A while back, I asked a friend of mine if I was unrelatable, if I had narrowed my circumstances beyond what can be empathized with. Along with this message, I sent a picture of the full moon over a pagoda. I sent it not to compound my inquiry but because it was what I was looking at as I was chatting with him. I did not receive a reply and perhaps that is my answer.
I find myself withdrawing further and further from the maddening crowd and I do not feel that my socially-minded comrades appreciate it. I do follow the news and am horrified regularly but cannot respond simply by sharing links. I am digesting everything, soaking in the mess, knowing that whatever I create will be tainted with the misery, the horror, the disbelief. My friends tire of me asking if they are working on anything these days. “How can I work on anything,” one friend replied, “when the world is burning down?” How can you not work, I wonder, after all, the world is burning down.
The other question I ask is what have they been reading lately (the cat’s out of the bag now, eh, because I do, the good little social scientist that I am, conduct microscopic surveys using my friends as unwitting participants). Their answer to that question is inevitably the same as the other question in that they feel too out of sorts to read anymore.
And so I start to feel like some sort of eccentric hold-out, with my stack of novels and fistful of paintbrushes. It doesn’t help that I live in Japan, out of the fray. I have a majority of the benefits that Americans are still fighting for without any of the fight. Of course, this was deliberate: I saw what was happening in my country and wanted to move my kids to a place where that was none of their concern. They have different concerns here, naturally, but they don’t have to worry about getting shot in school or that breaking their arm might bankrupt the family. On the other hand, they too are growing far away from being relatable to their American peers. They don’t know the stress of a lock-down or being constantly vigilant against stranger danger. They have their own stresses, like being woken up by landslide alarms or being bullied because they are the only non-Japanese person in school. But it is relatability we are discussing today, not comparative stressors.
This story I am working on, Hawaii, is the first story I have written about Americans within America in, well, a long time. I have written some semi-autobiographical stuff but nothing about made-up strangers. I have not felt like it is my place to write about an experience that I know so little of, that I relate so little to. And yet, well, I am enjoying writing this story. It is coming out easier than anything else I have written and it makes me think, perhaps I am qualified to write about Americans, even if I have removed myself from the trenches. Perhaps I am qualified to write about Americans because I have removed myself from the trenches.
Long has there been this accusation, mainly from conservative-minded folks, that art and literature, the humanities in general, is worthless, removed as it is from day-to-day reality. Perhaps they feel threatened by it, as people often are when they are cultured to willfully misunderstand, for the truth is that art and literature are the pulse of day-to-day reality, that the humanities are humanity, distilled and dissected. When I am reading and writing, I am immersed in this human experience, looking life straight in the eye. It might mean that I am withdrawing from tangible reality but why must tangible reality be the gold-standard, especially since it is the most frail, the most finite?
Some have asked what the point of making art and literature is when there are die-hard (insert dictator’s name here) supporters. And I would say this: it is because of art and literature that the majority of humanity are peace-loving, socially-minded individuals who worry about dictators and the burning Amazon. That at one time, slavery was widespread and acceptable. Hell, until very recently, date rape was okay. It is through art and literature that we have slowly but surely evolved, that we have looked inward and reshaped the course of history based on what we discovered.
So when I ask you what you are working on, what you are reading, I am asking you how is your evolution coming along, how is our evolution coming along. Now is not the time to panic. We have all found ourselves at this particular point in time-space; instead of thinking of it helplessly, what if we think like this: we are the ones chosen to be here now because we are the ones equipped to deal compassionately with cruelty, to conquer injustice with justice. Despair has no place here but art and literature, rigorous study, careful observation and evaluation, deliberate action, these are the tools of an equitable humanity. We must use them wisely and resist being undermined by those who are either ignorant or determined to maintain an exploitative system.
Want to be revolutionary? Read a book. Make something.