of standouts — far too many to highlight here. But I was especially moved by the breadth of humanity on display in all its sadness, joy, rage, despair, and humor. As readers, we are offered a glimpse into how life has changed this year — how our funerals, graduations, and even work meetings look vastly different today than they did in 2019.

The anthology features meditations on the deeply ingrained institutionalized racism in this country, along with varied reflections on immigration, sexism, political division, loneliness, and abuse. It asks us to ponder our identities, to consider who we think we are and how society perceives us. Who are we as we move forward? What needs to change?

The anthology is organized in reverse-alphabetical order by last name, which I found slightly puzzling. On one hand, it’s a neutral way to present content, and each selection has the chance to stand out on its own. But because of this organization, the anthology seems a little disjointed.

I wouldn’t have minded the editors guiding our understanding of modern-day America by grouping the offerings into similar overarching topics or themes. But that may be too much of an ask. Contextualizing something we’re still sorting out might not be possible.

As a result, I found myself spending more time thinking about each piece on its own — which isn’t bad — when what I craved was the opportunity to view the content from both the micro and macro levels. Of course, the events, social upheavals, and raging pandemic connect all of us, and the poetry and fiction here address it from a wide variety of lenses. Maybe seeking answers right now isn’t the point. Maybe it’s up to us to make those connections.

As we eagerly anticipate a 2021 with the prospect of restored hope, health, and light, these stories and poems are an important reminder of what we’ve gone through together and apart. We’re not out of it, though. The beauty of this anthology is that it urges us to reflect on what we’ve survived, what we’ve fought for, and what we’ve lost. But it also looks forward with cautious optimism. This Is What American Looks Like is moving and timely, and I highly recommend it.

Sarahlyn Bruck is a community college writing professor and the author of two contemporary novels, Designer You and Daytime Drama. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.

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