53 Things That Mattered to Me in 2018
It’s been a hell of a year, hasn’t it? But then, it seems like we say that every year nowadays. The last few years it has felt not just that things are awful but that the rate of awfulness has accelerated. It is exactly that feeling that makes it all the more important to me to spend time thinking about the things that were good, the things that mattered. Here are some things that mattered to me this year. Please note, this list only reflects my own limited, incomplete, personal experiences. I didn’t see everything that could be seen this year, and not everything that I saw this year was released this year. These were things that stood out to me in 2018; I’d love to know what stood out to you, especially where our lists differ.
- One of the first things I shared in my weekly round-ups this year was this Steven Universe-inspired ballet piece, with dancer Juliet Doherty. I remember showing it to my dance-obsessed daughter, six years old at the time, and the way her eyes lit up as she watched.
- Amal El-Mohtar’s poem “Thunderstorm in Glasgow, July 25, 2013,” beautifully illustrated by Molly Crabapple. When I first read it, what struck me was how language informs identity. Now, I see too how it shows the separations between people, the barriers and the otherness.
- I read Erin Horáková’s 2017 piece “Kirk Drift” in February, and it did something I would not have expected after a lifetime as a Trekkie: it changed the way I think about Star Trek.
- Natalie Eilbert’s book Indictus was a searing collections of poems about trauma. It was so alive, so kinetic in its language. Troubling, but in a deeply necessary way.
- Everything Devin Kelly writes, whether essay, poem, or story, has at its core this searching, longing, tender quality. He wrote a piece about Goose from Top Gun that was also about his father, and about masculinity, and which I loved.
- L. D. Burnett, a historian and professor, wrote a piece called “Keeper of the Stories,” examining both the struggles of her Dust-Bowl-migrant family, and their complicity in the Japanese American Internment. It’s the kind of honesty in history that I still find to be unfortunately rare, but that I think we desperately need more of.
- 2018 was my year of superhero movies, the year I decided to finally catch up on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. I watched 18 MCU movies this year, and there were a lot that I liked quite a bit, but Black Panther stood out in that crowd for a lot of reasons, not least because it had characters saying things I’ve never heard in a blockbuster before.
- Rivers Solomon’s 2017 debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts was intense and amazing, both an excellent example of a long science fiction tradition and something that pushed the genre in new directions.
- I think I started listening to The Adventure Zone’s “Balance” arc last year, but I finished it in March and it has remained one of my favorite pieces of fantasy I experienced all year. God, I just love those boys.
- Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel Pachinko was both grand in scope and intimate, deeply empathetic, and taught me about a community I knew very little about before: Koreans living in Japan.
- I've read a lot of poems about injustice and our nation's disregard for black lives, but I'm not sure I've read any quite so tender and haunting as those in Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead.
- It’s been really wonderful reading so much speculative fiction by writers of color this year. One that stood out to me was Elaine Cuyegkeng’s 2017 story “These Constellations Will Be Yours,” about colonialism and forced servitude and revolution.
- Like just about everybody, I loved Paddington 2. Not just because it was a respite from the stress of the world, but because it was unabashedly itself, a children’s movie for children in an era when darkness or sarcasm seem to be more the rule in kids’ entertainment.
- I just adored Hannah Stephenson’s new chapbook Cadence, a collection of poems about new motherhood and all of the wonder and anxiety that comes with the care of a new life.
- Maggie Nelson’s 2015 memoir The Argonauts was by turns vexing, hilarious, troubling, heartbreaking, and throughout so deeply intelligent. Nelson insists on complicating every narrative, every system, every way of being. Perhaps this could be a lonely thing—it is for me, at times—but reading this was so affirming as well.
- Brandy Jensen’s “How to Poach an Egg and Leave a Marriage,” especially for this line: “Chasing the egg around the pot will only remind you of how often you run away from things, only to eventually coincide with yourself. You will wonder if it’s the running or the coinciding that makes you most miserable, and before you know it the eggs will be overdone.”
- I thought Franny Choi’s chapbook Death by Sex Machine was so interesting, both formally inventive and thematically resonant. Using artificial intelligence as a metaphor for the otherness of race and gender is just so, so smart.
- The most consistently entertaining and hilarious podcast I started listening to this year was definitely Drunk Safari. As host Maggie Tokuda-Hall puts it: “Essential animal facts as brought to you by dilletantes.”
- Another podcast I started listening to this year was Commonplace, and by far the episode that has most stuck with me was “Inside Commonplace.” Getting the behind-the-scenes conversations about the show, as well as the conversation between host Rachel Zucker and her husband, really showed me a lot about what an interview show can be.
- Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel wasn’t just beautiful and insightful—though it certainly was those things. It was also the single most inspiring book I read all year, the kind that helped me keep going.
- In May, Laura Turner wrote about being pregnant after three miscarriages, about the anxiety of it. It was a beautiful piece, I thought.
- Then in August, she shared her son’s birth story. That was beautiful, too, and made me so happy.
- Probably my favorite album of the year was Lucy Dacus’s Historian. I came back to those songs over and over again, particularly the song “The Shell” and its line “You don't want to be a leader / Doesn't mean you don't know the way.”
- Jerry Takigawa’s “Balancing Culture” photographs, about the Japanese American Internment, won the Curator’s Choice Award from Center Santa Fe this year, which is how I found them. I love them for their strong visual compositions, and for the personal nature of the exploration.
- Kathy Fish’s poem “Collective Nouns for Humans In the Wild” was published in 2017. It’s just as heartbreaking this year.
- Many of the poems in Ada Limón’s The Carrying have a heaviness to them, but there’s a core of resilience in them as well, and Limón passes that feeling along to us, showing us the reasons to keep carrying on, showing us how.
- I’m not going to be able to sum up Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries in just one or two sentences. It has in it trauma and mental illness. It is a Native story. It is about writing your way towards yourself. But it’s more than any or all of that, too.
- One of my absolute favorite podcasts is David Naimon’s Between the Covers, and I was very happy to see his conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin be turned into a book. I particularly enjoyed the introductions David added to introduce each section, which provided context and deepened the experience.
- I’ve been heartened to see a number of pieces this year engaging with complicated topics with a lot of nuance, acknowledging the messiness of the questions involved and the lack of clear, simple answers. One of those was Connie Wang’s “I've Written About Cultural Appropriation For 10 Years. Here's What I Got Wrong.”
- R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries was utterly gorgeous in its prose, and I found it resonant in how it looked at the ways in which we form personal narratives, both how we attempt to invent ourselves and how we see (or fail to see) the others in our lives.
- Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know is without question one of the best and most personally important books I read this year. What an amazingly honest, open, full-hearted story Nicole has given us about adoption, about heritage, about self-understanding, about family, and how families are both made and inherited. I’m just so happy this book exists.
- Kirsten Tradowsky’s “Time Echo” paintings really interested me. I find the finished paintings aesthetically interesting, particularly in their gesture, but I think that the process behind them is what really nails it for me, the way that Tradowsky blurs details mirroring the way memory blurs details.
- I have to admit that I never listened to Superchunk before this year, but What a Time to Be Alive was a great place to start. I’d describe the songs as “defiantly joyful,” I think.
