(Photo by Jeremy Lishner on Unsplash)
Writing with a small update of sorts. On Thursday, my story “Otto” appeared in the new issue of The Southeast Review.
I think of the story as being about black subjectivity, but also about ambition and purpose. I wrote the story out of a growing frustration with the way we talk about black art in this country. This idea that when a black person makes art, somehow that art has to fit into our very boring discourses re: race and re: representation. When I was in my MFA program, sometimes I sometimes found myself sitting around a table with a group of people who would ask in ways subtle and less subtle basically where does race come in here? And if they didn’t say the word race, it was the sword hanging over all of our heads anyway. Not always in a bad way exactly. Just, sometimes, if you didn’t write about race directly, they didn’t know how to read your work, and so ascribed their discomfort to faults in your craft or storytelling. Sometimes, it feels as though to make art as a black person is to somehow engage in the mitigation of white discomfort.
There’s this thing that Margaret Atwood says or wrote somewhere. That inside of every woman is a man looking at a woman. I think that inside of every black artist is a white man looking at a black person. And that your job as an artist is to kill that white man and get him out of the way. This doesn’t just show up in what the OwnVoices discourse calls explaining your culture. People think it’s enough simply to avoid italicizing non-English words or throwing in vernacular or making the grandmother make cornbread and black-eyed peas. But unless you dispose of the entire narrative frame that presupposes a white gaze, then you aren’t getting anywhere. Much of resistance literature and the literature of “humanization” is an aesthetically defensive posture. Consider it. Why would you have to write to humanize yourself if you already consider yourself human. It boggles the mind. Writing against the white gaze is still writing for the white gaze. The gaze is still apparent, because it is coming from inside.
This is of course not a new idea. This is just double-consciousness. It is pervasive because it is a survival strategy. When one lives in an overculture, one most contend with that culture’s ever-present pressure. In the context of making art, it is so easy to trick yourself into thinking that you’re subverting the dominant culture, but a hint: if you still call it the dominant culture, you aren’t subverting anything. I wanted to write a story about that. About the perils of letting the white gaze into your art and how it can estrange you from yourself. How the white gaze claims everything it settles upon, even subjectivities that were not a part of it before.
In the story, Otto is a young man, black queer and from Seattle. He is a painter who cannot paint because he’s lost faith in his art. He’s lost faith for a whole host of reasons that are not unfamiliar to anyone who knows or is an artist. But one of the reasons is the weirdness of the white gaze. He didn’t think about it before, but his graduate school forced his work into a dialogue about race and now he can’t get out of it. Also, he feels that his ambitions are out of scope with his abilities. He feels like an amateur. His eyes are too good for his own sake. It’s about other stuff too. The messy realities of contemporary black art making and capitalism and chaotic gays. I wrote the story try and get down some of what I feel about being black and American and an artist. What it means to make art as a black person in the world today, beset from all sides.
I hope you’ll give the story a read. If not, that’s okay too. Hope your Friday goes well.