Issue: Art You Engaged

On Art and Engagement by Monica Lewis

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. 


On Art and Engagement

Art starts in the body. There is no sea of muses, no channeling of majestic or menacing spirits that enter the body and romance it into birthing some alien baby named Art. Art begins as a spark sent out from our hamburger-shaped, starship of a brain. The brain commands our arms to muscle our hands to get our fingers moving to make manifest that initial flicker. Our body gives birth to the bodied idea and that creation is called art.

And any creation that lives, no matter how isolated, how hidden, how terrified, must engage with the physical world. Hold your breath and feel every cell in you scream for air. Get high off your ass and feel every cell in you sigh from weightless relief. Agoraphobics engage. Anorexics engage. Adrenaline junkies diving from the sky engage. The dying, until their last drowning breath, still engage. If art is to live, it must engage. It must interrogate and negotiate its space. It must do so in its own way, through its own voice, from its own body.

For me, as a writer, whose cis female, brown-skinned, “dis”-abled body must live in a patriarchal, racist, glorified able-body world, this means my art must resist the urge to distort its exclusive stories. Each one I write must refuse to reconfigure its narrative space into one that is collective, cooperative, benign. If the art that’s birthed from my body hopes to live, it must engage with this mess of a world, and, for real, it must engage with it like a cancer, so evident and relentless in its own design that it cannot easily be eradicated. My art must be radical, it must be loud and clear, and it must keep growing until it utterly dismantles the actual malignancy of its universe – that which is called “universal”.

But the message consistently given to non-“universal” lives? Black lives, trans lives, immigrant lives, poor lives, gay lives, raped lives, “dis”-abled lives, all the lives upon lives which live like ellipses on this limited list, is to fit the normative narrative or just “shut the fuck up.” Do not engage. Do not dispute. Do not contend. Do not alert the world that you too have a body that needs to breathe.

Do not fling your hands up, or ask for 911 at a stranger’s door some snow-soaked night when you’re staggering bruised and bloodied from your car, body broken, and like your car, soon to be totaled. Forget the right to smoke a cigarette in your vehicle that is one of the few spaces that is really yours. Don’t think you can look “hood” in your hoodie outside of your hood, or imagine you’re safe to stand on a NYC MTA platform dressed in a way that gender-bends; in seconds your body might be shoved down into the tracks, a train bounding forward, your life up for kill. Don’t sleep inside your nest at seven-years-old and never dream a bullet could enter your skull. At fourteen, don’t give a shout or you’ll eat mud in a lemon-colored bikini at a pool party with a boot to your back. You are almost like any teen—stupid shit always breaks out at a party— the he/said/she/said bubbling up under the sun—but when you’re black, and you’ve got a mouth? Mud and a gun and a cop on your spine. Don’t try to navigate the busted up stairwell in your apartment building, where, like the lights in this project of a house, even the elevators are broken and, because your space is a threat, cops with eager fingers on triggers lurk in every corner, their bullets calling your name.

The message, again and again: “shut the fuck up.” Instead, learn the art of biting your tongue until you taste blood. Find comfort in squeezing your knuckles so tight your brown skin turns white. Pray for a way to go about unseen, unnamed. Hope to harness one of the Deathly Hallows, cloaking yourself in a thing that saved an orphaned, disfigured wizard. Work to wield an invisibility that might save your life. A message you should know: it is okay to protect yourself, to try to stay alive.

But try to take your sore, hidden fingers and soak them in the colors of the body you inhabit. Splash that shit all over the places you daily tread. Say your name, again, and again, before it is refigured into a hashtag. Say your name and say theirs: Trayvon, Leelah, Eric, Sandra, Michael, Danny, Aiyana, Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, Depayne, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, Sharonda, Myra, Dajerria, Renisha, Akai. (You know there will be more to add.)

If you don’t make art, live in it. Seek out the voices that speak your body into sight, that sculpt it into actual flesh—a necessary and restless sculpting.

Who’d have thought art could be more real than life itself? The news—proliferating through our media, our newsfeeds—for real, that shit is failing us daily; it does not suffice.

No, it is not your burden to constantly carry the weight by calling it out. But art, art that works, does call a thing what it is; it looks monstrosity in its face and says, “No, you, shut the fuck up.”

And it is your right, your refuge. It just may spur the reckoning this whole hell of a place needs to wake up past the snooze of a snooze of a snooze of another fucking snooze. Your art could be the vital alarm. A striking hammer to the head, a dawn cutting light, a grasping of ankles to pull a body straight full from the bed. A rude dawning. A cackle to the call. We ain’t roosters, but there’s a message in our wattle. Maybe they will hear, and maybe they will eventually rise, eyes matted, yet squinting toward some shared sun.


Monica Lewis lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is currently working on a collection of short stories. Prior to receiving an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, she studied in the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her fiction appeared in issue three of The James Franco Review and she was recently a VONA/Voices fellow.

Front page image © LaMont Hamilton and Jeremy Toussant Baptiste, from “The Performance of Evil Nigger” performed at Jack in Brooklyn, July 2015.