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.
A month after my partner and I began dating, we had our first big fight. It was Easter Sunday, one of the first bright, warm days of spring, and we were driving to meet his family for lunch. The conversation had started before we left, instigated by Garner’s Modern American Usage, which I’d found interesting for its small anecdotes of words that were commonly misused. Patrick, a well-established poet, had thumbed through the book and remarked that he was troubled by the concept of “proper usage” at all. “Who gets to decide what’s proper?” he asked. I was confused to his objection; as writers, didn’t we all adhere to some standard of diction?
“It’s just a book,” I said, exasperated. “Why do you have to read so much into it?”
By the time we were seated in my blue Civic, speeding down the New Jersey Turnpike, what had begun as a debate on the politics of language had turned into a full-blown argument over the role of literature in politics, and with it, our roles as writers.
This was several years ago. I was completing my last year of MFA, growing confident in the quality of my writing but increasingly worried about what it meant to be an “Asian American” writer. I felt the burden of imagined expectations, snapshots of stories that felt inorganic to me pressing into my skull—the immigration story, the “fish out of water” story, the “generation gap” story. I imagined the Asian American community inspecting my work for politics that would serve a collective agenda and jeering at me when they found none. I imagined a white audience dismissive of work that featured no lotus flowers, no tiger moms, no secret fans.
In a world where I saw white writers publishing a diversity of subjects and styles while marginalized writers were pigeon-holed into “ethnic” shelves, I yearned to have what the white writers had. I wanted their freedom. And part of their freedom, it seemed to me, was the ability to be apolitical if they wanted to be.
But Patrick disagreed. “Writing is inherently political,” he told me.
“I don’t write about political things,” I protested, shaking my head vigorously. “I don’t want to. Why should I have to write about Asian identity? Why can’t I just write about what I want?” I burst into tears, all my fears about what I felt expected to do versus what I wanted to do pouring into the open.
I don’t remember what Patrick said in response. He might have insisted to me that even the decision not to write explicitly about identity was political; he might have told me I was misunderstanding the word “political.” Or maybe he stayed silent, given that at that point I was sobbing—angry, confused, resistant to the idea that politics would creep into my writing whether I wanted them to or not.
Despite always being a proud Asian American in my daily life, I suppose for a long time I secretly wished I could simply assimilate into the white publishing world, my last name unnoticed. Politics of race, identity, and culture felt like a threat to me, to my writing, to how I thought I would be perceived as a writer. I thought if I kept my head down and did good work, maybe I’d be recognized as more than “just an Asian American writer.” It seems obvious to me now that, like the model minority myth, hiding behind a “safe” pathway that mimicked what white writers did was always doomed to end in failure. No matter how hard I tried, I would never be perceived as a white writer.
I can’t tell you, exactly, how I arrived to where I am now—an editor at the Asian American magazine Hyphen and a strong champion and advocate for diverse voices and progressive politics. Maybe it was the long conversations I had with Patrick as our relationship grew or reading the socio-politcal think pieces that began to spring up everywhere. Maybe it was the continuous grief I felt as cop after cop was acquitted for deaths of young black men or the growing sense of pride, admiration, and responsibility I felt towards the Asian American writers I had the honor of publishing. Or maybe it was just that slowly, as I built communities of color around me and listened to their stories, I began to let go of my fear, my resistance, my insistence that having blinders on was the same thing as being safe.
Half a year ago, in the wake of Mike Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths, I found that I’d lost all motivation to work on my novel. “It’s so pointless,” I told Patrick one day. “All of this is happening around us, and I feel so powerless. It feels trivial to write about imaginary circuses or sad little girls when there are so many bigger problems out there.” I yearned to be able to write something important, something that would alter the narrative of this country, that would incite empathy and change.
Patrick asked me about my novel research, how I’d learned about the Choctaw tribes in Oklahoma and the independent all-black towns that fell during the Depression. We discussed the fact that my protagonist was white but that her granddaughter was half-Asian. “None of that seems pointless to me,” Patrick said. I nodded my head in assent, but I’d be lying if I said I was convinced.
I don’t pretend to know what the best route is for any artist or writer to engage politically. I’m still trying to figure that out myself. I struggle, for example, with reconciling myself to the fact that the lyrical family dramas I’m inclined to write don’t engage directly with the violent reality of an America in which brown and black people are murdered daily. I wonder, often anxiously, if I am being a good ally to other marginalized communities, if I’m ignorant in ways I’m not even aware of. I think constantly about what needs I can address as an editor at Hyphen, and sometimes I worry that perhaps, amidst all these writers who seem like they’ve been politically righteous since the day they were born, I’m a fraud, the wrong person to be holding this position at all.
But to show up is a political act. To write is a political act. To question is a political act. If I have found no other answers, I have those certainties, and it is that which grounds me as a writer and editor. The great myth of this country has been that there has been one static, unassailable narrative, one righteous and unbending truth. I now know that as artists, we destabilize that. We ask questions, of others and of ourselves. We create opportunities for others to ask questions. We tell different stories—some overtly political, others less so, many intensely personal—and insist on their inherent value. We show that not only are our voices rightfully part of the narrative of America—we are the narrative, in all of our bewildered, enraged, tragic, hilarious, glorious, divergent truths.
Karissa Chen is the author of the chapbook OF BIRDS AND LOVERS (Corgi Snorkel Press 2013). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Guernica, PANK, and The Toast. She has received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, Kundiman, and VONA/Voices. She is the fiction and poetry editor at Hyphen magazine and co-founding editor of Some Call It Ballin’. She completed her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College.
Image © photosteve101 via Flickr Creative Commons.