- I often find myself thinking that Fred Rogers’ existence is proof that the world can never be all bad. Watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? made me cry a lot, of course.
- Brandon Taylor’s piece about his mother was so moving, so beautiful. I’m so grateful for him.
- Lyz Lenz’s essay “Why Writing Matters In the Age of Despair” was a potent reminder of the necessity of documenting and commenting on these times.
- Innuendo Studio’s video “Lady Eboshi Is Wrong” was really good. It’s about the difference between empathy and agreement, a particularly important distinction right now, I think.
- I really like Mikey Neumann’s Movies With Mikey videos. I think they’re some of the most insightful film criticism out there right now. His video “Get Off the Floor” showed us more of himself, shared his personal story, and that’s something that more and more I’m finding to be admirable and even necessary from cultural commenters.
- Crazy Rich Asians showed me just how much I needed a movie like this, where Asians and Asian Americans get to just be people.
- A story that has stuck with me since I heard it on the podcast The Other Stories is Mary J. Breen’s “Pieces of String Too Short to Be of Any Use.” There’s something about the idea of a story that engages with regret but refuses nostalgia that feels very right to me.
- The movie Eighth Grade was just about the perfect encapsulation of the most awkward part of adolescence. It’s such a strange thing, too, to be able to connect so deeply to both sides of the teen/parent struggle.
- I love how José Olivarez’s debut poetry collection Citizen Illegal encompasses both fire and tenderness, poems about race and place, but also about love in many forms.
- Gretchen Felker-Martin’s essay “You Called for Me” showed me something new about the classic anime Akira, which I first watched when I wasn’t too much older than my son is now. Teaching him how to process his emotions, how to avoid the isolation that masculinity so often demands of boys and men, is something that’s important to me, and this essay gets at just why it’s important.
- I always love when Noah Cho writes about food, and his “Bad Kimchi” column at Catapult is just great. I particularly loved the first installment, “The Love of Korean Cooking I Share With My White Mother.”
- Sarah Gailey’s short story “STET” grabbed my eye at first for its experimental form, but what made it stick was the potency of its emotion.
- I heard The Heart podcast’s 2017 series “No” when it was rebroadcast on Radiolab in October this year. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything that engaged with the concept of consent in such a concrete way, and I really think that it’s something everybody should listen to.
- KangHee Kim’s “Street Errands” photographs are so weird and just love them so much. I can’t stop thinking about them.
- I don’t know who Noah and PJ are but their first wedding dance just made (and makes) me radiantly happy.
- This Ask Polly column from November about shame and art and treating yourself well and being where you are was just wonderful, I thought.
- I did not expect after the first chapter that I would love Sarah Rees Brennan’s YA fantasy novel In Other Lands but by the end I really, really did.
- Shivanee Ramlochan’s book of poems Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting was pretty amazing. Not just for how it blends together the myths and religions and folklore found in Trinidad, but for how it makes something powerful out of traumatic experiences.
- Before last year I really thought I was done with Spider-Man movies. And then after last year I thought that there was no way I’d be able to love a Spider-Man movie more than I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming, especially not another origin story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse proved me utterly wrong. The climactic scene where Miles Morales takes his leap of faith was breathtaking in every way.
- A while back, maybe two or three years ago, I had this idea to write a story set in a fantasy world but using the conventions and themes of literary fiction. I never wrote it, of course. But reading Kelly Link’s short story collection Get In Trouble, I feel like I don’t have to, because she’s done it so much more brilliantly than I ever could. I don’t understand how these stories do what they do—it just feels like magic. Which is fitting.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me this year. I saw how many people worked so hard this year. I’m hopeful for how that work will bear fruit in the new year.
I've been thinking a lot this morning about guns, of course. I've been thinking about how I have family and friends who are gun owners, who I like a lot and enjoy being around. As far as I know, all of them are what we consider responsible gun owners—my uncle, for example, is an avid hunter, but I never feel any concern taking my kids to his house to visit him and my aunt because I know there is no chance at all that they will find a gun lying around. There are a good number of my gun-owning friends and family who I have no idea what their position on gun control is, because I've never talked to them about it. I would imagine that at least some of them are in favor of common-sense gun regulations. I know for certain that some have, at least in the past, been vocal opponents of gun control.
I don't think any of these people are bad people—on the contrary, many of them are people I respect and enjoy immensely. I'm sure that they all find each new school shooting to be as shocking and horrifying as I do, and for the same reasons. But I guess I don't know how relevant it is what people feel in their hearts. At least, it is and should be less relevant than the consequences of their actions.
The point here is not that gun owners are monsters, but that understanding how we are complicit in things that make us uncomfortable is difficult, even as it is necessary.
We all make choices in our lives. And those choices say something about our priorities and values. I don't think many people would say that they believe that it is acceptable for children to be murdered in their schools. I don't think that many people would say that those children's lives matter less than the right to own a gun. Maybe I'm naive, but I think the number of people who might say such things is so vanishingly small as to be irrelevant. I certainly don't think my gun-owning family and friends would say anything like that.
But I do think that the end result, the function of some of the things I've seen friends say about gun control is the same.
For example, when we say things like "this is a terrible tragedy but there's nothing that we can do about it," this just isn't true. We know that there is a strong correlation both internationally and within the United States between permissive gun laws and increased frequency of gun violence, and, vice versa, we know that US states and foreign countries with more restrictive gun laws have less gun violence. We know that we can make this happen less often. What we mean when we say "there's nothing we can do about it" is really "I am not willing to do the things that can be done about it."
We also say things like "gun control won't end gun violence." And certainly this is true—no law that I've ever seen proposed would end violence, because human beings are inherently prone to violence, and determined people will find ways to circumvent laws. But it's also irrelevant, because mitigating harm is worth doing even if it won't completely end harm. When we say "gun control won't end gun violence," this is in function the same as saying that reducing the number of lives lost to gun violence is less important than maintaining access to guns.
We say things like "if we criminalize guns then only criminals will have guns" or "why should we penalize responsible gun owners?" But this is, essentially, to argue that laws and regulations should not exist at all. We accept regulation in so many aspects of our lives in order to mitigate harm, reduce risks, improve safety, and allow us to live together in something approaching harmony. Why are guns different? What makes gun ownership more essential and less open to regulation than workplace safety or automobile operation or food safety or environmental protection or any number of other areas where people can cause harm to other people, and we have decided not to allow that?
I think the most honest thing I've ever heard a gun control opponent say was "I like my guns and I don't want to have to give them up." And I get that. To be honest, I enjoy shooting and I always have, though I haven't gone to a range since I was a teenager. When you come down to it, we all have trouble prioritizing other people over our own comforts and conveniences. I'm no different. But I think that the most important thing any of us can do is take a good hard look at ourselves and ask ourselves whether the way we are living is harming other people. To ask, "What would I be willing to give up in order to help others, and what wouldn't I be willing to give up?" To understand why we don't want to give up certain things. To ask whether it's worth it.
Nobody wants to think of themselves as part of the problem, and honestly few people will do so. But we all agree that problems exist and that they are mostly brought about by people. It simply can't be the case that it's always someone else's fault, that we are always blameless. If we are ever to solve the problems that exist, then we must be willing to look to ourselves first.
