It Occurs to Me That I Am America – Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from It Occurs to Me That I am American


The idea for this book came together over a weekend not long after the 2016 presidential election. For weeks I had been thinking: What can I do? Then I knew. I presented the idea to Touchstone’s David Falk, who not only said “Yes!” but helped form the book and has been its champion from day one. I knew something else: I wanted the book to give back, to not only be an incredible read and visually dazzling but to put all of the creative work in the service of an organization that has been defending our civil liberties for almost a hundred years, which is exactly what every writer and artist has done by donating his or her royalties to the ACLU.

Having led a bifurcated life in art and writing, I also knew I wanted both visual artists and writers to share the stage. The idea of fiction surprised and scared a few writers until they thought it through and it became obvious: to write a story that dealt with some fundamental right or principle Americans take for granted that is currently threatened or under attack—from immigration to education, free speech and censorship; from women’s rights to basic human rights to the frustration, sadness, disappointment and anxiety about losing the freedom Americans have fought for; the idea of America as an international symbol of hope; and the most basic notion of all: what it means to be American.

The completed stories show the variety and diversity that is America now: from a depiction of small-town life and the awakening of racism to a sophisticated party where racism and sexism form the backdrop for impending tragedy. Several authors delivered chilling stories that glimpse a not-too-distant future where prisoners are jailed for crimes and transgressions he or she might never have committed, a dystopian world where knowledge—specifically admitting to possess knowledge that falls outside of one’s assigned station in life—may prove deadly, and a Kafkaesque trial that has dispensed with civil liberties and truth. There are heartfelt pleas to pay attention, a bookstore that stands as a symbol of freedom and free speech, catastrophic floods, dying trees, disappearing species, unexamined lives, missed opportunities, a teenage pregnancy and an illegal abortion. Academia’s political correctness is skewered in one story; a prestigious art colony democratized in another. There is hate crime, the Holocaust, and reflections on war both at home and abroad, but there is also humor and laugh-out-loud satire. Some rewrite classics from a new and novel point of view; others examine gender from inside out or offer an incisive glimpse of women, class, social conscience and camaraderie in the 1950s and ’60s as a mirror for today. There are autobiographical explorations; pieces that read as pure poetry; one as cool urban pop; another composed of rapid-fire dialogue that evokes the dissonance and disparity between people, the disbelief, wonder and pain that is so much a part of this moment. The never-ending generational conflict forms the basis of one story; understanding one’s own familial racism is at the core of another. What it means to be an immigrant versus a refugee underlies a tale of expatriatism, which plays perfectly against a detailed account of naturalization and what it meant to become American. Writers take on learning—or not learning—American values; truth in a time of fake news; the making of a revolutionary; the East-West culture class; racial controversy; anti-Semitism; a reflection on the legacy of evil; and postelection feelings of sadness, betrayal and confusion. There is grief and there is optimism. There is darkness, light, sadness and wit.

And there is art: comix, cartoonists, graphic novelists, painters, photog- raphers, printmakers—sumptuously painted depictions of America’s “good life,” who pays for it and how it goes bad; a cartoonist’s funny, earnest, often misguided personal history of politics; a redacted Declaration of Independence; beautifully raw paintings that explore issues of race; photographic images loaded with commentary about women, sexuality and contemporary culture; mixed-media portrayals that examine myths, stereotypes and the paradox of American Indian life; an irreverent and hilarious graphic alphabet detailing the ABC’s of a certain Mr. Trump; artwork that mixes cultural and political figures to tell visual stories in traditional yet unexpected ways; a cartoon bingo game of American rights; a pen-and-ink exploration of what it means to be mixed race; drawings that depict the atrocities of torture; a satirical painting that unites the iconic log cabin with the contemporary skyscraper; comix that employ iconic images of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to drive home ideas about immigration and freedom. The artists’ eclectic variety in medium and vision complement the wide range and multiplicity of the writers’ words and themes.
Some of the writers and artists in this collection I knew personally, others only from their work, but I feel as if I have come to know every one of them through their contribution and cooperation, their willingness to commit, to say yes, to create something meaningful. I am proud and honored to have worked with this extraordinary group of people. This book belongs to them and to everyone who values our country’s rights and privileges, who believes in decency, in a freedom that was fought for and a democracy that may be imperfect but one we cherish and need to preserve. This book represents more than a collection of great prose and beautiful pictures; it represents hope.

Jonathan Santlofer