Dinner Without An Agenda with Thomas Lax
Thoughts On Fear and Strategy

I’ve never been good at dinner parties, not that they are a particularly constant social situation I find myself navigating. The expectation and pressure of a seamlessly carried conversation is well enough to make me avoid many a situation where I am inevitability forced to attempt connection, or something like it. Yet, like many of the artists present at the dinner with Thomas, I applied and responded to his initial question (What are you censored or do you censor yourself from making?) with the intention of being offered, quite literally, a seat at the table. I feel urged to mention that this dinner took place many months ago from when this blog post is being published, all this to say: this is simply what I am able to remember and what touched me.

The dinner took place at Urubamba, a Peruvian restaurant that is one block away from my old apartment in Jackson Heights, the one I grew up in and where my mom still currently resides. As everyone ordered their dishes, we settled into light conversation until the dinner was introduced and Thomas spoke about what initially brought him to propose this question. The conversation itself had many trajectories: some artists spoke directly about their work and the various constraints they felt, some artists spoke about feeling boxed within particular mediums, some artists spoke about identity and its failures, others about their desires for expression and experimentation. There was no one thread of conversation that proceeded to build, at least not in my perspective, but there were bursts of feelings and insights and questions. Yet there was a growing feeling at the table, one of slight discomfort but also wariness, what felt like a hesitance to dive in, but then again, maybe that was just me.

What is the relationship between censorship and fear? For one, I can say that I was quite nervous and scared when I was at the dinner, fearful that I would say something inappropriate or stupid or naïve, but I was the one fueling my own fears, right? A dinner party is not the cinematic location we envision when we think of censorship, which typically, and accurately, we relate to structures and systems. Yet I don’t believe censorship simply exists in its most obvious incarnations, or that censorship is a thing of the past, and would argue that it is actually felt more consistently and more closely than we might imagine. Then there is silence, which I suppose is different than censorship but then again isn’t silence as coercive, as connected to social and political structures? Audre Lorde sure thought so[i]. After all doesn’t censorship thrive on our silence, our obedience, our coerced choice?

As an artist of color who thinks quite heavily about power, I can feel the intimate ways silence exists and persists with my everyday life, whether I’m at work or at home with my family or sitting in my studio. It’s shaped so much of my becoming who I am. Then I find myself in situations, like this dinner, where I am meant to communicate a part of myself or my perspective, where there is an assumption that this is a safe space where we can do so, but then I find myself hesitating all over again, unable to let go of the ways I’ve learned to speak and not speak. If this wasn’t anxiety producing enough, then there is this greater coercion that occurs in conjunction with silence, which is that you’re not meant to acknowledge the silence in the first place. No one is supposed to know what was not said. This is the agreement we make, to stay silent and not tell anyone it’s happening. We do this all the time. We have to after all, to navigate the histories of violence we’re swimming among on the daily. We’re supposed to seemingly slip into different spaces, worlds, identities, and structures with no acknowledgment of effort or struggle involved. An effortless silence, an invisible survival strategy.  How does this strategy of silence and fear shape us? What happens when we cannot say or do what we feel most urgent?

These dizzying thoughts bring me back to a few weeks ago when I was on my couch with my roommate watching the new Nina Simone documentary. Criticisms aside, the footage of Nina in the documentary was spell binding; you could not look away when she was speaking. Included in the documentary is an interview where Ms. Simone is asked what freedom means to her[ii], which she unabashedly responds NO FEAR (I also have a gold necklace that reads SIN MIEDO). Nina’s words, in conjunction with the thoughts that have been marinating since that dinner with Thomas has me wondering: When will we be allowed to live? I guess in many ways this is the question I always carry, when I’m not solely fixated on survival but can attempt to imagine and hope for something beyond. This dinner party was not a dangerous place, it did feel safe and welcoming for the most part, but damn, is any space a safe space? Is there any space where we don’t bring our fears along with us? Is there any space where power is not felt or present? Not fueling our deepest fears is hard, having them erupted and enforced by systems and structures is harder, but having to hide them is f—ing exhausting.

Ro Garrido

[i] Audre Lorde The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action

[ii] Nina Simone: Freedom 

Image: Essay from Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays series

This post is part of our series on Dinners Without an Agenda where guests authors react to the events they attend. Read on at this link for the rest.