Perhaps we will choose to continue on as we are, accepting that other people will pay for our choices, sometimes with their lives. Maybe we will decide that that is acceptable, that those lives are worth it. Let's at least be clear about it when we make those choices, though.
58 Things That Mattered to Me in 2017
Every Friday—or, at least, as many Fridays as I can manage—I write a list of things that mattered to me over the preceding week, and then I share that list on social media. I started doing this last summer, just as a way of shouting out the people who helped make my life a little better, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing from the beginning. It helps keep me positive and makes me consider a bit more closely the pieces of media and culture that I consume. This year, though, it felt a little more urgent to me to make these lists, a little more defiant, perhaps. It feels a little grandiose to say that these lists were an act of resistance, but if nothing else, 2017 has given me a lot of opportunity to think about what kind of world I’d like to live in, and what I can contribute. It’s a small thing, these lists, but they help me, and I hope that other people find them useful as well.
Over the course of this year, I shared over 200 essays, poems, articles, and bits of pop culture in my weekly round-ups. But there were others that didn’t quite fit, or for which I couldn’t find a link. And, looking back, some have stuck with me more than others. But I wanted to take some time and share some of the things that did stick. It’s not an exhaustive list of everything I read or saw or did in 2017, nor of everything that was good or important. Some of the things were new when I encountered them, some were quite old, but they were all new to me, and perhaps they’ll be new to you as well. In any event, here are 58 things that mattered to me this year, presented in roughly chronological order:
“When I think of wearing a kimono, I think of every way I have failed.” Rowan Hisayo Buchanan wrote that line in her essay “The Woman Scared of Her Own Kimono,” and it summed up a lot about my own relationship to my ancestral culture. I read a lot of essays about diasporic and mixed-race experiences in 2017, but this was one of the first, and one of those that I continued to think of most over the course of the year.
There was a lot on Thundercat’s album Drunk that I liked, but hearing Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins show up in the song “Show You the Way” brought me back to my childhood in the best possible way.
The first time I read Eve Ewing’s poem “to the notebook kid” I thought about it from the perspective of the student she describes, dreaming past the situation he’s in. The second time, I thought about it from the perspective of the teacher who sees that kid, and I thought about the students I worked with way back when. Every time I’ve read it, there’s been something new to it. That’s something, I think.
So much has been written about Moonlight and there were so many memorable things about it. What I think about most is the ache and hunger in Black’s eyes when he looks at Kevin as they talk in the diner.
I loved Moana for a lot of reasons: for the music, for getting to see a Disney story led by a woman of color, for that woman getting to have her own story without reference to a love interest. But, honestly, the thing I love most is hearing my now-three-year-old daughter belting “I am Moana!!!!” at the top of her lungs.
“You May Want to Marry My Husband,” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, is perhaps the most romantic, tenderest, and most devastating thing I’ve ever read about love.
I like Noah Cho a lot, just as a person, and I have liked having the chance to talk to him and get to know him better this year. His piece “How My Parents Met” was wonderful, full of both warmth and longing.
Alyssa Wong’s short story “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” was nominated for a Hugo this year. The story was fantastic, and also introduced me to her bibliography, something I’m glad about.
“How to Write Iranian-American, or the Last Essay,” by Porochista Khakpour. It’s about the way that the world will take from you, and try to make you into what it needs from you, when you are a marginalized person. I wonder how many people reading this saw themselves in it, and how many saw something entirely new to them.
Levar Burton launched a new podcast this year that people described as “Reading Rainbow for adults.” Levar Burton Reads was that, and it was delightful. It also gave me the spark for what may be my next project, but that’s another story and shall be told another time.
One of the best and most exciting things about podcasts is the possibility of giving you a look into worlds and experiences that might otherwise be inaccessible to you. Or, conversely, the prospect of seeing your own community presented and represented in a way you never have before. For me, Ear Hustle was the former, presenting slices of life from inside San Quentin prison. But I have to imagine that for some other people it must have been the latter as well, not least for the inmates themselves. Anyway, it was really good.
I enjoyed a lot of Devin Gael Kelly’s writing this year, and I’m very much looking forward to his new book of poems, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen. The first piece of his that I read—this year or ever—was his essay “Running Toward My Father,” which was beautiful.
I got to see a lot of acts of protest and resistance this year, both in person and online. The most beautiful was this one.
Another new podcast to me this year was WMFA. I really enjoyed the conversations and the focus on craft. One episode I especially enjoyed was the episode with Hanif Abdurraqib. On a personal note, I’ve also enjoyed getting to know the show’s host, Courtney Balestier, with whom I’m now collaborating on a new project.
My kids and I have been watching Steven Universe together for a while now, and it’s one of my favorite things. The official soundtrack was released over the summer, and it’s become a sing-along staple in our family.
If you’ve listened to my podcast or even just hung around me for any length of time, you’ll know that Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You was life-changing for me. This year she released her second book, Little Fires Everywhere, and it was absolutely a highlight of my reading year.
I’m not sure I can quite articulate why I loved this breakdown of Sammo Hung's movies as much as I did, but I really did.
In “If What I Mean Is Hummingbird, If What I Mean Is Fall Into My Mouth,” Natalie Diaz wrote about language and identity and history and poetry, and it was pretty amazing.
We got my son a Switch for his birthday, though I admit that I was as excited to play with it myself as I was to give it to him. The opening scene of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, when Link walks up to the overlook and the music comes up for the first time, transported me. More than that, though, getting to play through at the same time as my son, and connecting with him over our experiences in the game, was something I’ve been waiting for for a long time.
“The Paper Menagerie,” by Ken Liu, was such a wonderful story. In looking over this list, it seems that some common themes came up for me this year, in particular family and culture and language. God this was good.
When I talked with Maggie Smith about her book for my podcast this year, she told me about Katherine Fahey’s “crankie” animations, in particular one called “Francis Whitmore’s Wife.” Beautiful and haunting.
Spider-Man: Homecoming was fun, too, and I think it’s safe to say that it was my favorite Spider-Man movie ever. The scene that sticks in my mind the most, though, wasn't fun. It comes toward the end of the movie, when Peter is stuck under a pile of rubble. At first he calls out for someone to help him, but no one is there and he has to find the strength to get out on his own. More than any other Spider-Man movie I can recall, this one really drives home that Peter Parker really is a kid.
I read and talked a lot about food as a cultural touchstone and food as heritage this year (and last year, if memory serves). Dongwon Song’s essay “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat the Damn Eyeball” was particularly good on that topic.
“The Story of the DuckTales Theme, History’s Catchiest Single Minute of Music,” by Darryn King, was a great piece of nostalgia for me. And getting to watch the new series (and sing the theme song) with my kids was great.
“A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home,” by Jamila Osman, about home, connection to place, to land, to people, about family, about loss. Such a beautiful piece.
I’m not sure if “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is exactly my favorite of Amal El-Mohtar’s short stories, only because I don’t think I could pick a favorite—I’ve loved every single one I’ve read, each in its own way. But it was the first one I read, and the one that led me to all the others I read this year, so it has a certain exalted position in my mind.
