Issue: Art You Engaged

The Political as Personal: On Reading Widely by Alexandra Watson

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. 

The Political as Personal: On Reading Widely

At a backyard garden party in Harlem, a fellow recent graduate from my MFA program asks me what I’m reading. I haven’t had as much time to read this summer as I had hoped (who ever does?) but I list some work that has interested me lately: Claudia Rankine, Chimamanda Adichie, Naomi Jackson, Tiphanie Yanique. He wrinkles his nose at me. I feel a need to explain. I’m trying to buy and read women and writers of color, I say.

He asks me to clarify: have I been avoiding white male writers? I think a moment, then say I guess that is a part of it. That’s a little messed up–he says–what if a white guy wrote a great book—you wouldn’t buy it, just because he’s a white guy?

Later, I will understand his protest as personal: he doesn’t want to be the white guy who wrote a great book that won’t be read by people like me because of who he is. At the moment, I begin to talk about reading as a political choice, about how as an English major, and then as a graduate student in creative writing, I’ve read my share of white men, could probably name scores of white male writers. So my reading choices now are a push back, an effort to correct the wrongs of past syllabi and summer reading lists, an affirmative action for my bookshelf.

There’s something unsatisfying in my own response. What’s the problem? I do believe that literature has political power. And my work as an editor with Apogee Journal is political, aimed to promote diversity in publishing. To be fit for it I ought to read widely, to pay attention to the literary status quo and all the million ways it can be twisted, bent, and challenged.

But it’s more than that—just like my peer’s response, my position is personal. My reading choices, my recommendations, my own writing—they are about my attachment to a given set of characters, or a way of turning a phrase. For as long as I’ve read, I’ve been captivated by stories on the margins. Like other women of color, I sometimes see myself more clearly in work written by other women of color. When I first read Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, it felt like a major revelation—another mixed girl, who could pass for white, negotiating the paradoxes and inconsistencies of race.

But it’s not always about having a similar experience—I don’t claim to understand the context of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Nigerian Civil War of the late ‘60s, any more than I understand the 19th century England of Pride and Prejudice. Yet somehow, Adichie crafts the subjectivity and agency of her female characters in a way that feels exhilarating to me–feels almost revolutionary.

Perhaps the revolution is in the rejection of the old rules of whose work gets published. Perhaps it is in the ability to interrupt so-called standard English with doses of Igbo (or Caribbean patois, or black American vernacular). Or in painting these girls and women with such depth and imagination that the reader sees them conjured up, hears them talking and laughing. Something about reading these women feels liberating for my own work. It allows me to eliminate the white male gaze that Toni Morrison has described—that little devil that sits on our shoulders and tells us what’s valuable by mainstream standards.

I didn’t lose any sleep over being challenged for my reading choices. But I was able to acknowledge that the choice wasn’t purely political—that the diverse narratives and prose styles produced by female writers of color compels me; engages me, and feels most urgently needed in our world today.

Alexandra Watson

Alexandra Watson is the Executive Editor of Apogee, a journal promoting diversity in literature and the arts. She received her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Brown University, and her MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia. She has received fellowships from the Catwalk Artists Residency and the Fine Arts Work Center. She teaches composition in Columbia’s Undergraduate Writing Program and at the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, and works as a Writing Consultant at Baruch College.