I read once about how some of the most delicious wines are grown in places with the least fertile soils. The inhospitable land forces the grape vine roots to go deeper to look for nutrients and water, and the energy in the sugars created focuses its way to the fruit, resulting in potency in flavor.
Creating art can be likened to making fine wine. The struggles we experience in life are the soil from which powerful art is created. Struggles give complexity and grit to our stories. They add depth and contrast, substance and weight to the basic outline of our personhood. It evens the ground we stand upon so we can see each other at eye’s level, and because pain is universal, because beauty and awe are universal, the art that’s borne out of struggle bonds us to one another. Through song, movie, painting, or written word, art creates a safe shared space — a place to be seen, known, and understood.
I have a U-haul box in storage that has “Journals” written on it in black sharpie. It contains all the angst, secrets, and prayers I’ve scribbled into hidden sacredness throughout my life. Every time we move, I slice open the triple-taped box to add more journals and flip through old ones. I’m amazed at the freedom with which I wrote anything and everything, from anecdotes about my crushes to learned wisdom beyond my years; struggles had aged my soul.
However, beyond my journals, I was a terrible writer. From elementary through grad school, my writing suffered from my inability to transfer what I knew in my head and felt in my heart to the paper in front of me. I didn’t know how to free myself to write as I did when journaling privately. But in the last couple of years, I learned to peel back the protective layers, to be unafraid of narrating the painful and the mundane. My words are now more like the ones I wrote in my old journals — raw and unclothed. Upturning the soils of my struggles and writing from that vulnerability breathed life into my art. It paved a way for people to connect with my words and for our souls to share common ground.
I experienced this communion of art while watching Netflix. Hasan Minhaj, comedian and Daily Show correspondent, has a special called “Homecoming King”, in which he tells of his life growing up as an Indian-American Muslim in Davis, California. He crafts excellent art combining storytelling and perfectly timed visuals. The performance is emotive — humorous, of course, but also powerful and profound. His life echoed mine in many ways, both of us having grown up as children of immigrant parents and sharing similar struggles. Watching his art instantly created a bond with him because he understands the tricky balance of holding multiple cultures and languages in one body. He knows the difficulty of trying to live up to our parents’ expectations and wrestling with the oft-repeated phrase, log kya kahenge: what will people think? He is familiar with the ignorance and prejudice of others as an American who will always be seen as a foreigner.
At the beginning of his show, he tells a story of how his teachers never could say his name correctly. He asks the audience if it’s happened to them; one guy says he’d get a blank stare. I remember the same thing happening at the beginning of every single school year. My middle name used to be my Korean name, which has the character “Eun” in it. Teachers could never pronounce it correctly. Ee-oon. Un. Ee-un. I tired of repeating myself and took what they could offer. Those of us who experienced this accepted the distortion of our names as a small concession made in the name of assimilation.
I look back and wish I could tell my six-year-old self it was OK to have a name the authority figures couldn’t articulate. I wish I could tell her that her name is part of her identity, and neither were things to be embarrassed about.
Minhaj also talks about the imbalance of pressure immigrant parents put on their kids to succeed, how that desire often outweighs relational connection and deeper knowledge of one another. He jokes, “Dad, what’s your favorite color?” “Stanford!” We hardly know our parents because telling us their story isn’t their priority. Their priority is for us to survive, to get further in life and in worldly success than they did. They want us to have the American dream and not bring them shame. So we’re taught to put our heads down, to work hard, to mind our own business, to beat racism with good grades and an impeccable work ethic, to always consider what others will think and do whatever is most acceptable.
I understand now why our parents raised us this way. They simply wanted what they thought would be the best for their children, as all parents do. However, I wonder what more we could’ve gained had they shared their struggles with us. If they had told us their stories of disappointment, fear, and anxiety, could we have learned from certain pitfalls, broken away from unhealthy generational patterns? Would we have gained strength from their adversity? If they had disclosed the secret dreams of their youth and confessed their weaknesses, would we have felt closer to them, more known by them, more understood by them?
Our shame-based culture demands struggles to be masked with smiles and secrets, but art invites us to do the opposite. It encourages us to dig into our roots, to be aware of and uncover the hidden, painful parts of our lives. When we allow ourselves to draw from those places and let our scars shape our art, it has the power to heal others’ wounds, to offer understanding and kinship, to give hope for redemption.
Through comedy, Minhaj creates a safe, shared space for us to connect, laugh, and cry together. I write to do the same. And from the soils of our struggles, we offer our finest art.