It’s kind of remarkable to me how before last year I’d never read any fiction that resonated with me in terms of Asian-American representation. You can see from this list that this is no longer the case. I first encountered Laura Chow Reeve’s story “1000-Year-Old Ghosts” on Levar Burton Reads, and I just loved the mixture of magic and food and family.
I read the first two books of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy back-to-back, after the second one came out last year. The concluding volume, The Stone Sky, finished the story off in a way that couldn’t have been more perfect, for me anyway.
I started listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat last spring, and it carried me through most of the year. I loved (and continue to love) that music dearly, but by the time the show swept through the Tonys I had more or less resigned myself to the idea that I’d never get to see it in person. But, in a total surprise to me, J and ten or so of our family members pooled their resources to get me tickets to see the touring production in Los Angeles, which they gave me for my birthday. We went to see it in September, and I started crying as soon as the house lights dimmed, and kept crying through most of the first act, and then cried again at “Burn” and then all the way through the finale. It was, without exaggeration, the best gift I’ve ever received.
UNC law professor Eric Muller did a limited-run podcast this year called Scapegoat Cities, about the Japanese-American Internment. I found it gratifying that someone would take the time to tell these stories, which are beginning to be lost from living memory. And they were done quite well, too, I thought.
I have gotten pretty down on tech lately, which I suppose is odd for a person who makes his living as an electrical engineer. But there are still ways that technology and scientific endeavors manage to bring a sense of wonder to me, and one time that happened this year was getting to look through these photographs from the Cassini mission.
I love Mallory Ortberg’s writing in a way that makes me vibrate with happiness every time I get to read something new from her. Her Shatner Chatner newsletter (and the subsequent website) brought me so much joy over the course of the year. But for all that, the piece of hers that I loved the most this year was “When Every Bra Size is Wrong.” Because getting the chance to be happy for someone who makes you happy is simply wonderful.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Nicole Chung this year, who edited my first-ever paid essay. The reason I was so excited is in part because of pieces like this: “On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump.” I admire the hell out of her.
Speaking of people I admire, Martha Crawford wrote some amazing personal essays for her blog this year, of which my favorite was definitely “Dancing in the Graveyard,” about dreams, symbols, the collective unconscious, mortality, and Geoffrey Holder.
After the announcement that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel, I went back and read his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, a story that I found haunting and tricky in all of the ways that I love about Ishiguro’s writing. But the thing I think most about Ishiguro’s Nobel is actually not about him at all, but rather a Twitter thread that Kenny Coble posted about what Ishiguro’s work meant to him.
The first line of Tricia Gahagan’s artist statement for her photo series “11:11 Mirroring Consciousness” reads “How often do we pause and pay attention to the messages the world is mirroring back to us?” The photographs themselves made me gasp when I first saw them. The images were so perfect for my aesthetic, but also not something I think I could ever have done.
There’s a scene somewhere in the middle of The Florida Project where Moonee and one of her friends come out from under a tree where they’ve been sheltering from the rain, and step into a green pasture where some cows are placidly chewing. I recognized something in the color and the sudden quiet and calm, a sense of awe and the sublime that I used to feel when I was a kid, but which I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe at the time.
I saw Christina Riley at the Medium Festival this year, where she was participating in the portfolio reviews. It was great catching up with her, and seeing the prototype of the book she’s making of her “Born” series, a series I’ve been watching take shape for some time now, and about which I’m very excited.
Dimas Ilaw wrote about the nightmare happening in the Philippines in his piece “The Shape of the Darkness As It Overtakes Us.” It puts into perspective our own political situation, and shows us what the stakes are. He tells us, too, about both the necessity and limitations of hope, and the value of continuing to make art in such an environment.
Isobel O’Hare’s erasure poems “What We Know About Men” took powerful men’s statements about their alleged sexual harassment and assault, and transformed them into something else. That’s a powerful act, I think, and one I’m heartened by.
The newest podcast I’ve been listening to—and one of my favorites—is Carvell Wallace’s show Closer Than They Appear. In it, Wallace talks to celebrities, family members, old friends, doctors, journalists and others about the state of America. That description makes it sound like any number of other articles and books and podcasts out there, but the way he does it is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard, personal and honest and both broad and specific.
Both J and I cried when we watched Coco. Whew, what a beautiful movie.
I’ve only read one of J. Y. Yang’s Tensorate novellas so far: The Black Tides of Heaven. The world-building, the sibling relationship, the presentation of gender, it’s all so fresh and well done, and it has me very excited to read The Red Threads of Fortune, not to mention the ones that are still forthcoming.
I’ve been wrestling with Sofia Samatar’s essay “Why You Left Social Media: A Guesswork” for several weeks now. I think there’s an essential truth in there that I’m maybe just not ready for yet, but I think I’ll get there.
There’s a scene in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird in which Sister Sarah Joan, one of the nuns at the Catholic school the title character attends, is talking to Lady Bird about her college application essay. She suggests that Lady Bird must love Sacramento, which Lady Bird finds surprising. She (Lady Bird) replies “I guess I pay attention,” to which Sister Sarah Joan asks, “Are those not the same thing?” I loved the whole movie, but I especially loved that scene.
Just this week, J and I took a short trip up to San Francisco by ourselves, and while we were there we saw Call Me By Your Name. We both loved the movie. The conversation between Elio and his dad (if you’ve seen the movie, you know which one I mean) just destroyed me.
Finally, one of my favorite things in the world is reading to my kids, and this year I’ve gotten to revisit some of my own childhood favorites with them—The Lord of the Rings with my nine-year-old son and The Wizard of Oz and Charlotte’s Web with my six-year-old daughter were particularly fun for me (and them). Earlier tonight as I’m writing this, my son and I finished the last Harry Potter novel. It was wonderful.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me. I know that there’s a lot of work to do in 2018, but I feel that we’re up to the task. I’m looking forward to it. Here’s wishing you (and all of us) a safe, happy, and prosperous new year.
This Is It
At about 4:30 this morning, my son wandered into my bedroom and told me that he'd had a bad dream. He said that he had been running away from Voldemort, that Voldemort had been killing everybody around him and he had to get away, and then he woke up. I let him lie down between me and my wife, and within a few seconds he was asleep again.
An hour and a half later, my alarm went off. I rolled over and picked up my phone from where it lay on my nightstand, to be greeted by a whole night's worth of push notifications from different news services. Each new message told a story worse than the last—first a warning about an active shooter, then two dead, then twenty, then fifty. I put the phone down, turned and reached down to where my son lay, still warm and unaware. I put my hand on his back and he stirred. "Time to get up, buddy," I said. He stretched and sat up. I didn't tell him what I'd just read, nor his sisters. I don't think I will. That they don't have to be burdened with such horror is a privilege, of course.
I don't believe in magic. It has nevertheless been years since the last time a nightmare sent my son seeking comfort and reassurance from me or his mother in the middle of the night. That the image which so terrified him was of crowds of people running while a dark figure indiscriminately snuffed out lives all around him is... Well, it's the kind of thing that makes me wonder about coincidences.
