The power of the self and self discovery…
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.
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?