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.
My apartment window is in plain sight overlooking a typical Los Angeles courtyard patio and pool. During the day, the window frames me writing on my laptop, hunched in a tired cliché. At night, my silhouette casts against an illuminated curtain—standing, bowing, then prostrating. I inch away from the window as much as my apartment allows and make myself small. I hide when I pray.
A Muslim who does not practice or believe is generally regarded as safe. It is in the act of prayer that I become potentially dangerous. That I have experienced several instances of unjust suspicion becomes unnecessary to internalize this point: I know I am Muslim and I know this is feared.
Muslims are racialized and politicized. I may write about Saira and Waqas unpacking their groceries with all the cherished profundity of small-moment lit, yet if their Muslim-ness goes undissected, the story seems lacking or underdeveloped, as if writing Muslim characters requires justification. Race is a genre, one constructed by white gaze. If I reject its tropes and expectations—which mostly serve to reassure or center well-intentioned liberals—and instead write stories that fray Normal into its many threads, will I still fit in identity-centric publications? Or will I be left at the mercy of Establishment Lit and its search for universal truths in colorblind verisimilitudes? These questions flit in and out of my process, picking at insecurities, but they rarely affect my choices. Perhaps I’m too new at this, not yet bitter or wise enough to compromise. I simply close my eyes and pull on the ideas rooted deepest in the soil. I don’t know how else to face a blank screen and a blinking cursor. Sometimes this means I do engage the political discourse that hangs over my Muslim-ness. Under that toxic sun, I see complicity—consciences resting comfortably in the shade of US Exceptionalism. Society endures in the myth that it is good and the—conscious or unconscious—belief in this moral superiority justifies hegemony, pillaging, and murder. The illusion of ever-present danger makes us safe in these judgments.
In the bakery section of the grocery store near my apartment, there is a TV fixed on cable news. At a glance, even at a safe distance from its sound, the looping montages of carefully curated images establish a dread-filled Clash of Civilizations narrative. The brilliance of these packages is that even as someone who closely follows geopolitics, I lose myself arguing details. I grapple with the story while unconsciously accepting its a-historical framing. This is how I shop for eggs.
To write about my Muslim-ness and the politics forced upon it is to reclaim these moments on my own terms. Being in the grocery store, or in the theater as a trailer lionizes a hate-filled mass murderer, or on Facebook reading as a friend who I love says something disappointing—these moments will continue to occur no matter what I do. Privilege is not having to care—being able to magically “lighten up.” I can’t just stop being affected, but there is consolation in knowing that later, at a moment of my own choosing, I’ll engage the oppression in my own medium. But more than this, there’s something in the act of fictionalizing pain and anger, pulling them out into a story that exists apart from me. In having an artifact of my thinking and experiences that another may experience intimately. It’s a relief, an unburdening.
Writing then becomes an act of personal resistance and dissolution of self. Like anyone who confronts complicity, like a Muslim praying in plain sight, I become dangerous.
Ahsan Butt is a writer and essayist. He was born in Toronto, is of Pakistani descent, and currently lives with his wife in Los Angeles. His short-fiction and essays have appeared in The James Franco Review, Eclectica Magazine, LitroNY, as well as The Monarch Review, where he is a regular contributor.
Image © Rafay Seyal via Flickr Creative Commons.