The thing that hurts the most about a day like today, like any of these days with which we have all become so unfortunately familiar, is the certain knowledge that the world is like this because that's how people want it to be. Oh, sure, they may profess shock or grief on a day like this one, but still nothing happens, nothing changes. Not when a man stormed into an elementary school and killed twenty children. Not when an avowed racist looking to start a race war entered a church and killed nine people. Not when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed 12-year-old on camera.
Is it just guns? No, of course not. White supremacists march openly through the town square and the President makes excuses while well-meaning onlookers wrap themselves in the First Amendment and "tut tut" about campus protests. Houston, Florida, and now Puerto Rico—not to mention all of those other Caribbean islands—are demolished by successive hurricanes, but of course millions of Americans still believe that climate change is a hoax, including the head of the EPA. Closer to my home, a local Congressman is calling for war with North Korea. And city officials twiddled their thumbs for months while a hepatitis outbreak ballooned and claimed lives, only bothering to take action when the deaths made national news. (Meanwhile, of course, the amount of affordable, or even available, housing continues to fall in the area, jagged rocks are still under most of our overpasses, and now the city is clearing the streets without giving the homeless anywhere to go.) Nothing changes.
Let's not pretend that this isn't who we are. This is it. We have the money and the means to make life better, to protect those who need protecting, to save the planet. We know what we need to do, if not to solve our problems then at least to improve them. But we don't, because in our hearts we don't want to. Because whether it's guns or oil or property values or white supremacy, no price is too high to keep things comfortable for those who aren't already suffering. Because having to admit that solutions are available would mean admitting that we're part of the problem. The greatest source of harm in this world isn't greed, it's the inability to tolerate any amount of emotional discomfort.
After my kids left for school this morning, feeling heavy and sliding toward despair at the morning's news, I headed into the bathroom to get cleaned up for work. I noticed a small shape on the wall, about waist level to my three-year-old, a tiny red star no larger than two grains of rice stuck together. And for a brief moment, things didn't seem so bad. There is, as always, yet innocence and beauty and simple joy in the world. No joy is ever quite so pure as that of a toddler with a sticker, and how seductive that feeling is when all is wrong with the world. How I'd love to stay there in that space. Who wouldn't? But that would be giving up, just as surely as would despairing.
I don't have any answers. I never have. I don't know how to make people care. At least, not enough to make them take an honest look in the mirror and change. Do I even care enough? I don't know. I just know that I'm sad and angry and tired as hell.
I close so many letters or lists or threads by saying "I wish you peace." And I do. And I want to say that now. But the truth is that there will be no peace unless we make it, and we can't do that without struggle, without discomfort. I keep thinking that people will get there eventually. I hope we do. Me, too.
This Is Not the Life I Wanted
This is not the life I wanted.
I suppose if I'm being honest, I should say: this is not the life I was promised.
The other evening I was in my living room doing something I can no longer remember—perhaps playing a game on my phone or wading through news updates—when I heard my wife say "You look terrible."
"What?" I said.
She pointed to the video she was watching, one I'd recorded earlier in the day, asking people to call their representatives about one crisis or another. "You look tired," she said. "Haggard. You need to take better care of yourself."
I hadn't really watched the video before, just recorded it and posted it, and then moved on. But she was right. The face in the video looked back at me with bloodshot eyes, heavy-lidded with exhaustion. Somehow, I was surprised. I knew how I felt, but I didn't know it showed so much.
Lately thoughts of exhaustion tumble in my head, crashing and rasping against each other as they turn, but never becoming round or smooth or comfortable. John Lennon's voice drones on, lamenting not having slept a wink—and my mind, too, feels on the blink. And I think again and again, like an old hobbit, "Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread."
I'm being dramatic. I know. But I can feel myself burning out, and I don't know how to stop, or even how to slow down.
It strikes me as unseemly to spend my time (and now yours) on thoughts like these, on simple exhaustion, when I know that other people are suffering more, even dying. That, yes, I am tired, but protesters are being beaten and graves are being desecrated and families are being separated by deportation and somewhere right now, right this instant, someone is trying to make the impossible choice between buying food and paying for cancer treatments. I know this. I know what feels like an ordeal to me does not compare to what other people are going through.
Though, perhaps this, too, is something this Congress, this President, this year is taking from us: the right to even admit that our struggles are struggles. Is that too much? Maybe. I don't know.
When I was young, I had no greater concerns placed on me than to get good grades and be polite, to eventually be "successful" and reflect well on my family. I expected nothing more than to raise my children, save for retirement, and read some good books along the way.
What has it cost me, then, this year? I think about the words not written, the art not created, the hours spent researching and organizing and not playing with my children. I think about the pile of unread books on my nightstand, the months of unedited photographs sitting on memory cards, waiting for a spare moment. I think about the late nights and early mornings. I think about the look on my son's face as I head out the door to another protest instead of sitting down for a family dinner. In one sense, these sacrifices are small. In another, they are pieces of my life being stolen.
I read something once, long enough ago that I cannot remember when or where or by whom, something to the effect that both the magic and tragedy of life is that each of us are going through it for the first time. It means that we each get the opportunity for discovery, and thus the ability to experience wonder. But it means also that time and life are resources which are finite, and unrecoverable.
This isn't the life that I wanted. I never wanted to have to know about legislative calendars and executive appointments. I never wanted to know how lobbying differs from political activity, and what the financial rules are for each. I never thought about which kinds of protests need a permit and which don't, and I didn't want to. But now I do. And having put the time in, I am more aware than ever how much more work is still left to be done, and how few people—still—are available to help. Or even willing to do so. Or, rather, how many would help, how many want to help, but need someone else to show them what to do.
I tell the people who attend our meetings, "Self-care is important. No one person can do everything, and you don't have to. Take care of yourself when you need to. Rest, so that you can come back refreshed." Like a lot of people, of course, I find it easier to say that to others than to live that way. There's simply too much to do, and not enough time to do it, and more piling on every day.
In the end, though, when I am done crying for myself and the life I expected, I come back—as I always have—to the stories of my youth. Perhaps I say to myself, "I wish it need not have happened in my time." But I remember, too, that "so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." I read those words to my son for the first time last summer, not knowing then what they would mean now. I want to have the opportunity to read them to my daughters, too. Am I willing to do what's necessary to give them a chance at a simpler life? I think so. I hope so.
This is not the life that I wanted, but this is the life that I have.
Here we are.
Here we go.
A Predictable Trend in Photography Criticism
There’s an article from PetaPixel that’s currently making the rounds on social media, called “A Disturbing Trend in Photography.” In it, long-time photographer and photo educator Neal Rantoul makes the argument that the art photography of today is heavy on words and light on quality. He says:
Go to a graduate thesis show and take a look. The students are concerned with issues of identity, gender, developmental and emotional positioning, posturing, physical and emotional abuse, cultural and societal pressure and assumption, human rights, sexual identity, and on and on. Each of these ideas and many others takes on a personal relevance and importance square in the photographer’s aim, as though there is a catharsis that when shared it is assumed to have relevance to others who are there looking at the work. Of course, much of this is narcissism, self-absorption, even making work with blinders on.
