Art You Engaged. / Are you engaged? is an emergency issue of The James Franco Review. Writers, editors, and artists around the country explored what it means for them to be politically or consciously engaged in their work and to also examine literature’s relationship to safety.
Safe and Sound
Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages–
and it is easier to stay at home,
the nice beer ready.
From “The Chicago Picasso” (1967), Gwendolyn Brooks
I remember, once in a writing workshop, a white student wrote a story with a black protagonist. But, the protagonist could’ve been purple or green and the story would’ve been the same. The protagonist’s race was decorative; somebody wanted to spice up the bedroom!
No one was able to or no one wanted to articulate this. So, instead the room squirmed, recoiling inside. After about 10 minutes of typical workshop banter, someone (brave soul) did it, putting a bullet through the head of our polite discomfort. Someone “hinted” at the “potential” problem of the protagonist’s race.
That was enough for the writer to decide to make the character white. It’d be easier.
A wave of relief washed over the room. Our insides applauded. Ah, the nice beer ready.
Why was it easier? Was it easier because the writer would have less work to do, “proving” that he could “write a black character,” or was it easier because, in general, it’s just harder to write about marginalized people (regardless of who the writer is)?
Is it easier for everyone (including people of color) to write about white people? Straight people? Able-bodied? Middle and upper class? Because no one questions the authenticity of those things, no one wonders whether they’re being stereotyped, or whether the writer knows enough about that experience to write it. When your characters occupy what is considered “the default position,” or any form of the status quo, including stereotypes, no one labels it political, it’s just artistic. But write a story with a protagonist of color, that isn’t just decorative, that is challenging, and suddenly you’re making statements.
You are snatching beers out of hands.
You’re not spicing up the bedroom! You’re destroying it.
Have you seen Netflix’s documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?
I did and became a little obsessed. (And so should you!) Through exhaustive “millennial-style” research on google, I came upon this brilliant Jessica Goldstein interview with Salamishah Tillet, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writing a book about Simone. The interview explores John Legend quoting Simone during the Oscar acceptance speech for the song, “Glory:”
Nina Simone said, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say: Selma is now.
In its discussion of art, pop culture and politics with shoutouts to everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Kanye, the interview tackles representation, POV and power in Hollywood.
Q: Did you see this story in The Hollywood Reporter where they interviewed an anonymous Academy voter about her ballot? She brought up Selma, saying “I’ve got to tell you, having the cast show up in T-shirts saying “I can’t breathe” [at their New York premiere] — I thought that stuff was offensive. Did they want to be known for making the best movie of the year or for stirring up shit?”
A: I read that article! She was all into American Sniper. This is the thing: When there are politics related to “marginalized communities” or “minority groups,” that gets read as politics proper. When it’s read as politics in support of the American nation-state and war—it’s interesting that, in her read of American Sniper, which she felt was transformative artistically, she saw that as an apolitical film. So the burden of politics gets placed on films by minority artists or women artists, and it doesn’t get placed on films that are deeply political, maybe conservative, expressing the views of those already in power.
Every writer has her own reason for doing what she does, and every writer is probably also a little crazy, because certainly you don’t give up all your time to be rejected all the time, unless you’re a little nuts, like me.
I’ve written for as long as I can remember, but I only started to feel dead serious about it, when in college (before I had started taking Asian American Studies classes, learning about badass writers like Hisaye Yamamoto and Marilyn Chin), I realized that there were stories that I wanted to read, but did not know how to find, stories about people like my mother, people that I loved, and the ways in which we contradicted the world.
I decided that I could write those stories. That decision felt sadly revolutionary. And, because I believe enough in humanity, if there’s something I’m longing for, then there’s someone else out there, stranger to me, longing for the same thing.
And that potentially highly deluded belief keeps me from giving up.
There is a problem that all of us as human beings have to deal with, existentially, of feeling and being alone, but aggravate that loneliness with invisibility, an inability to perceive yourself as a protagonist and it becomes a whole other beast. Not only are you lonely, all craggy-looking like that Knausgaard dude, but no one thinks you look good while being lonely, because no one even knows what you look like. That’s the feeling I’m trying to write myself out of…no one even knows what you look like.
So, for me, the purpose is being seen, not just as an individual, but for everyone else who’s looked in the mirror and never seen a protagonist, or a hero, and who combatted that reality by either trying to be someone else, or trying to be no one at all.
Certainly, we could all choose an easier route. We could make all our characters white, straight, give them all their limbs. We could talk about difficult issues decoratively, in a way that affirms the status quo. All my characters could have ancestor problems, polishing ugly toenails for eternity in a den of smoke. Or they could be wildly successful because of the benevolence of our meritocracy, rewarding those who work hard, and punishing those who don’t. These model minorities would be proof that any other person of color who had a tough time, just wasn’t worthy, and that would make us all feel better about ourselves, right? Because art’s purpose is to make you feel better. Art’s purpose is to make you stay at home.
But, some of us have bigger, more comfortable homes than others, and so it’s easier to never leave. Some of us have alarm systems. Some of us have the ability to choose who enters our house and how. Some of us have homes that could survive almost anything, because they are deeply insured, structurally sound, safe.
As safe as Clint Eastwood. As sound as American Sniper.
And others, we who wander without, we who anything we construct ruins the neighborhood, we who bring down the property value, we who don’t have homes, or have the tiniest ones in the worst part of town (which is the worst part of town because we live in it), we who complain too much, we who should work harder, we who don’t have any merit, we who just can’t write, we who just don’t fit the vision of your journal/country, we who have to be more subtle, we who have to learn to knock on every door, we who have to be polite, we who shouldn’t know our rights, we who shouldn’t let you know that we know our rights, we who should use our turn signals, we, we don’t have much of a choice now do we?
It always has. Now, breathe.
Born and raised in LA, Nancy Jooyoun Kim is a graduate of UCLA and the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Butter, Prairie Schooner blog, The Kenyon Review blog, City Arts Magazine and Amerasia Journal. She now lives in the SF Bay Area, where she’s working on a novel and personal essays.