Check out this book club filming on the novel Kindred

The book cover of Octavia Butler's novel "Kindred"

For people who love talking about books and making art, Asian Arts Initiative offered the opportunity to do both--at the same time!--this past Monday night.

Asian Arts Initiative’s book group discussion and filming on the novel Kindred was led by artist Matt Kalasky, a Philadelphia-based designer, critic, and arts organizer. Those discussion excerpts will soon be added to the More Perfect Union gallery.

To be fair, a book club discussion as a work of art is not intuitive for many people, including me. But Kalasky sees a connection: “It really disrupts this idea that an art piece has one creator and one owner, and that person has ownership over how it’s interpreted and what it means. Tonight, while I started this process, I won’t own the final product.”

I’ve definitely fallen prey to the assumption that artwork has one true meaning or original intention--and that if I’m not authoritative or expert enough, I shouldn’t participate in the artmaking process. But that assumption can be challenged in spaces like the conversation on Kindred.

In this 1979 work of science fiction and slave memoir by Octavia Butler, the contemporary black woman protagonist Dana is transported back in time to meet her slave ancestors in the early 19th century. Dana is married to a white man in the 1970s, and a 19th century white slave owner rapes and coerces two black women--so the novel is full of complicated and sometimes disturbing interracial dynamics.

How that affects today’s readers will undoubtedly vary by personal experience and identity, so I see the book club format as suitable for those variations. “My role as author can’t be established here,” Kalasky acknowledged. “The ultimate end product of this is a collage of all these people and their perspectives. In general, they’ll have just as much ownership over this art experience as I would. Hopefully we’ll get to share ownership: how this night affects this person and what they take away from it will be just as valid as what I take away from it tonight.”

Kindred depicts interracial relationships of time periods passed, but I’d imagine that it has a lot of reveal about interracial relationships today. Aja Davis, who was a participant in the discussion and is currently AAI’s Executive Assistant, noted the importance of power and consent in situating interracial relationships. In contrast to false romanticization of interracial relationships, such as between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, Davis pointed out that Kindred allows us to see “interracial relationships that are non-consensual, pitted with a relationship that is [consensual]--you’re trying to watch them navigate that space, in a time when [interracial relationships] weren’t safe for them.”

I also wonder if Kindred--and ultimately the Loving decision--is a story of intergenerational understanding, and especially in understanding unfamiliar political and historical contexts. Kindred author Octavia Butler recalled being inspired to write this novel by the Black Power Movement during her college years, and by a young activist’s comment that older generations were passive and subservient to white superiority: “He felt so strongly ashamed of what the older generation had to do, without really putting it into the context of being necessary for not only their lives but his as well.”

It can be easy to take for granted the civil rights that seem so far away, even when remnants of those fights are still present today. That contextualizing process mentioned by Butler, Davis, and Kalasky is a difficult and personal process. And it’s a process that calls for everyone’s voices, especially in the community art that Kalasky strives for:

“I really like making art by yourself, but I also think that we can start thinking about different ways that an artistic experience can happen, and how that artistic experience can be more collaborative, experiential, community-based, and for me, education-based.”


Asian Arts Initiative is lucky to have Communications intern, Amy Xu, as a blogger this summer season. She will be covering our current gallery exhibit, A More Perfect Union: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Loving v. Virginia and the 2017 Pearl Street Season. Check out more blog posts HERE!

The views and opinions expressed in the blog posts are the author's own and does not necessarily reflect that of the organization and its employees.