Rantoul lays the blame for this trend on the ubiquity of contemporary MFA programs and the increasing ease with which modern camera technology allows us to produce “stunning results” without any real mastery of the craft.
In the five days since the article went live on PetaPixel, I’ve seen a great number of my peers sharing it on their various social media feeds, talking about how great it is, how well written, how spot on the argument and observation. The thing is, there is nothing unique or even particularly unusual about Rantoul’s piece—I’ve literally been seeing pieces like this shared about once a month for as long as I’ve been following photography.
If there’s anything that artists and art critics love besides the art they favor, it’s complaining about the current state of the art world. This is a long and storied tradition going back hundreds, possibly thousands of years, so there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the fact that it’s still happening now. And, really, I don’t need to pick on Mr. Rantoul too much—even if he’s not advancing any new ideas in his piece, it’s by no means the worst or most strident of the bunch.
Generally speaking, thinkpieces decrying the state of contemporary photography make some combination of three basic arguments:
- Art used to be much better than it is now (e.g. in the 80’s, in the Modernist period, in the Renaissance, etc.) and the current trend is dangerous or disturbing.
- The art establishment has suckered the critical or art-making populace into believing that the new style is important, but it is ultimately empty. (I call this the “Emperor Has No Clothes” argument.)
- Artistic practices no longer pay proper respect to traditional constraints, and they should. (e.g. “If a photograph requires words or explanation, then it is a failure,” or “Photoshop is ruining photography.”)
Now, I can understand the appeal of arguments like this, particularly if one feels his or her own interests are not reflected in the tastes of the art establishment. My main problem with them, though, is how ahistorical they are.
The tendency to look backwards with warmth may well be innate. Certainly people have been doing that about art as long as there has been art. But go back to any historical period, and you will find people talking about how the current trend is garbage. Back in the 1980’s, Robert Hughes told everyone he could about how stupid and shallow Andy Warhol and his art were. In the 1960’s, John Canaday regularly took to the pages of the New York Times and alleged that the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists was only due to the art world having brainwashed the public. And from the 1890’s until his death in 1948, Royal Cortissoz used his position as the art critic for the New York Herald Tribune to loudly denounce the egotism of the anti-traditionalists—he particularly hated the Modernists, claiming that they were “ruining the younger generation.” And so it goes, throughout history.
Even were we to limit ourselves to viewing art’s past with modern sensibilities, it’s extremely unlikely that any previous period was any better, considered as a whole. We must bear in mind that history is always written with an agenda, that we are only ever presented with the parts of the story that are considered worthwhile. In the context of art, time acts like a sieve in which only the great or important work remains in the narrative; the landfill of history is full of art that no one cared about. It’s not at all a matter of apples-to-apples when comparing the greats of yesteryear with any random student of today. Rantoul does this explicitly: he names Frank, Friedlander, Callahan, Sommer, Baltz, Cartier-Bresson, and Ansel Adams as his exemplars of photography’s golden past while holding up a hypothetical “graduate thesis show” as the opposing side. But, honestly, how many people at any point in history were doing great work in their early 20’s? I somehow doubt that “20 or 30 years ago” college kids were regularly making revolutionary art, and even the ones who were making interesting work were likely not widely accepted by traditionalists. It’s also worth noting that most of the work we know best by the men he listed in the context of “20 or 30 years ago” was really made 50 or more years ago. This, too, speaks directly to the idea about the curation of history. We may notice a surplus of bad art today, but wait fifty years and people will only remember the good.
But what do “good” and “bad” even mean? If artistic quality were in any way objective then you would expect opinions about it to remain relatively static. Yet though, for example, John Greenleaf Whittier was hailed in his own time as one of America’s most important poets, he’s seldom read today. And Van Gogh, on the other hand, famously died penniless and obscure, and is now considered one of the most important figures in Western art history. Tastes change, the avant-garde becomes tradition, and perhaps the only constant is the grumbling about how far standards have declined.
It does appear to be true that art photography today is largely concept-driven. I would also agree that the favored visual aesthetics of the present are different from what they were two decades ago—though in that respect I think you’d be hard pressed to find any time since the Renaissance when that wasn’t the case. Many photographers who came up in the film era now find their preferred methodologies to be out of favor, and I can understand why that would be frustrating. But any explanation of a major art trend that relies on blaming art-school groupthink or assumes that the new generation is simply vapid and narcissistic—both of which, not coincidentally, function to prop up the traditionalist viewpoint—is ultimately an exercise in self-soothing, not intellectual rigor.
What, then, does explain the new currents in the artistic ocean that so discomfit Rantoul and so many other people who write about photography? Questions about art movements often prove difficult to answer conclusively without the benefit of hindsight, but I have a theory, which in many of the details is not too different from Rantoul’s. As he points out, modern tools have, indeed, taken much of the technical challenge out of producing a traditionally beautiful photograph. But when neither long experience nor virtuosity is required to produce technically perfect work, the result is that technique tends not to remain very impressive or even interesting, and the generation of artists following a wave of technological upheaval tend to start looking for other things to do with their medium. There’s a certain irony here that photographers are now finding so much to complain about in the digital age, because it was the invention of photography, itself, that spurred exactly the same sort of innovation in painting.
It’s fairly well-accepted by art historians that the advent of photography directly led to the increasing use of abstraction in painting. Once painting was no longer the quickest, easiest, or most cost-effective way of producing an accurate representation, representation quickly lost its preeminence as the determiner of quality in art painting. Photography was invented in the early 1800’s, and by the middle of that century it had largely replaced painting in the realm of portraiture. And it’s by no means a coincidence that at exactly that time, the dominant Romanticism of Western painting began to give way to Impressionism, which in turn led to Post-Impressionism, Modernism, and so on. Nor is it surprising that as the painting aesthetic changed, the traditionalists pushed back—critic Louis Leroy famously said of Monet’s Impression, soleil levant:
Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.
That line was written in 1874, but you see the same sentiments about egotism and shoddy technique in Rantoul’s piece from last week.
To me, this suggests not that photography is in some sort of decline, but rather that we are in the first stages of a new artistic revolution. It may well be that what’s to come in the next few decades will leave even the bright-eyed idealists of today behind, but not only is there nothing we can do about the inevitability of change, it’s not actually a bad thing. After all, as revolutionary as Monet and his Impressionist friends were, it’s still hard to imagine them immediately embracing the work of, say, Jackson Pollock. We somehow manage to have room for both in the canon, though.
Extended artist statements and conceptual series may fall out of vogue at some point, but when and if that happens it will be because another new trend has replaced it. I don’t know what that will look like, but what the future thinkpieces will say about it is not in any doubt.
Not For Me
I bought Beyoncé’s Lemonade album eight days ago. That I have listened to it a mere seven times through is only a reflection of the amount of time I have to listen to music, and not at all of my feelings about the music. Because this album is a masterpiece, and I love it. I love how musically adventurous it is. I love the naked emotion, both the roar in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the sigh in “Pray You Catch Me.” I love the confidence and the vulnerability, both. I love how it makes me feel. As much as I understand about Lemonade, though, I know too that there are parts I do not understand, that I may never fully understand. I love it, but it wasn’t made for me.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: art that isn’t for me. I thought about it when Prince died, of course, because on some level music so brilliant and so explicitly about freedom and limitlessness is for everyone. But, of course, there are parts of Prince’s music that I can’t access, which the life I’ve lived simply hasn’t given me the experiences to be able to know.
