The Art Must Go On: Creating in Dark Times

Posted on
Nov 21, 2016
Posted in: Personal Essay

The question, after the election of Trump and his appointment of White Supremacists who are gleefully endorsed by the KKK is, simply, Now what? 

This is a difficult question to answer if you’re an artist (and I use the term very, very loosely, and sometimes precede it with “sandwich,” so that it applies to me). You march, you make phone calls, you mobilize, but … do you create?

In recent days, my work has felt far more trivial than usual. I wrote a book that is coming out in the spring. In it, I joke about cake and Jeff Goldblum and how rompers make grown women look like toddlers (but they’re also supposed to be sexy, which is weird). And I have trouble reconciling all of that.

“Hey, the world is on fire! My husband’s getting shit from anti-Semites who are emboldened by a KKK-endorsed president and random dudes now think it’s cool to joke about grabbing pussy. By the way, you should totes BUY MY BOOK – it’ll teach you how to say “I have chlamydia” in French!”

When so much of my identity is humor, it’s hard to know who I am when the world around me isn’t all that funny.

“You need to express something besides rage,” Rand told me the other day.

“How?” I asked him. How I can do that when the only thing I feel right now is rage?

I’ve been wanting to step away from work. Let’s be clear, I’m a known procrastinator and it’s a daily struggle to do anything that doesn’t involve online shopping or gifs of puppies hiding in the beards of hipsters, and that’s in the best of times.


(You had to know that last bit wasn’t hypothetical.)

Point is: stepping away from work is always easy, but when I start to think that my work isn’t important, that temptation becomes even more strong. So let this be a reminder to not only myself, but to everyone out there who is struggling to create right now: your work is important.

Think about it.

If art wasn’t powerful, then censorship wouldn’t exist.  If comedy were trivial, Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue (both brilliant and biting) wouldn’t have been blocked by a TV station in North Carolina. If theater was inconsequential, our President-Elect wouldn’t have spent the last two days complaining about Hamilton instead of addressing his $25m fraud case. If books were unimportant, then Hitler would not have burned them.

I started to think about all the works which have been so important to me in recent months. Pieces of art that I love so much, I want to squeeze them to my chest. Sometimes they are funny. Sometimes they are political. Sometimes they are musicals featuring the divine Daveed Diggs.

A short list, should you need some suggestions (as always, no affiliate links because whatever):

  • Arranged – a movie about an Orthodox Jewish woman and a Muslim woman who forge a friendship while trying to navigate the world of arranged marriages in NYC. It’s kind of a fairy tale, and it doesn’t escape the marriage plot, but I love it. I have since the first time I saw it.
  • Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful graphic novel about her life growing up Muslim in Iran.
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home – A story of a young woman in NYC, in the wake of losing her uncle to the AIDS epidemic. Devastating and beautiful. I cried when I read it, and for days afterward, and while that doesn’t sound like an endorsement, believe me when I say: I have no regrets.
  • Ms. Marvel – the classic comic heroine has been recast as a young woman coming to grips with her identity as an American, a Muslim, and a superhero. Funny, heartwarming, and patriotic.
  • Obasan – a heartbreaking story of a young Japanese-Canadian woman who, along with her family, is sent to an internment camp during WWII. Based on author Joy Kogawa’s own experiences, this work feels incredibly relevant today. I read it more than a decade ago, and it still haunts me.
  • My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – a musical comedy that is utterly ridiculous with a wonderfully diverse cast that is, as one writer put it, “Subtly changing the way we see Asian-American men on TV.” Plus, the depiction of one character’s journey into discovering his own bisexuality is great. Watch it.
  • Jane the Virgin – Where to begin? Based on a Spanish telenovela, this show seems pithy and light, but makes profound statements about acceptance, feminism, immigrant rights, gay rights, redemption, sexuality, class struggle, the difficulties and stigma of being a single mom, and so much more. Plus, ye gods, it has Justin Baldoni.
  • Politically Reactive podcast with Hari Kondabolu and W. Kamau Bell – two comedians talking about politics. Literally one of the few things that has helped me make sense of this election. And now it’s on hiatus and I want to cry.
  • Hamilton – It should be surprising to no one that I loved this show. The story of one of America’s founding fathers told through rap and hiphop by an incredibly diverse cast, it reminds us of the critical role slavery played in building our country, and illustrates how we’ve always demonized immigrants, even as they fought for U.S. independence. Also I might be in love with Lin-Manuel Miranda but whatever that’s no biggie …
  • Vietgone – a rather incredible play that tells the story of two Vietnamese immigrants falling in love in an American refugee camp in the wake of the Vietnam War, it highlights that even American progressives view the war through a lens of ethnocentricism. Also, James Ryen, who I’m pretty sure is what Adonis looked like.
  • The Maven of Mayhem – A beautiful blog written by a woman whose daughter and wife are transgender. Their journey is uplifting and occasionally heartbreaking. (This blog is my pick-me-up on dark days)
  • How to Make White People Laugh – Negin Farsad talks about being Muslim American, about racial identity, about the power of laughter, and what it’s like for so many of us who are the children of immigrants. Oh, and it’s hilarious.
  • How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran’s wonderful feminist memoir in which she tackles abortion, motherhood, pubic hair, and what it means to be, well, a woman.
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain – Phoebe Robinson’s hilarious collection of essays about race, feminism, and pop culture. It feels like you are reading  your super cool best friend’s diary (with her permission, of course.)
  • Worm Loves Worm – My friend Mike illustrated this adorable story about two worms who fall in love and get married. He’s gotten plenty of hate mail for it, so you know it’s wonderful.
  • Shrill – Lindy West’s fantastic feminist memoir. It addresses the pervasiveness of fat shaming, the devastation of internet trolls, and is achingly beautiful.

