Meet the 2020-21 Hugo Fellows! In this series, we’re catching up with each of the fellows to learn more about them, their favorite places to write, and their current projects.
Frances Lee (they/them) is a nonfiction essayist and environmental justice communications strategist based in Suquamish Territory (Bremerton, WA). Frances’s creative practices are animated by a deep inquiry into the everyday practices and norms that structure the stories we tell one another as activists and justice seekers. They invite readers to examine the destructive ideologies we reproduce and perhaps choose a more humane path. Frances edited the anthology, Toward an Ethics of Activism: A Community Investigation of Humility, Grace and Compassion in Movements for Justice. Their essays have appeared in Yes! Magazine, CBC The Sunday Edition, Bitch Media, and more. They are the recipient of the Seventh Wave 2020 Bainbridge Residency and the Seattle Globalist 2019 Environmental Justice Investigative Journalism Fellowship.
What’s one of the best pieces of writing advice you’ve ever received?
“Hold onto that part of you that first compelled you to start writing…The single essential survival skill for anybody interested in creating art is to learn to defend this inner life from the world” – Lan Samantha Chang.
After one of my pieces accidentally went viral a few years ago, I was thrown into the public eye, and my nervous system was wracked daily with anxiety and fear. I was overwhelmed with the quantity of reader feedback, especially ones that demanded what I write next. My friend Shelby Handler forwarded me a Literary Hub piece from Lan Samantha Chang with this advice. It reminds me to maintain a barrier between my self-worth and others’ opinions about my writing. It also reminds me to refrain from constant output or cultivating a shiny social media persona. Slowing down, deep study, and stillness are the conditions for brewing creativity for me to say something worth saying.
Where are some of your favorite places to write in Seattle?
In my living room in Bremerton. Or covertly at work in my Seattle office, back when I was commuting to work.
What are some things you’re enjoying about the Fellowship program so far?
My cohort! Whenever I start a new collaborative adventure, I always come in with high hopes for great colleagues and anxiety about failing to mesh with them. So far, they’ve been a blast to get to know, and getting to meet with them biweekly will be such a blessing for staying moored during the next year of tumult.
Tell us more about your project.
I am writing a series of essays investigating how we, as a community, can imbue compassion, humility, and pathways to redemption into social justice movement spaces to make them more inhabitable. Especially now, when collective hope and optimism feel at an all-time low. I appreciate the shifting narratives about not giving up, taking rest, forging ahead— messages of encouragement towards not just activists, but all our community members who are merely trying to survive another day of the pandemic, police brutality, and a proto-fascist racist regime.
But for me, as someone who was raised in a deeply religious community and then left, I feel the profound absence of a richness to these ideas that need to be made accessible to a broader public. Secular activism, or activism solely focused on material demands, is only touching the tip of the iceberg of possible transformation. I’m interested in unfurling and presenting ancient wisdoms I’ve inherited from Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism, and mixing them into current discourse about anti-racism, queerness, abolition, decolonization, and more.
Are there any writers whose work has been particularly helpful for you as you think about your project?
I really admire the work of adrienne maree brown, Mia Mingus, and the On Being project. Not only do I gain so a wealth of knowledge from them about innovative organizing strategy, transformative justice, embodiment, disability justice, and ways to nourish spiritual life, keeping up with their projects helps me uniquely position my writing and scholarship so that our works can share space, instead of competing with one another for attention. I recently discovered the work of the Sacred Design Lab, a project affiliated with Harvard Divinity School. Their 2019 report, Care of Souls, offers me a framework on articulating the bridge work I’m trying to do in my writing, as someone with religious trauma and is trying to reclaim parts of religious tradition to heal myself and others. The authors identify an emergent role in our society of loneliness, the caretakers of the soul: “These are the new interpreters of ancient wisdom, sanctifiers of daily life, and speakers to the deepest ground of our being. They do the project of being human in a different way. They solve for social and spiritual disconnection, and provide others with permission and resources to do the same.”