Is there a way to talk about this that isn’t appropriative? That isn’t trying to make it about me? Maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t be thinking about this so much if I didn’t feel a sense of entitlement. The question that stays in my mind isn’t so much what I’m allowed to love or what I can say I relate to. Rather, I wonder about participation, and about how my presence affects the rest of the audience.
Years ago I saw a feature on Lenscratch of photographs from a young artist named Natalie Krick; I was drawn in by the wit and intellect apparent in the images. She had something to say about femininity, about feminism, about youth and age, about parents and children, about our image-saturated culture. Much later I discovered she was on Instagram, and I loved the way that even her casual studio and process snaps had both a boldness and a sense of play, and an assuredness that I have certainly never felt about either my art or my body. But it’s clear, too, that that play is with and for the young women who are her peers and friends, and not at all for some dude out in the suburbs who has three kids and is pushing forty. I love her work and I think it deserves to be celebrated, but I wonder sometimes whether I am intruding.
Back in March, Jenny Zhang—whose poetry and essays I adore—tweeted a link to an interview between her and fellow writer Charlotte Shane, titled “There’s no spectrum of nuance for why people might expose themselves.” I had just recently read Zhang’s essay “On Blonde Girls in Cheongsams” and had been thinking a lot about how erased I have felt at times in my life, how I have not felt entitled to access the Asian culture into which I was supposedly born. And I loved her for putting that feeling into words and then again for putting those words into the world. I felt seen. At the same time, I knew that much of what she wrote in that essay was something I’d only really understand if I’d grown up as a girl. In the interview with Charlotte Shane, she asked
I’d be interested to know what you think the gender breakdown of your readership is, and then within the men who read your work, do you ever feel like they are judgy or creepy or perhaps looking for evidence of a womanís brokenness or fucked-ness, and what percentage are just open, curious, voracious for your stories and your ideas?
It’s a thing I’ve wondered, too, because Zhang’s writing is so often about her sexuality, her body, and it must attract all manner of creepers. And, indeed, both she and Shane talked about that. I can imagine how frustrating, how infuriating it must be to get that kind of reaction from men who you were not talking to, who you were never thinking about when you were writing your own truths, but who still feel allowed to do whatever they want with your writing. I can imagine it, but I can’t really know how it feels because it’s not something that has happened to me.
And this is the crux of it: this work represents a phenomenon which I have never and probably will never experience, but which millions of women live every day. It is speaking to them, not to me. And if I go into this space, no matter how much I love the work, nor what my intention may be, it is true that my presence may make one of these women feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. Here some dude will pound the table and shout “Not All Men!” but this is entirely missing the point. (Also, he is an asshole.) The point is that the work is by a woman, speaking to other women, and if my being there makes one of these women—who may connect more deeply with the work than I ever will—unable to enjoy and connect with the art or the artist, then that is me interfering with the purpose of the art.
I know that if art is put out into the world for the public to view, it is not wrong for me to view it. I know that if I see some part of myself reflected in someone else’s art, I can experience that connection and feel good about it. But what the boundaries of participation and engagement with a piece or with the artist are—or should be—I don’t know. I’m sure it varies from piece to piece and artist to artist, from situation to situation. I want to be respectful. I want not to cause harm. I don’t know if there’s an answer and I know there isn’t a rulebook, but I hope that there could be a conversation.
Rauschenberg, de Kooning, and the Arrogance of Art-Making
I’ve been contemplating a new piece recently. A new way of working, really, something that breaks from what I currently do as a photographer or writer. Big changes are always scary, and this is certainly true for changes to one’s artistic process. The future is an uncharted territory, and it’s always unclear what you will find if you head down a new path. Perhaps it will be a new vista, perhaps ruin.
Speaking of “ruin” in the context of an art project smacks of hyperbole, of course—it may feel like disaster is lurking but, realistically, artistic failure means only the loss of time and, perhaps, money. Still, I can’t help thinking about the ways that the creation of art can affect one’s life, a sort of quantum effect where the observation intrudes upon the observed. And this brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg.
One of Rauschenberg’s most famous and controversial pieces is “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” De Kooning, of course, was one of the most celebrated Abstract Expressionists, and Rauschenberg was a particular fan of his. As the story goes, Rauschenberg was interested in finding ways to make art that didn’t involve traditional mark-making and had hit upon the idea of erasure as a technique. But he was unsatisfied with erasing his own works. In this interview on Artforum, he says:
I was trying to figure out a way to bring drawing into the all-whites. I kept making drawings myself and erasing them, and that just looked like an erased Rauschenberg. It was nothing. So I figured out that it had to begin as art. So I thought “It’s got to be a de Kooning.”
“Erased de Kooning Drawing” has gone on to become a significant work in itself, and people have praised it for how it pushes the boundary of the medium, decried it for removing what would have been an important de Kooning piece from the world. I’ve always seen the art of it as being in the act of its creation, which is to say: the act of destroying the original de Kooning piece. The object that’s left, which hangs today at SFMOMA, is really a pointer to something more like a performance. In erasing de Kooning’s drawing, Rauschenberg was destroying something that he valued in order to make something else.
The thing that marvels me most right now is the same apprehension I’m having with my own work: the unknown future. Some art—and Rauschenberg’s is a prime example—changes the world irrecoverably just in the act of creating it. And though “Erased de Kooning Drawing” ended up being a success, there’s no way that Rauschenberg could have known that before he started. Even leaving aside whatever the financial outcome of the piece may have been, or whether it was eventually accepted into the canon of “great art,” it would have been possible for Rauschenberg to know before he started scraping away at the paper that he would be satisfied with the result when he finished. And if he hadn’t produced something that at least he felt was worthwhile, then the act of destruction would have been meaningless. It would, in fact, have taken something valuable out of the world and given nothing back.
To be able to take that leap, to be assured enough of the validity of your ideas to be able to do something like that: is that confidence? Arrogance? How does a person come by it? Was it something cultivated, something nurtured, or is it something you have to be born with? Is this something I could find for myself? And should I? Am I prepared to deal with the consequences if I should fail?
Of course, I find myself rushing to point out that I have no thoughts to destroy something like a de Kooning—what I stand to lose is merely personal. Though, at that, if the damage would be limited to my own emotional state, this doesn’t make it so terribly less daunting to me.
Too, I know that I have taken risks before. So much of my work is about family, about my relationship to the people in my life, and by taking private moments and making them public, I am inevitably and irrevocably altering the moment itself, our memories of the moment, and my relationship with the people in the images. I have always known this, and yet the necessity of showing my story has trumped my responsibility to the other people who populate that story.
I know I’m being cagey here. I’m not ready to go public with this new idea yet. Maybe something will come of it, or maybe I will decide that it’s not worth the risk. I may even decide against it for other reasons—I never have difficulty coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t do something. Still, I can’t help thinking about Rauschenberg. Is the making of art inherently arrogant and narcissistic? Or is this question merely my own anxiety rearing its head again?
