Issue: Art You Engaged

The Feeling of Contingency by Petrina Crockford

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 Feeling of Contingency

Engaging with politics in my writing—with the politics of race, gender, sexuality, in other words, with the fabric of identity—is tricky stuff. Not simply because I worry that approaching my characters and their lives from a ready-made position, no matter how true (race is a construct!) dishonors them by turning them into something like machine-pressed cut-outs, but because this seems to me a backwards way of approaching identity, an acceptance of what identity is perceived to be rather than an exploration of what it actually is, which, for me, is what it feels like to be alive. And this feeling is specific: What does it feel like to have the world, always, exert its pressure on you, to feel the eyes of others running over you, desiring you and not-desiring you, maybe hating you, maybe wanting to harm you, those gazes a weight that presses down hard enough to break you, to break some of us; that pressure that crushes you to destroy you, and then to remake you in its image. In which case: Don’t break, you cannot break, and all of your energy is spent holding back the walls slowly coming in, those walls like a sci-fi movie nightmare. How exhausting; what space or time is left, in this panic, to be a self that’s full, a self that’s not simply an expectation or a reaction?

I’m being abstract; but I can’t offer a thesis here, or a pithy line about identity because the way I’ve lived and understood it—and seen people live and understand it, at great cost to themselves and to others—is that who we are is, ultimately, elusive. It is others’ perceptions of us, and the roles we play to survive, that become static; and the fight is in challenging these perceptions and roles. This is old news for most of us; at worst, it’s become recited, become blasé. But the thing I can add is that, being the kind of writer I am, and given the life I’ve so far lived, I believe in approaching this fight from another place or maybe no place at all: I move between people. I am silent. I speak. I am outraged. I am complacent. I am nothing. I am all. I listen for the note’s reverberation, the sound made after the sound, try to hear in this the tone of something real, something beyond our politics and pain and shame and anger, because there, I think, is where we live. And when I hear that note I write it down, maybe not always well, but in the hope that it’s still possible to imagine a self and selves that can express themselves fully, freely, beyond our constructs, whoever may be setting these, and from whatever place they set them. And I remind myself there is no such thing as the clarity of the original note, because what was there is fleeting, and anyway there’s the saxophonist who I imagine playing the note, and the instrument and the people in the room listening, but there’s that instant after the note’s been played that I listen for, that strange and beautiful insistence. This is my fight: to be nothing, to be everything, to listen.

I’ve known too many people destroyed by these pressures, made angry, ill, or depressed: a childhood friend of mine, hospitalized in college for what the doctors called a psychic break when he was trying to understand his sexuality, to be present in it, though this would cost him his family, would ostracize him from his Chicano culture; a friend of my brother’s, the son of immigrants from India, parents who worked at a fast-food restaurant and gave their son everything they thought he needed to survive, a BMW, and nice clothes, because “opportunity at all costs” is not a cliché but real, and he lost it, he shot himself and his girlfriend to death one Valentine’s Day years ago in a suburban wasteland where all that matters is what you have and how much, no matter how bad you hurt or hurt others to get it (I remember him finishing his homework up in the bleachers at a high school basketball game, still just a kid with skinny kid-legs); and my grandmother on the Texas/Mexico border, brilliant but with little formal education, a woman who has lived for the survival of her children, through generations and two countries, and who is now trying to live for herself but the doctor has put her on antidepressants, and how can she fit together the past and the present, make sense of a rapidly changing and violent world? So many people running through my head, not ghosts at all. I close my eyes and see people removed from their pasts because of immigration or exile and trying to get on in places that refuse to see them; women who love women and men who love men, men and women who are not what they are perceived to be and who are shamed, exiled, or killed because of their love and desires; people stuck inside systems and ways of being that tell them they cannot be, or love, or feel because they are too poor, too brown, too uneducated, too queer . . . and as I write this, I hesitate to reduce lives to the spectacle of a sentence and then to imply that these sentences somehow illustrate a point. I don’t mean to underscore a point so much as say that life is the battleground, that the living are more important than any idea I have or what I, alone, could say about identity. Through these lives, maybe what I’m saying becomes living; maybe it is better understood. Maybe, in this sense, politics becomes real, the political is everywhere and is everything, is inside of us, because I think—at this point in time—there’s nothing more politically radical than to be interested in the human, in our struggle to be, to stay alive.

This is how I understand safety in James Baldwin’s terms: We have, all of us, built the illusion of safety from our respective places. The straight white male has built an illusion of safety as much as I, in my life, have built my various illusions to get by: Chicana, white girl, straight white girl, straight Chicana, not Chicana but Mexican-American, maybe not straight at all, daughter of an immigrant, first-generation college kid . . . these all have meant various things to me in various moments, have helped me to mount a defense and to survive at different times and places, have helped me to evolve. And if I understand these, too, as illusions it’s not to diminish the importance of identity but to see it a something self-fashioned, like a hand-sewn coat that can be worn inside out (or not): Chic one day, hideous the next. Because how fragile we are, this fragility that’s the tension between the way people see us and the way we feel inside ourselves, this meeting place that bends or breaks with each new encounter or conversation. At this point is a movement between me and the world—us and others, others and ourselves—and this is beautiful; this movement is my art and I embrace it no matter how confusing or difficult it is. This movement is hate but it is also love. It must be beautiful.

I tell myself never to hold on to one self for too long so that I don’t become victim of myself, so that I don’t become greedy or possessive with who I am because then I’ll become greedy and possessive with others; I’ll see them the way I want them to be seen, the way I’m demanding they be seen. And when this happens, I’ll have stopped listening. I’ll have stopped writing down what it feels like to break, to bend, to be crushed, to survive. I’ll have no more stories to tell. And when there are no more stories—either mine or someone else’s—there can be no more politics, no more possibility, no such thing as freedom, as the feeling and gesture of being free.


Petrina Crockford was born in Del Rio, Texas and raised in California’s Central Valley. Her recent fiction has appeared in Meridian, LUMINA, and The Raleigh Review, and she’s written on Chinua Achebe and Ernest Hemingway for the Paris Review. She was a finalist for the Rolex Literature Prize and has also been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. She lives in California.

Image © Peter Gannushkin.