Monday, May 27, 2019

Artist Statement 2.0: Writing in a Time of Extremity

At the start of spring semester 2019, I asked the students in my Graduate Creative Nonfiction Workshop to craft a brief Artist’s Statement as a snapshot of their thematic and stylistic intentions, obsessions, and goals. It’s a good way to tackle the vexing matter of trying to articulate what you’re trying to do as a writer, while knowing the work thrives in uncertainty. And it’s good practice for corresponding with editors and publishers, applying for grants, fellowships, and residencies.
       This group of MFA candidates came from widely diverse backgrounds--from California, Florida, Virginia, Cuba, Nigeria, Zimbabwe. It was multinational, multicultural and multigenre. Some had strong ties to our border region, some were deeply tied to other geographies and histories. Difference among these talents meant not conflict but fuel for truly engaging discussion. All felt the impingement of the political and planetary extremities that are this moment in history. Many of them questioned the value of artistic vocation in such a time, in argument with their own commitments. When three University of Arizona students were arrested for protesting the presence of armed Border Patrol members on campus, fear and activism rose. The border crisis for many of us living in Tucson is not a matter of politics and policy—though both of these forces could certainly be deployed toward more just ends. It is a matter of survival and family cohesion and humanitarian care. I wanted to know how this new wave of social anguish was registering among the students, whose projects moved in such divergent ways through the minefield of our times.
     My last assignment at the end of the semester was to ask them to write an Artist’s Statement 2.0, framed by the idea of "Writing in a Time of Extremity." I suggested they define extremity any way they wished: climate change, border/ immigration crisis, the Arizona3, the moral crisis in leadership of the nation, history of colonization, militarization of American culture. Plenty to choose from. Here is what they had to say about the state of our art. 

Alison Hawthorne Deming

Katerina Ivanov 

I am trying to make sense of things. At the border, nothing makes sense. U.S. Border Patrol agents found a 3-year-old migrant alone in a cornfield. Militia holds hundreds of migrants at gunpoint at the border. U.S. Mexico Border: Trump wishes military could be rough with immigrants. Federal government to accelerate Customs and Border Protection redeployment amid migrant surge.
     When I moved to Tucson, my mother was worried. She said it was dangerous for us, there. She said, no haces ruido. She told me to make myself small: a marble, a raisin, make sure I don’t catch the light. But it is impossible, in Tucson, I am reflective. In Tucson, there are children in cages and it’s illegal to leave the crossers water, and all I can hold is an anger so expansive, it feels like it reaches mountain to mountain.
      It bleeds into my writing; it trails from me like oil from a used car. I am angry. I am so fucking angry. Anger can be a tool, but this requires control. Precision. Things that feel far off. Anger warps my writing like hot metal. It feels foreign, like it did not come from me, like it came from some distorted wax self—half-melted, unrecognizable. It reads off pitch, mistuned, a broken radio. Anger fills writing with static. Anger fills writing with fear. Anger does strange things to my writing, to me. My body, made of wax; my body, the warped figurine.
      These days, I find myself craving something beautiful. Ultra-determined tree roots, burying under a house. A nopal with all the spines still attached—deceptively soft, almost fuzzy, almost cotton, A perfect puff of car exhaust. I write these things on a running note on my phone: these are the good things. I say them like a prayer. Root, nopal, exhaust. Writing lately feels a lot like list-making: root, nopal, exhaust. Bilingual baby at the grocery store, babbling Spanglish. Tamales from the Food City parking lot, buttery with manteca.
      I seep my writing in memory like warm milk—the present feels impossible to write. It feels like there are not words for what is happening. (Maybe there are, and I just cannot write them, yet). Writing has to look like care: here is something beautiful, look at the way my mother’s eyes crinkle when she passes the Eucharist in mass, look at the way my father looks at my mother, look at how the pineapple plants take root in the Florida soil, really just sand. I am trying to remind myself of something, lately. Look, just around the corner, at the edge of your eyeline—there might be something good. 