I wish I had some answers for you. I’ll be thinking about it. Good luck, everybody. I hope the coming week is fruitful for you.
Am I Actually Defending Thinkpieces? I Guess I Am.
Twitter brought me a Jezebel article this afternoon called “Damn, You’re Not Reading Any Books by White Men This Year? That’s So Freakin Brave and Cool”, by Jia Tolentino. The gist of it is that reading more diversely is good, even necessary, but that writing thinkpieces about doing so is just another way of othering underrepresented writers and making diversity about yourself. It’s an interesting perspective, and based on who I saw retweeting the link it’s certainly one that seems to resonate with a lot of minority writers. Still, it doesn’t really sit right with me.
Now, I imagine that the easiest, quickest negative response would be something along the lines of “Can’t win for trying.” And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t briefly go there myself, especially given the goals I recently set myself. The thing is, though, in her larger point about majority engagement with capital-D diversity, I agree with Tolentino. “If only it were possible to do something good and rewarding without publicly prioritizing what effect that act has on you,” she says. Moreover, like so often seems to happen with corporate diversity initiatives, there’s a real danger of people assuming that simply having some sort of diversity policy is the same as solving the actual problem. It reduces normalizing diversity in literature to something like a fad—here today, forgotten tomorrow.
Still, as much as I agree with Tolentino on one level, I’m much more ambivalent on another. The problem for me, I think, is summed up in the last few lines of the piece:
If you were a queer writer, or a woman of color writer, would you want someone to read you because they thought they were doing something dutiful about power structures? Or because they gravitated to you, not out of any sense that you would teach them something about diversity that they could then write about in a year-end essay—but that they just read you because you were good?
How similar does that sound to some of the arguments against affirmative action, ones I especially tend to hear from more privileged minority groups? “I don’t want to feel like I got a job just because someone was trying to fill a quota.” But just as with the affirmative action, it presents a bit of a false dilemma. The choice here isn’t necessarily between being read because of your talent and being read because of your gender or color or sexuality. In the real world, the choice can often be between being read because of a diversity mission and not being read at all.
In a perfect world, women writers, writers of color, queer writers would rise to the top and gain a following on the strength of their writing in much the same way that we imagine straight white men do. But we are just not at that point yet. If diverse writers are seeing any uptick in readership and stature in the industry, if there is any push right now toward a more inclusive mainstream, it’s only because the need to actively seek out diverse books is being called out so loudly, and that that call is being repeated widely enough to gain momentum.
Of course it would be great for underrepresented writers and artists to be sought out solely on the basis of their talent. But at this point, without an active effort to bring those writers more attention (and therefore more sales, the only signal with any meaning to the publishers and retailers who determine what actually gets onto shelves) then it’s difficult to imagine the status quo ever changing.
Authenticity, Fiction, Truth, Lies, and Jenny Lewis
I’ve been a little obsessed with Jenny Lewis lately.
I should back up a bit. A while ago I was out for one of my morning runs, listening to one of the one of the “workout” stations on Spotify. Most of the songs that came on were fairly terrible, but the rhythms were all propulsive enough to keep me chugging along. Some awful pop nonsense faded out, leaving nothing but the sound of my footfalls and labored breathing for a moment. Then a few chiming guitar notes rang out of the silence, a quick tempo drum beat kicked in, and there was Jenny Lewis singing about how she’s bad news.
I don’t know if it’s a great song. But there’s something about the way she sings it that makes me believe. “C’mere!” she shouts to her lover, her voice forceful but wild, maybe desperate. The guitar growls in answer and the drums stutter in syncopation like someone tripping over their own feet. I’m drawn in, and I can’t help but wonder: did you do this? Did this happen?
A few months after that morning run, a Facebook friend recommended her solo album, The Voyager. “I can’t stop listening to it,” my friend said. I promptly added the album to my “To Investigate” playlist and forgot about it until last month, and now I can’t stop listening to it either. Throughout the ten songs, Lewis seems to be struggling with regret and disillusionment, the pain of seeing what your life is as you head into middle age, and how it’s different from what you might have thought.
There’s only one difference between you and me
When I look at myself, all I can see:
I’m just another lady without a baby.
I used to think you could save me,
I’ve been wandering lately
Heard she’s having your baby,
And everything’s so amazing
How could I resist her,
I had longed for a big sister
And I wanted to kiss her,
But I hadn’t done that
And, again, I want to know: When you wrote this, were you remembering or imagining? Are you singing in your voice, or someone else’s?
But why? Why do I care? Do the emotions mean more if they are drawn from her own life? And, if so, how does that work?
Almost all of my own work—and certainly the work that has resonated the most with viewers—is about myself. I try to reach for something other people can relate to, but I do this by showing things that are particular to me. And, thinking over my favorite work from other photographers, much of it is drawn from highly personal experiences. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Andi Schreiber’s Pretty, Please. Duane Michals’s The House I Once Called Home. Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota.
And yet, as much as I seem to value “honesty” and “authenticity” in music and photography, the same isn’t true for, say, books or movies. Of course there are autobiographical examples of each that I love, but I don’t love them more than my favorite works of fiction. Michael Ende never literally visited Fantastica, and yet that doesn’t diminish my feeling of wonder when I read The Neverending Story. Rick Blaine never had a club in Morocco, but the end of Casablanca still puts a lump in my throat. In fact, one of the things I have always said I most admire about novelists is their ability to bring things into being that never existed before, through the sheer force of their imaginations. If they can get me to feel something, that’s real, whether or not the events of their stories actually happened.
Why doesn’t this hold for songs or pictures, then? Mind you, there are fictions in lyrics and images that I enjoy, but the ones that stick with me the most, that I keep coming back to over and over, all of them come from life. Photographs need not be straight or documentary, and lyrics need not be literal, but the driving impulses behind my favorites of each are nearly always emotions and experiences that the artist really lived.
Is it a question of immediacy? A movie is populated with people you know are actors, and words on a page need you to interpret them, to picture them in your head. But when a singer says “I,” it’s hard to hear a persona in that, at least the first few times you hear it. And when you look at a photograph, it’s hard to get past the notion that what’s in the image was really in front of the camera, that the photographer was really there in the room. In either case, there’s room for fiction and lies, and interesting work can and has been made that plays on the audience’s ingenuousness, their expectation of honesty. But then the experience becomes intellectual instead of visceral. There’s value in that, too, but it’s never what I return to more than once or twice.
So then, where does that leave me with Jenny Lewis and her songs? I don’t know if she made them up or not. If I were to find out one way or another, would I care about them more or less? I’m not sure. Authenticity and honesty in art certainly don’t require literal truth. I’m reminded of a bit of advice that photographer James Luckett gave his students about writing an artist statement:
You have no duty to the facts. Your loyalty is to the honesty of your ideas, emotions, dreams, desires and needs; what Werner Herzog calls the ecstatic truth. That is your goal.
If what you’ve felt is real and you’ve put that into your work, then the work is honest, whether or not it depicts actual events. I like that idea, and I certainly can’t argue against it as advice for an artist. As part of the audience, though, I still haven’t made up my mind. But I suppose if the beat is propulsive enough, I’ll keep running.