The Responsibility of Self-Discovery

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The pow­er of the self and self dis­cov­ery…

Tehran Sunset

Hamed Saber via Comp­fight

I read a cou­ple of arti­cles over this last week about the (mis)appropriation of cul­ture in writ­ing. This got me think­ing about our respon­si­bil­i­ty as writ­ers and read­ers and also as human beings.

We all have our respec­tive roles in life and we all have many. I am a Mus­lim, moth­er, daugh­ter, nurse, writer, wife… As I grow old­er I will, no doubt, adopt oth­er des­ig­na­tions and still yet slough off oth­ers. What we have here, hope­ful­ly, is the mak­ing of a strong bal­anced evolv­ing human being.

I start­ed to won­der how much of this per­son­al devel­op­ment influ­ences my writ­ing (or vise ver­sa) or anyone’s par­tic­u­lar pre­ferred form of artis­tic expres­sion.

When I wrote An Unpro­duc­tive Woman over a decade and a half ago, my life was under­go­ing a major spir­i­tu­al upheaval. The process of writ­ing AUW was cathar­tic and, believe it or not, I was in many ways buoyed by the strength of my main char­ac­ter Asabe.
Those who know me and have read AUW have told me that they envi­sion me as the main char­ac­ter, Asabe. I take that as a high com­pli­ment but I quick­ly set them straight. Asabe is the kind of woman I’d emu­late and I believe this is what I was going for on the sub­con­scious lev­el when I wrote the sto­ry. Asabe is a deep down good woman who is imper­fect.

These days I find that my main char­ac­ters, usu­al­ly women, reflect less of what I’d like to become and more the pas­sion­ate rebel­lious spir­it that already resides silent­ly with­in me. They are usu­al­ly good but deeply flawed and grow­ing in ways they nev­er antic­i­pat­ed. This would explain also, I sup­pose, why I fre­quent­ly hit char­ac­ter devel­op­ment road­blocks, because I don’t know that silent part of me as well, that alter ego

Whether right or wrong, my writ­ing is informed by me and me by it.

Recent­ly a movie enti­tled The Inno­cence of Mus­lims by Sam Bacile received more pub­lic­i­ty than it deserved. The film is an inten­tion­al­ly inflam­ma­to­ry piece of tripe meant, I would assume, to offend and harm the Mus­lim world com­mu­ni­ty. Most of the Mus­lims I know found it laugh­able and unwor­thy and then of course you know, if you’ve watched the news, that oth­er Mus­lims, to my cha­grin and mor­ti­fi­ca­tion, protest­ed loud­ly and unfor­tu­nate­ly vio­lent­ly. I cer­tain­ly don’t believe that the film was wor­thy of any action or reac­tion bar­ring dis­gust, but it does beg the ques­tion about the filmmaker’s intent.

We could begin by argu­ing about the right to free speech and thought. I believe Bacile had the right to make the film (with will­ing well informed actors), but what about his respon­si­bil­i­ty as an artist, as a per­son with the pow­er, how­ev­er small, to cre­ate change, to enlight­en, to objec­tive­ly protest what he may per­ceive to be wrongs. Obvi­ous­ly he had some griev­ances.

I feel that sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty when I sit in front of my key­board. It weighs so heav­i­ly on me that some­times my writ­ing lit­er­al­ly hits a wall. I am forced by some inter­nal check to eval­u­ate not just the direc­tion of my sto­ry but “why” it took that direc­tion.

I once felt as if my per­son­al mores choked my cre­ativ­i­ty, but now I would say that they have actu­al­ly checked my heart and moti­va­tions. This is a dif­fi­cult bal­ance to main­tain no doubt, if one is so inclined, but not a bal­ance I’m will­ing to forego just to main­tain my right to say any­thing that comes to mind with­out giv­ing thought to the poten­tial con­se­quences. I have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to myself and my craft and to a degree I also feel respon­si­ble for those who may read or be influ­enced by what I’ve said.

I des­per­ate­ly want to give life to char­ac­ters that are human, not per­fect cook­ie cut­ter fairy tale crea­tures (even in the midst of a fairy tale), but true rep­re­sen­ta­tions of, in par­tic­u­lar POC, women, and Mus­lims.  As we all know, no two peo­ple of any group are alike, so that is cer­tain­ly not an easy task. While I wouldn’t say that only a mem­ber of a cer­tain demo­graph­ic can give true life to such char­ac­ters, it cer­tain­ly helps. Also there are peo­ple who man­age to write their own demo­graph­ic wrong. I don’t believe any­one has the monop­oly on get­ting it right or wrong.

