Oh, to be an octopus, slowly slithering my way through the dark, only to stumble on vestigial remains of an ancestor’s home. Aki Inomata’s moving-image piece “Think Evolution #1: Kiku-ishi (Ammonite)” describes what a good piece of art feels like: stumbling on a piece of home that you separated from lifetimes ago. Inomata was inspired by the instinct that octopuses had to huddle inside shell-like objects despite having evolved out of their shells millions of years ago. Thus, she decided to create a resin model based on the shells found of distant ancestors — ammonites. And so, in the moving image, the octopus slowly feels around the new shell it has fallen into — something it wasn’t necessarily looking for, but that seems to understand the octopus and its constitution.
Some people would argue that is the point of consuming art: to see forms of humanity that vaguely mirror our own. We love finding our shells and holding them close. But sometimes, the shells don’t want us inside. I read books, a decent amount of them old. I can see myself in the good ones. But for a while, I didn’t read stories that wanted to see anyone who wasn’t white. I grew up reading “classics” like “Little House on the Prairie” and “Tintin” — looking back, it’s pretty easy to find racist undertones in these works. Consuming and internalizing these classics as a child is not an uncommon experience. To convince me that only these works are the “classics” or the pinnacle of literature is to do a disservice both to myself and those around me. To believe that only certain white artists are capable of highbrow expression and that only certain white characters are allowed to have humanity ultimately perpetuates white supremacy, and while these beliefs are easy to deny at face value, they are often still held subconsciously.
As I’ve grown, I’ve stopped expecting authors to capture the world that I see. With all of the different experiences in the world, how could someone possibly articulate in print the out-of-place feelings that I find hard to admit to myself? At the beginning of 2019, I picked up a book from my school library with a gorgeously golden cover, and a West Side Story lyric in the title — “A Place for Us”, by Fatima Farheen Mirza. In the book, an Indian-American Muslim family’s past unravels as Amar, the youngest sibling, comes back to California for his eldest sister’s wedding. I think I’ll always be chasing the feeling I got from reading that book, from seeing Amar’s devastating choices and the family’s quiet love for each other (there’s a good chance my tear stains are still visible on the copy’s last chapter). Until that point, I had never seen a dynamic, intimate portrait of a family that felt like it was pulled from real life — from my life. Since, I have made it a point to seek out Asian American literature.
It’s not difficult to find people who roll their eyes at the mention of representation. Due to the commodification of identity politics, widespread representation often focuses on the visibility of a few specific traits. They’re often used as tokens to make art “appealing” to as many people as possible, rather than representing members of these communities as complex human beings that exist within the intersections of their identity but are not solely defined by them. Representation is often dismissed as an agenda that is permeating the culture — altering the sanctity of what art “was” (which, by the way, is an incorrectly singular perception of the artistic zeitgeist of the “good old days”). This aforementioned viewpoint lacks empathy. “Forced” representation, while frustrating, is an important stepping stone. And honestly, there is victory in just seeing someone who looks like you exist and be considered as worthy of a story. Maybe the novelty might wear off, but for now, I am happy when I see South Asian people being their truest, complex selves in art.
What does good representation entail? This is a difficult question to answer. If I knew exactly what I wanted out of art, then maybe I would react to art differently. But connecting with people who have lived through relatable experiences is a reason why we love art. Now I know what that octopus felt, swiping around in the dark, when it landed on a home — something that seemed to know the octopus better than it knew itself, something that is a testament to something big. A collective experience intertwined with evolution and history and being alive on this planet.
I know that feeling when I read “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki, a hilarious writer who has changed the way I think about what a life is and what a novel should be. I snuggle up in bed with Tahereh Mafi’s “A Very Large Expanse of Sea” and “Counting Down With You,” by Tashie Bhuiyan when I’m down, because they are beautiful, comforting stories that understand what it feels like to be a second-generation teenager, to be othered in a sea of whiteness. And when I read Charles Yu’s “Interior Chinatown” in a day — I don’t think I’ll ever read a more genius marriage of form and function, or a portrait of what it means to live with stereotypes. And this summer, when I went into the Strand Bookstore before meeting a friend; after wandering around, I picked up “Good Talk” by Mira Jacob. Before I knew it, the quietly hilarious 349-page graphic memoir was done, my feet were hurting, and I had a few missed calls from my friend, who eventually decided to wander around the bookstore and read a few titles herself. And “Gold Diggers,” don’t get me started on “Gold Diggers” by Sanjena Sathian — it’s everything I’ve never known I wanted out of a book.
Cathy Park Hong’s work changed the way I think about myself. Upasna Barath’s podcast and writing for Rookie speak to me like no one else can. Ocean Vuong’s poetry. Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “World of Wonders.” Arthur Sze’s “Residence on Earth.” Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s “This One Summer.” Fatimah Asghar’s “My Love for Nature.” There are too many to name, these artists who have made me. Me and my shells.
Daily Arts Writer Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.