Lucy Kirkman

Cyclone Idai has washed away the Eastern Highlands, the folded ridge of mountains that makes a natural border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The cyclone raged in from the coast, ripping up palm trees and thatched palm rooves, ripping inland to the mountains. These are the mountains where the civil war started in 1970. The freedom fighters (or terrorists, according to white Rhodesians at the time) were trained in the folded hills of Mozambique, often from exile, and walked the steep crags and valleys of these mountains to fight for independence.
      A few years ago a man, a tourist, disappeared in these mountains. He left his wife and children at the base of the mountain, or maybe they weren’t there at all. But he went up Mount Inyangani, the highest peak in the range, and did not return. Every sane Zimbabwean is at least a little fearful of this mountain, “the mountain that swallows people,” so maybe his disappearance was due to his ignorance. Weather can change in a matter of minutes up there, from sunny and clear to cloudy and foggy, which is the difference between lost and found, path and wilderness, descent and drop. This man disappeared without a trace. But no—that is not quite true—rescue teams found his wallet and his wedding ring on a rock high into the climb. There were whispers of nhangas, witches and witch doctors that are said to live on this mountain, who take children and adults and use their bones for medicine. Or, he could have just walked over the mountain, through the range, into Mozambique. There were rumors of financial troubles—this is one way to disappear. It could have been suicide. Or maybe he just lost his way. The mountain is so deeply folded that it would be no trouble at all to disappear within it, step into a crevasse or crack, no trace.
      Whatever happened to the man, he remains unresolved. What I know of the mountains is this: the mountains are beautiful, harsh, menacing, the mountains are a border, the mountains are secret-keepers.
      These ordinary and extraordinary events, cyclones, disappearances, civil war, are all folded into the history of these mountains. What we know of them is more than what we see. And yet, most days, nothing happens, or do I mean to say everything: streams follow the same path down the worn-round rocks, the pink flowers grow near the bracken, the sweet, yellow mjanje fruit fall with a soft thud and are gathered by little hands and sold out of woven baskets near the side of the road. People continue to sift through the earth of landslides trying to find valuables, bodies. Sheets of galvanized steel and plastic are salvaged and carefully placed together to make dwellings. All this happens.
      And there is no logic, or there is too much logic. What we see, experience, and react to is not only the long hand of history reaching into our chest cavities, but also the accumulation of a different kind of logic (emotional, affective, or some other thing) that appears and disintegrates almost instantaneously, making the world terribly and happy unknowable. As I writer this is where I want to be--at the edge of the unresolved and unknowable, the place where associations and encounters are like pebbles washing against each other in the eddy of the stream, against all odds. 

Hea-Ream Lee

My writing is often rooted in science research. To me, it’s a noble pursuit that’s endlessly fascinating and populated mostly with kind nerds who love it with their entire hearts. It’s also so full of poetry and drama, with startling images and human stories. This is the framework within which I build my essays, drawing connections between the abstract themes I see in tree ring chronologies or computational modeling to my own life.
       In the past few months I have started writing more about identity and race. This has never been my forte, and it still feels uncomfortable, like an outfit I’ve admired on other people but doesn’t feel quite right on my own body. I used to get around this with the logic that not all writers of color need to write about the trauma of being a writer of color. I believe we should have the privilege, like white writers are afforded, to write about whatever we want. And there certainly is a pressure that I feel to represent my pain on the page which I am still grappling with.
       Another reason is that I want to get it right. I want to do justice to the fact of my many privileges as a nonblack person of color, as an able-bodied straight cis woman, as a light skinned Asian person, as someone who grew up middle class. To write about my relatively minor “pain” feels like the very opposite of extremity.  But more and more I am drawn to writing about race and identity despite my misgivings and anxieties. And I think that’s because of extremity. Because of the out and out fascism, white supremacy, state-sanctioned violence against Black people, human rights violations at the border, Islamophobia, transphobia, the list goes on. And to be clear, as a writer, these specific stories aren’t mine to tell. But in reading other writers’ work on these issues, in trying to do what I can to uplift their voices, to show up, I’m inspired to write on my own experiences.
       At the beginning of the semester our graduate nonfiction workshop discussed writing inwards versus writing outwards, and this dichotomy has been on my mind since. The balance always feels precarious. I’m much more comfortable writing outwards than inwards, in dealing with abstractions and nebulous themes than the concrete and real. But perhaps this time, this place, makes it impossible not to deal in some way with the real. And while I continue to write about science, which is just part of my writerly DNA, which continues to inspire me, terrify me, leave me bewildered, and break my heart, I am also trying to write inwards. Towards a truth that I understand, that I’ve experienced. About what it means to live here, in this body and mind, in this time and place. 

