not owned

I like this very much:

He is a nomad. He has a supra-national, post-colonial style, so that it is very hard to say who owns him.

Answer this: If you belong to any sort of a minority population(s), of whatever kind, how much of what other people in your group(s) are about is owning you?

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

12 thoughts on “not owned”

  1. I went to a local slam event recently and saw maybe a dozen performers, each of whom were given three minutes in two rounds.

    All four African American males intoned the word “slave” at some point in their pieces, and spoke almost exclusively about racism.

    Five women performed, three of whom spoke of rape.

    The three white males all went for untethered, absurdist schoolboy comedy.

    And there was a young man of Middle Eastern descent who delivered the only poem about–you guessed it–the Middle East.

    Obviously it’s only a sample, and I’m aware that there are multitudes of much bigger, much more important issues surrounding the topic of wrangling with cultural identity, but it’s interesting that even low-end slingers of fiction don’t seem to have any interest in wandering far from who they think they are. I don’t know if this is just a function of youth, the wrong venue, the aftereffects of that dreadfully misinterpreted classroom dogma Write What You Know, or one of the sandtraps of cultural identity, but I went a whole evening without seeing one writer/performer going for THE transcendent effect of both narrative fiction and acting–stepping into the shoes of The Other, making it seem real, and stunning the audience with messages about the illusion of separation.

    Maybe it has something to do with suspension of disbelief: I am X, therefore I can speak credibly about X. And maybe it has something to do with audiences, too–conveying The Other is thrilling, but it’s tough to pull off.

    Or maybe it’s just me. I’m not looking for reportage in fiction, I don’t care about street cred or autobiography; I’m looking for meaningful acts of imagination.

  2. Interesting. Responding through the narrow optic of my comment about “owning”, part of it may be that many such are reluctant to be accused by their own community of selling out/being pretentious if they are X and instead write about O.
    But the pressure on members of X to conform to X community’s notions of X-ness comes from different sources in different ways – from 1) the X community 2) the non-X community 3) the individual X member.
    And that’s a lot of pressure to resist. I guess it requires great clarity of identity (or maybe just a total confusion of identity heh) to transcend it – or to even begin to try to transcend it.

  3. Well, it cuts both ways, doesn’t it? If a purveyor of fiction is limited to who they are, well, that’s pretty freaking limiting. Taken to the extreme, it means you can’t write across gender, you can’t write about a region you’re not from, a time you don’t live in, or conditions you haven’t experienced.

    We’re not talking about writing essays here. If you know what authors are going to say based on their surnames and where they’re from, what’s the point in reading them at all? And isn’t that where we’re going, when you can walk into any bookstore, look at the author’s bio and the title, and correctly guess what the novel is about some alarmingly high percentage of the time?

  4. Yes, I see your point, but surely there is a legitimate place for advocacy art, by and on behalf of minority populations. Where the minority in question is or considers itself to be socially or politically oppressed based on the X factor that makes it a minority in the first place – whether race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, size or handicap, or whatever.

    I don’t know to what extent advocacy art – while serving a political purpose for the X community at large – can also represent a developmental step the minority artist needs to take before being able to operate on a more transcendent level. Or the percentage of minority artists who are able to eventually move beyond advocacy art. Or transmute it.

  5. Well, I’m all for new topics for fiction, and if writers from cultures fiction has overlooked are bringing them to our attention, great. My worry is that the focus becomes the author, not the writing.

    Alice Walker was taken to task for The Color Purple because it lacked any positive depictions of African American males. This is was not a comment on the quality of the writing. It did not take into account that Ms. Walker was delivering a work of fiction, a story featuring a relatively small cast of characters, one which included only three major male roles. That didn’t matter. What did matter, apparently, was that Ms. Walker, was African American and female. Which meant that a novelist and poet was on the hook for certain requirements in her fiction based on her identity in real life.

    I just worry about writers getting put in boxes, and I wonder about writers who are eager to jump into them and stay there.

  6. sefton, this idea:

    ” I’m not looking for reportage in fiction, I don’t care about street cred or autobiography; I’m looking for meaningful acts of imagination.” is pretty close to the 19th century aesthete’s idea that put artifice ahead of anything real/natural etc.

    I am sensing some of the ‘art for art’s sake’ — the motto of aesthetes and perhaps symbolist poets who followed, in what you say.

    It is interesting how these questions always come around again.

    I think there is a lot of room for both the political that includes issues of religion, gender and race or anything else directly political and also for flights of fancy/ imagination.

    I think I am kind of with Blake; all good writing is a kind of revolution. Reaching outside of the perceptions of boundary is a revolutionary act that implicitly embraces all issues of marginalization by virtue of difference.

    Barbara Jean

  7. I don’t even know where to begin with this one, largely because in my other life I’m writing a series of essays about identity and race, covering ground I think needs to be covered because (in part) of the way in which that ground is usually covered — stereotypically, shallowly, unproductively.

    Nic and I have skated around this topic before too, talking about engaged poetry, about politics. I too agree with Blake (after all, he’s a genius, so it doesn’t hurt ot agree with him). On the other hand, bad art, or stuff that masquerades as art, can write about anything and not make a dent. Seems to me that you’re bored with the stuff that deals not with reality, but with cliché — that’s simplistic, one-dimensional, expected, rather than the stuff that addresses familiar territory in a familiar and tedious way.

    Correct me if I’m wrong. And I could be completely wrong.

  8. The problem with judging poetry by live appearances is that in live appearances not only are the poems going to be of a certain accessibility, but they are also immediately comparable to the person giving the reading.

    So, the poets would select certain poems. The audience would select certain characteristics of the poets to “see.” These two things reinforce each other.

    In print, the identity of the poet isn’t so in-your-face, and the poems are then, often, read as discrete units rather than as demographic information.

  9. Scavella,

    Yeah, I think that’s about right–cliche is a big problem in this area. But meaningful acts of imagination thrive here too. I remember a children’s book called Boris that brought the Russian experience in WWII to life, tragic stories by Nadine Gordimer and comic ones by Hanif Kureishi that delivered political content that couldn’t be delivered nearly as well in essay form. It comes down to writing well, and when that doesn’t happen in a piece that wants to persuade, you’re left with platitudes. It’s the main reason the recent film Children of Men didn’t quite work; it was wonderfully shot and well acted, but the writer botched the obvious human reactions, and numerous opportunities for stirring “movie moments” were missed, particularly with respect to the baby. Some big ideas, but poor execution did it in.


    Well, it certainly could be the sample; I brought it up as a casual way into a larger topic, and it simply might not work.

    To stick with it a moment further, though, consider the performance choices of the white males. I think they (correctly) assumed they couldn’t lead with their link to a community (white males having no ethnicity, of course), and I was intrigued that they all went for quirky comedy. So, ironically, they all made the same attempt to sell their individuality to the audience, rather than their inclusion in a group.

    I don’t know if you can draw overarching conclusions, but I was struck by the decsions of all the performers in aggregate. The focus was on establishing the identity of the author, rather than any number of other opportunities a live performance of a fiction might afford.

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