Are these the most important political works I could have selected? Nope. Have I still not read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and do I feel really guilty about that? Yup. Am I like going to read the Black Panther comic he penned before I tackle his memoir? Probably.

But these books and movies and plays and blogs are nevertheless important to me. I wasn’t explicitly looking to be enlightened – I found most of them because I just wanted to be entertained. Lo and behold, sometimes that quest can open our minds up to something remarkable and life-changing. Most lessons are learned when we’re doing other things.

These books made me more empathetic, more informed, less closed-off (I’m still an asshole, but, you know, slightly less so.) I’m not delusional enough to think that my book is going to have that sort of influence on someone else. I have an entire chapter about poop (seriously), and I wax poetically about Jeff Goldblum an alarming amount.

So, yeah, it’s probably not gonna change the world, but I’m hoping that it will make the world a little less scary for those that read it. I talk about my family’s journey to the States – my dad first came over as a teenager. Here’s a picture of him fresh off the boat (literally) with his little brother.

This is my favorite photo of him in the whole wide world.

My father, who was almost sent to the gulags. My father, who spent time in a refugee camp in Germany. My father, who worked for the US government his entire life.

I tell stories about my crazy, noisy immigrant family, about growing up bilingual, about what it means to be American. I talk about how incredibly disorienting and lonely it is to be a stranger in a strange land, and how so many people I love experience that every single day. And maybe, maybe someone reading that will see immigrants a little differently. Or maybe they’ll just laugh at the fart jokes I make in seriously every chapter. I figure either way, the outcome is pretty promising.

And of course, there’s this long-neglected blog. Do I keep writing about cake? Do I keep creatively tormenting people who try to buy links from me?

Well, of course.

I’m not going to kid myself – this is a blog. It’s not some noble political effort. But it’s also a great platform for sharing my stories about the world. During a time where we’re literally talking about creating a registry of Muslims (which, by the way, is literally how the Holocaust started), it seems like a worthwhile time to tell you about my experiences in a Muslim country.


When there’s talk in the new President’s higher echelons about halting all immigration from “non-European countries,” what better opportunity to tell you stories about non-European countries? When Trump’s Chief Strategist is literally a neo-Nazi who thinks that Jews and minorities are inferior, doesn’t it seem like a pertinent moment to tell you about the love of my life who is OMG-SO-JEWY?


Note his Semitic good looks.

Every time we create, we have the opportunity to change how someone else sees things. Every single time we tell a joke or write a blog post or are spotted dancing half-naked by our horrified neighbors, we have a chance to change the world in some small way. There is nothing wrong with creating in dark times. There is nothing wrong with finding joy in the creations of others. It is, if anything, more important now than ever.

I strongly encouraging you to donate your time and money to important causes, and to march for what you believe in, and to support your friends and family who need you. If you are lucky enough to live a life of privilege, I hope you use it to make other people feel safer and more comfortable these next few years.

And I hope you remember to keep making beautiful things, too. I hope you keep writing and dancing and drawing and cooking and singing and laughing and resisting and fighting. I hope you keep connecting with the world in ways big and small.

I’ll be right here, trying to do the same.


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