Natalie Lima 

As an artist, my hot topic is identity, or rather, the various identities we all inhabit. I’ve always been drawn to stories about identity, since my own has never fit into one single box. I'm Latinx, I grew up working-class, I’m the child of a mother who grew up in foster care and a Cuban refugee father, I'm the first in my family to graduate from high school and then attend college, I live in large body, I’m a woman, I code-switch a ton in my writing. I feel like I occupy a profusion of identities and, because of this, I navigate different worlds on a daily basis. 
     Recently, I’ve been drawn to writing about the body and though it may be a popular subject as of late, I have always been captivated by the stories of folks who live in marginalized bodies. I write about my body because so much (if not all) of our lives are colored by the sack of meat and bones we lug around all day. The body, in all its pain and beauty, presents multiple opportunities to make meaning of life: There is the science behind how all its parts function in unison; there are the aesthetics of what we present to the world, and what the world deems beautiful or not so much; there is disease and deterioration, which we all will eventually succumb to if we’re lucky; there are the social stigmas and policing of bodies—the hierarchy of bodies— and which bodies do and don’t deserve respect; and finally there are the tiny things, the quirks—crooked teeth or curly hair—that give our bodies character, that make us us.
     I am currently working on a collection of dark humor essays about living in my body. Or to summarize the book in a tweet:
Like David Sedaris but fatter, darker & Latinx. A humor memoir in essays. About living & dating in a fat body. My regular degular awkwardness. Dealing w/ my alcoholism. Growing up working-class & mixed-race in Vegas w/ Cuban roots & dysfunction. And taking up space wherever I go.
     Recently, I've taken a more comic turn in my work. There's something about humor, something about the ugliest, most honest parts of life, that greatly stirs me. I am inspired by writers like Samantha Irby, Jenny Lawson, and Lindy West, by what humor tells us about life, and how even the saddest parts of it can be made funny, especially in these grim, politically-fraught times. I also believe that writing about the self, as a person who grew up in the margins, is a truly political act. And my hope is that my stories add to the diversity of stories that we read in memoir today.
       I've been able to enter the more difficult, painful moments of life by using levity in my work. And I wholeheartedly believe that levity doesn’t strip away the substance in our stories, but it reminds us, all of us, that humans are multifaceted. And, plus, without incorporating a bit of humor in my stuff, I’d drink myself to death and take all my secrets to the grave with me. 
Titles in Progress:
  1. Curmudgeon (and other SAT words I learned in high school and bust out at cocktail parties to sound smart)
  2. Fat Lady On The Brink Of Death. Send Flowers
  3. Are You Open To Squashing Or Wrestling? Asking For A Friend…
  4. Pretty Sure God Make Me Fat To Keep Me Off the Pole
  5. To the White Boys On Tinder Who Keep Telling Me They Love Latin Food, Especially Flan
  6. This Will All Be Funny One Day
  7. Thicker Than A Snicker
  8. I Wrote This For The Haters But Also To Pay Off My Student Loans
  9. Cushion For the Pushin’
  10. Fat Girl Cries Herself To Sleep At Night
*** Note: We can only choose from these titles. I’ve tattooed all of them into the shape of a cute braid around my thigh to help me remember.

Matt Morris

I suspect that the phrase time of extremity holds distinct meaning for each of us, our interpretation dependent on how the world touches us, how we exist in the world—specifically, I’d say, our markers of identity: race, gender, class, faith, orientation, nationality, what have you. What is most pressing for any one of us is, I’d guess, not the same as what’s most pressing for the rest of us—though catastrophe, for instance environmental, certainly often touches us all. For me, to write in a time of extremity is, mostly, to write at a moment when the United States is backsliding in its handling of issues around race—when our president (like, of America) has refused to denounce white supremacists after violent rioting in my home state and when our president (like, of this university) has vacillated over whether, and how, to support protesting students of color. For me, to write in a time of extremity is to try through my language to express something of what it means—and what it feels like—to be of any race in America, where a somewhat nightmarish history, a history colored by genocide, enslavement, segregation, and internment, echoes into the now.
        I don’t think I want to say all of that in my prose, directly, but I do think that’s the emotional load I want my stuff to carry—though, as a mixed writer, I also hope (and hope most of all) that my nonfiction can illustrate possibilities for unity, connection. I don’t want to suggest that my family—wherein black and white have come together lovingly—should stand as a symbol of racial reconciliation: my father is not every African American, my mother is not every white American, my sister and I are not every mixed American. But I do think it’s important for folks to see—and I do hope that my writing, if done with care, can aid in pushing folks to see—that even as instances of institutionalized and everyday racism persist, there is and has always been another way. 
     But, markers of identity aside, I also believe that my best writing comes, most always, not only from this cultural moment of extremity but also, no matter the subject I’m thinking through (for I do not always want to write about race, this semester tired so much of writing about race that I wrote, finally, about something other than race), from a place of extremity—that my best, most honest writing always comes from a place of sincere want, whether for deeper understanding of what flummoxes, for knowledge of what remains only sketchily discernible, or for resolution of what’s most likely unresolvable. And so I am always, when I am really writing, trying to push my nonfiction toward this place of extremity and, when I get there, however briefly, trying my very best to stay, to get past any fear of confronting what’s hard, uncomfortable, confusing.
      I’m thinking, right now—and I’m reminded of this now and then—about a passage from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, wherein she cites the Indian-English scholar Homi Bhaba, who has said, “The state of emergency is also always a state of emergence.” And I think that wrestling with what throws me most forcefully into Bhaba’s “state of emergency”—what gets my mind fully grappling with multilayered emotion, what gets my mind to sometimes-tough places, whether I’m writing about my father’s enslaved ancestors or one of my closest, hardest-to-know friends—is also what gets me, hopefully, somewhere new. I’d say, too, that for me it is scary to go to that emotional territory, because I don’t know just what’s inside my head, where the writing will take me, whether I’ll get somewhere that feels hard—but I’d also say, again, that trying to get there is worth the risk provided I do get somewhere new.
     Because getting somewhere new is for me maybe the point of writing anything at all. 

