“On the evening of the 2004 presidential election, I sat at the computer in my Santa Barbara home and willed the voters in the Cleveland-area precincts to carry Ohio into the blue, Democratic column,” writes David Starkey, introducing his new essay collection, Living Blue in the Red States. “The next morning, like tens of millions of other progressive Americans, I woke up angry. What the hell were those red voters thinking?”
In a blue city like Santa Barbara, the Democratic faithful still cringe at the thought of November 2004. Starkey, a poet, playwright, regional television host, and Santa Barbara City College English professor, cringes along with them. Lingering thoughts and questions about the country’s much-analyzed politico-cultural divide motivated him to collect pieces of creative nonfiction that reflect on the experience of voting blue in regions of the country that vote red.
“I, myself, lived for seven years in Louisiana and South Carolina,” said Starkey, on the phone from his SBCC office. “When Bush was reelected, I wondered what my old friends were thinking, so I asked if they’d be interested in writing essays. Sure enough, they were.” Drawing from a pool of writers associated with poetry and academia, Starkey received a surprising variety of submissions, each one with a unique perspective on the very idea of what it means to be red or blue. “There was a huge range,” he said. “People who had grown up in the South and lived there their whole lives often described themselves as purple: They had certain blue values but couldn’t help but be colored, as it were, by the area in which they grew up. Some of the contributors were angry about this idea of a red-blue divide; in their eyes, it’s a false bifurcation.”
In Starkey’s mind, most Americans aren’t solid red or blue, but purple. “I’m a pretty blue purple,” he said, “although I wrote an article for an Omaha newspaper not too long ago about how I grew up hunting with my father and still go out and do this very red activity that most of my beliefs contrast with.” That complexity and nuance shape each of Living Blue in the Red States’ essays. “They double back and they undercut their own theses,” Starkey said. “The typical essay about politics is meant to persuade you with rhetoric. Here, meditation and introspection are at the forefront; it’s a new mixture, and I’m proud to have a book that showcases it.”
“One of the things critics respond to positively about the book,” Starkey added, “is that it’s very well-reasoned, that people look at both sides of the question. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few essays in there that are really angry, but it covers the spectrum.” The book’s brand of creative personal/political essay has won accolades from unexpected quarters. “I’ve had a couple reviews from conservatives, and they’ve been praising it,” Starkey said. “I haven’t had the book praised as much by say, MoveOn.” (One contributor spends her chapter recounting a miserable, hopeless campaign to get out the blue vote in Independence, Missouri, with that very organization.)
Is Starkey in a state, as it were, of existential despair about American politics? “Ultimately, I’m an optimist,” he responded. “I love this country. Despite its many faults-I could go on and on listing them-there are also so many great things. As I’m looking out the window at Anacapa Island in the distance, the Santa Ynez mountains behind me, I feel really lucky to be here.”
David Starkey directs SBCC’s new Creative Writing Program, which will offer five classes in the spring semester. Find out more at creativewriting.sbcc.edu.