What is the purpose and meaning of art? Ask a thousand artists, you’ll get a thousand answers — and in this Big Idea for The Circus Infinite, author Khan Wong offers his take… and it’s a compelling one.
I have long understood that the arts hold greater capacity than to merely decorate or entertain. The phrase “art will save us” has been a guiding principle of my life since I came to this realization. It’s been a credo for me throughout my adult life, and has influenced the hobbies I’ve pursued, the goals I’ve set for myself, the friends I’ve made and the communities I’ve been a part of. I’ve witnessed strangers become friends over banging out Bob Dylan covers on busted up guitars, marginalized youth finding their voices and inner strength through the spoken word, lifetime friendships formed by dancing with fireballs on chains in city parks and vast deserts, and the eyes of refugee kids lighting up when they figure out how to keep a hoop going around their waists – and manage to pull off some tricks too.
The common thread in these experiences has been how vital art is to individual well-being and community cohesion. It is not the food and medicine that keep bodies alive, but humans are more than just our bodies. The connection art can make between people and cultures is one that’s quickly being lost, unjustly overlooked, and sometimes maligned in late Capitalism’s inexorable pursuit of turning every damn thing into product, including the creative expression of humans. Yes, I do see the irony of this statement coming from a writer with a book to sell.
Found family, representation of multiple queer identities, and cool powers are the obvious hooks into The Circus Infinite, my debut novel. Also: partying and criminal underworld shenanigans, but I digress. Just as important as these aspects is the milieu in which the story is set, and that’s where my big idea comes in: it’s the bohemian underbelly of a spacefaring civilization, a world where art matters and creativity is lifeblood. The artistic pursuits of the characters aren’t mere occupations or glamor-addled dreams of fame, but the callings of their spirits. They know they are artists as surely as they know they’re queer (or not), the notion is so deeply rooted in their psyches.
Before arriving at Circus, I’d tried writing a more earthbound version of this story. That version was ultimately hindered by its adherence to our real world and actual history, and a certain amount of didacticism and preachiness was sort of baked right in. I was also a much younger writer and human at the time, an angry queer with a chip on his shoulder and a ready sneer for The Man and The System and the hegemonic heteronormative homogeneity of it all. I’d been trying way too hard to make a point with an Artistic Statement of a book; one that “labored too heavily under the weight of its models,” according to a particularly memorable rejection at the time.
My own creative yearnings had been limited to this one field – writing – because I had to focus. I had to be disciplined and create something I could sell. You see, dear reader, in addition to having Artistic Leanings, I am also the child of immigrants who bought into the Capitalist ideal, and merely getting published wouldn’t be enough. It had to be not only a bestseller but also Important, such were the messages I internalized. Needless to say, this project failed to take off.
It wasn’t until I cut my creativity loose from the frame of “I am a writer” and let myself pursue other interests – playing folk music, learning circus stuff, getting deeply involved with Burning Man (it was different twenty years ago) and its ancillary communities – that my understanding of my big idea deepened. Engaging with creativity and the artistic people I met along the way kept my world interesting and kept me alive in more than the bodily sense.
After a couple of decades of learning and expressing in whatever mode caught my fancy, I eventually came around to what was essentially me – the me that was trying to find expression in these other pursuits. I came back around to writing and decided to give this novel thing another shot. Initially, I returned to the long-abandoned manuscript and that served the purpose of getting it out of my system, loose end tied. That story was done and put away, but the big idea still needed to find a narrative vessel.
And then the pandemic hit and I thought, fuck it. I leaned into escapism, and set out to write the space fantasy of my dreams, the thing I never tried to write before because it wasn’t “serious” enough. All the living I’d done in those years of seemingly aimless creative pursuits crystallized in this alien circus in space.
My big idea kept me curious. It kept me learning, growing, and believing in the power of art. And eventually, it got me to a place where I could express that in a story that was, ostensibly, about something else.
Art will save us. It saves my protagonist, who finds a refuge with a bunch of boho alien weirdos, and it saved me, just another human seeking purpose on this rock. So write the thing. Make the thing. Draw or paint or sing the thing. Maybe art will save you too.