Maddie Norris
Imagine the small foot of a newborn, its pearled toes and soft sole. Run a finger along the foot’s palm, and the toes curl inwards, arching for the heel. This reaction, known as the Babinski reflex, appears in children who are born with fully-formed cortical spinal tracts. The reflex’s purpose is obsolete in humans, but it’s believed to have persisted through evolution, adapted from monkeys who clung to their mothers’ tangled fur with hands and feet. By the age of two, most humans lose the reflex; it morphs into something else. Still, the outgrown impulse resides in our DNA. Just because something isn’t present doesn’t mean it’s absent. This is the truth I want to investigate.
     My essays consider the ways the body keeps loss alive. The underlying personal spine of my work are two traumas I can’t shake: the loss of my father at seventeen and my rape at twenty. These past experiences live within me and shape my present. Some threats have passed; many have not. In addressing the impressions society leaves on a body, on a person, I hope to illuminate the way past hurts have present consequences.
     The death of my father and my rape are connected in me as relationships ending in hurt, but they also manifest in distinct ways. In the case of my dad, I use essays to continue my relationship with him, to learn more about him, to find the edges of his absence. My rape, on the other hand, manifests as PTSD, something that is kept alive in my body without permission.
     My work, in my mind, has its own body, its own anatomy, its own bones and sinews. I hope to explore the particulars of each body part, inspecting the skin, the muscle, fat, and bone. Each essay exists singularly, but it also functions in a larger form, in a true body of work. Together, the essays arch towards an unsayable truth. If I’m asking the question of how the body keeps loss alive, then my answer is in my writing.

Suyi Okungbowa

I was born into the middle, into a people worthy of global power yet whose footprints have been wiped away, marks erased; so that I can’t see a way back if I look, so that I no longer know where I’m from, so I have to create where I’m from.
     I was bred in the middle, in a nation hastily put together by colonialist forces and christened by a British Lord’s mistress; so that I can’t find the pieces of which I’m made, so that I no longer know who I am, so that I have to create who I am.
     I was forged by the middle, by competing forces of education so disparate that I become liminality embodied, a hodgepodge of cultures and identities with unrecognisable qualities, a thing without a name; completely nothing, completely everything.
     Therefore, my art begins in the middle.

     I write mostly speculative literature to make sense of how I navigate the world as a liminal being. My work, in its entirety, examines entities like me: Africans, or other speculative variations of them, caught in the crevices between the traditional and modern requirements of history, identity, community and belonging. It’s impossible to be a young, black Nigerian man and not be caught in this quadrality, to not struggle with marrying the requirements of my past with the demands of my future. My work, through speculative metaphors and other more direct forms of engagement, enables me and others like me fill the gaps in current realities with the knowledge of what has come before.
     The liminal self, by nature, exists at odds with extremity. My self-examination therefore constantly comes under test in the present world: where truth is a pendulum bob, occupying various positions depending on its pivot; where the demands of capitalism and the demands of core humanity are at their highest odds; where the world is obsessed with taking stances and occupying positions, as if humans are location pin drops. As an artist occupying intersections of race, class and privilege, employing nuance in my voice becomes my strongest weapon, but also my biggest struggle, a struggle exacerbated by my existence as an Other and minority within my primary, secondary and even tertiary communities.

     My aim as a writer, then, is to insert readers into the psychology and philosophy of society’s unknowns—minorities and misunderstood entities existing within the margins of normative realities—through the endorsement of the middle as a valid space of existence. To do this, I consider myself patient zero, mining my history, present and future to bridge these divides created by geography, reductive history and intolerance.
     I write, then, to become the middle.

