Friday, March 11, 2011

The Personal Is Political

I was talking with my mentor/teacher/friend about how occasionally a student feels that personal subject matter is not important enough to use in a book, but that political material is a more valid choice. Betsy countered that within the personal you are always situated in the political; they are intertwined. As I ran around grabbing books off my bookshelves I realized that this is true.

You can see this in the "kitchen table" stories of author Grace Paley, for starters. In The Collected Stories, she writes about domestic life and raising children, she writes in the first person, often with a character not far from Grace named "Faith." Her characters are frequently married, but they are also divorced, liberated, and quirky. The women are generally strong and make their own decisions. If you look at Paley's life you see she was an anti-war activist. You see she lobbied for women's rights. The stories themselves, although fiction, seem highly personal. She made her statements through her characters' actions as well as through her own.

In Chilean poet and artist Cecilia Vicuña's work you see her personal interests in the physical aspect of weaving and in wordplay as well as her desire to call attention to injustice, irony, and beauty. In Unravelling Words & the Weaving of Water there is a political poem, "A Glass of Milk." Vicuña spilled a glass of milk on the pavement and photographed it, a personal action. She then wrote about it, referring to an event in 1979 in Colombia where contaminated milk was distributed to children, who died. Her small, personal action, then her photograph documenting it, stand for a larger, political event that questions power. Even her brief piece, "Sidewalk Forests" takes that small and personal observation of grass growing up through the pavement and puts it under a socio-political microscope to make it loom large.

Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo is a remarkable example of both an early graphic novel and the taking of a journalistic approach to personal life, which ultimately turns out to be commentary on a historical event. She documented the life of herself, her family, and other innocent Japanese Americans who were held at Tanforan and Topaz, concentration camps in San Bruno, California and in Utah in 1942.

Book artist Philip Zimmermann started with a personal event and zoomed out to produce his recent, awe-inspiring book titled Sanctus Sonorensis. He was at the Border Art Residency in New Mexico and "almost got my camera confiscated…while I was taking photos of several busloads of undocumented Mexican workers." Phil describes the large photographic board book with rounded corners and gilded edges on his blog:
It is a book of border 'beatitudes'. Among other things, this work comments on the complicated attitudes of Americans on illegal immigration from Mexico. The cover shows a photograph of the area of Southern Arizona which is the most active in terms of migration across the Sonoran desert, where thousands have lost their lives in the deadly desert heat.
For most of the book each page begins with "Blessed are the…." I read it aloud to my CCA class as they gathered around me, silently listening, watching me turn the pages of the changing desert skies.

In each of these books the artist has begun with his/her specific personal experience and broadened it, connected it to something larger than her/himself. The questions raised by the works don't have to be as what we might call overtly political such as related to feminism, anti-war efforts, justice, and illegal immigration. But they can address larger psychological issues like what motivates people, how people can have different viewpoints, what is cruelty, what is humanity, privilege, poverty, grief. The political may deal with who has the power, the response to that control, and the relationship between the two. The "who" can be as simple as the weather.

Try beginning with a personal situation and your attitudes and opinions about it, then move out so you see where you are situated in relation to others. I suspect that our "relation to others," particularly when it shows up within the work, is key to a successful personal/political work. This relationship provides the broader context and multiple layers of meaning.

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