I lis­tened to a book a few months ago in which the main char­ac­ter was a woman, a very stu­pid, child­ish, whin­ing, woman, whose only appar­ent worth appeared to be her petite body, her fair skin, and her red hair. Grant­ed the book was poor­ly writ­ten dri­v­el, but this char­ac­ter exist­ed hap­pi­ly as a face and body. I don’t know a sin­gle woman who would wish to be seen in such a shal­low light. I kept scream­ing, “Real­ly? What woman acts like this?”
This brings us to the issue, in a very round about way, of the sub­ject of not just cul­tur­al (mis)appropriation, but gen­der and racial as well.

I can not expound on this sub­ject with the flu­id elo­quence of Nisi Shawl or Aliette de Bodard, but I can say this: Writ­ers have an oblig­a­tion to get the facts right, even in fic­tion, and to tell the truth the very best way they know how even if said truths hurt and ran­kle the author’s own sen­si­bil­i­ties, even if in the end their per­son­al prej­u­dices have been nul­li­fied.

Isn’t that what true art is all about?

This requires, in my opin­ion, the hon­est desire to do jus­tice to the work of art and an hon­est effort to make that hap­pen. Even if the facts are wrong I think most of us can tell the dif­fer­ence between will­ful deviance from truth and human error. I’m will­ing to make allowances for that. That said, none of this can be accom­plished with­out self-explo­ration and the under­stand­ing that must nec­es­sar­i­ly be born of that.

When I was in nurs­ing school, one of my pro­fes­sors spent an entire class dis­cussing the impor­tance of under­stand­ing our per­son­al lim­its. The con­text was this, that every nurse will come across a patient(s) whose cul­tur­al, reli­gious, per­son­al prac­tice may come at odds with their own. Some­times enor­mous odds. Do you ignore your lim­i­ta­tions and fail your­self and even­tu­al­ly the patient as well? Do you admit to those lim­i­ta­tions and seek help, guid­ance and/or a solu­tion? Before doing either, you have to under­stand your­self.

You have to know you.

reflections (B)

Camil Tul­can via Comp­fight

It is because I under­stand my per­son­al lim­i­ta­tions (to a degree…I’m still learn­ing and grow­ing every day) that I step back and eval­u­ate my actions with my most chal­leng­ing patients. I do this so as to ensure that I don’t cheat them of appro­pri­ate care just because I was annoyed or hav­ing a bad day.

Ques­tion: If an author is unable to approach a sub­ject with hon­est objec­tiv­i­ty, should they approach it at all?

We could hold up, as an exam­ple, the deba­cle of Reveal­ing Eden, which I could not fin­ish read­ing. Even today in the midst of near­ly unan­i­mous opin­ion that Foyt  is racist for hav­ing writ­ten some­thing as bla­tant, I still take issue with call­ing her such. I’m more con­vinced that she is instead, woe­ful­ly igno­rant about how to write an intel­li­gent­ly nuanced piece deal­ing with the immense­ly touchy sub­ject of race. I believe Foyt was lazy and that she did not do her research. I think she is guilty of being arro­gant enough to think she didn’t have to and for not fes­s­ing up when called out on her fail­ure. Besides being ter­ri­bly writ­ten, as we all know that there are many ter­ri­bly writ­ten best­sellers, I think she failed because she didn’t do the self-dis­cov­ery required to write a sto­ry with a sub­ject mat­ter so poten­tial­ly charged.

Did she ever ask her­self, “How do I real­ly feel?” Or “Why do I feel this way?” Or “What do I hope to accom­plish?” Had she asked any one of these or oth­er ques­tions requir­ing true self-dis­cov­ery, she might have been able to antic­i­pate the neg­a­tive back­lash that has since ensued.  She might have been able to write a tru­ly enlight­ened and reveal­ing piece of lit­er­a­ture

I think it is just as incum­bent upon read­ers to call out those authors who were too lazy to make the effort at self-dis­cov­ery, let alone fact check­ing.

As for the man who pro­duced the deroga­to­ry film about the prophet of Islam, well that thing (which I could not and would not ever watch) is akin to a tem­per tantrum. And as such, it was, like any oth­er tantrum, emp­ty of sense or worth. It was a lit­er­al mess. I’m not angry that he had the tantrum but I am dis­ap­point­ed that he didn’t try to do bet­ter, or that he couldn’t be both­ered to at least be hon­est with him­self and the verac­i­ty of his obvi­ous anger, which he is enti­tled to, if he wants to live with it.

But what has he ben­e­fit­ed? What have we ben­e­fit­ed? What was the point?

Only I can decide what my per­son­al moti­va­tions are and as much as I may want to, I can’t decide that for any­one else. (Don’t wor­ry, I don’t real­ly want to. That’s too much respon­si­bil­i­ty and work!) In the end the truth of it lays solid­ly in the lap of the artist. In the end the artist has to be at peace with the results, opin­ions be damned.

But isn’t that what the artist is in search of any­way? Opin­ion, prefer­ably the favor­able kind?