Margo Steines

Extremity has been a/the thematic focus of my work for the duration of my writing life, and perhaps my fundamental curiosity as a writer and a person. My topical interests may appear rangy or random, but their common thread is bodily extremity: the farthest, the utmost of any extreme degree, the terminal point or limit. In writing about physical pain, bodily maladies, industrial labor, violent sexuality, endurance athletics, sex work, combat sport, and agricultural brutalities, my writing is always chasing questions of how much/how far/how bad, and why.
     Looking outward at what is happening in the world, I wonder if we have arrived at a place more extreme than where we have been before, or if the intensity of the present moment and the self interest that is activated by these things not just happening, but happening now to us is what seems to define our current moment in time as a previously unrealized terminal point: a new extreme. Politically, we have a megalomaniacal reality television star of dubious mental capacity running the United States government, too many deeply problematic world leaders to list here (cough, Netanyahu, cough, Kim Jong-un); we are staring down the barrel of what we have decided to euphemistically refer to as “climate change,” you can die of medical bills in the most developed nation in the world while the Sacklers gas up their fleet of private jets, oh, and apparently clitoridectomy is a thing in the Midwest now.
     It is clear to me that there is a point in writing about these issues: what they are, how they came to be, what they mean, what we might do about them, the lived experiences of people as we/they experience them. As a reader, a citizen, a human, I’m grateful that people are doing just that. But as a writer, what is less clear but even more compelling is the value of writing other extremities at such a time. My writing is not political. While I do engage research, cultural critique, and a layperson’s level of science, these curiosities and resonances are support members rather than the structural integrity of my work. I am still, perhaps stubbornly, most interested in the private bodily extremities of single humans—usually myself, sometimes others. I have spent most of my life adventuring in various areas of extremity with my own body, and lately I’ve been spending a lot of time asking intrusive questions of the people around me. I wonder sometimes if this pursuit is the most truly extreme thing that a person can do: to ask and tell whole ugly truths about messy, complicated realities. I hope so. 

Finding My Rightful Void: Writing in the Era of Extremity

Raquel Gutiérrez

“Do we merely live hand to mouth? Do we merely struggle with the "ism" that's sitting on top of our heads?” —Cherríe Moraga, Loving In The War Years

The war years have never left but war doesn’t even get called that anymore. Declaring war is a performative speech act rendered null by the mere act of war itself. War doesn’t have to be invoked for us to know it’s there even in its smallest increment. I’m not hopeful about what my writing does in the era of extremity. The only thing most of us have to arm ourselves against the extremities of war is our precarity. 
     Thinking about writing in the age of extremity often makes me think about love. Loving in the age of extremity is a harder undertaking. Is love under the duress of economic instability still love? How do we find and sustain love as our rights are slowly being chipped away? What is love when children are forced to live in cages? Love might be another commodity that loses value in the marketplace of feelings. And our humanity dulls with each passing day watching both banal and spectacular violences emerge. We remain impotent to change any of it. I wonder where did desire go? What kind of lover and giver of love do I become in the struggle against these new normalizations? I think about love as the actions of my higher self, the version of myself that is only made clear to me through writing—what I aspire to be determines the kind of love I give. I don’t always give the best in love but the failure allows for improved upon efforts. I will keep trying until I get it right. I keep trying to until extremity dictates otherwise.
     What is writing but an attempt to contain the scream from its rightful void. Writing is harnessing that powerlessness into language—if not for us now, then for posterity. Writing becomes an accomplice to the state when armed border patrol agents are allowed inside the Modern Languages building to inspire students to join their ranks. Writing is a double agent. 
     Maybe it’s the shock that keeps us from doing anything right now. Or we have to wait for everyone in our family to be taken away from us to feel entitled to lash out at leader and state. Just because we can endure the worst of it doesn’t mean we should. To write is to caution and to reflect on what we did wrong; the wrongest being doing nothing at all. Writing is just one way to stare at my anger.
     I write not to witness what happens in the vicinity of the border space where I get my mail, vote in my district, walk my dog, see my friends. I write about how any of this has changed me. Am I different from before living alongside these 60 miles near one of the most contested borders, where the U.S. meets Mexico, where people get scanned and surveilled for signs of humanity, where a state decides who stays and who gets disappeared into the phantom vessel of capitalist production. Or have I stayed the same? How have these atrocities compelled me to walk through the underworld of myself? Does the writing force my hand against complacency? Or has the ground beneath my feet shifted so dramatically that it’s hard to find footing in enacting resistance—back when writing meant resistance.


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