I Ask Marta About…THE SMACKDOWN!
Have you ever gotten the smackdown? Or seen someone get it? How’d you feel about that?
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I feel like I need to preface my answer(s) with some background that situates me as a writer in this conversation. As I said in one of my comments, I have such a love-hate relationship with identity politics. This is because, on the one hand, I have felt silenced and/or unheard in damaging ways, some of which are related to my “identities” – especially as a woman and a lesbian. Sometimes oppression really does take the form of a cultural trespass that can be silencing: As though the white gaze isn’t bad enough, now here it is masquerading in blackface? The male gaze in drag? Heteronormativity chumming around as a fag hag? What do you do with that, if you are a black writer, a female writer, a queer writer? How do you get out from under that gaze, how do you talk back to it, when it’s now gone stealth?
On the other hand: what do you do if you are someone, like me, who feels very loosely attached to all of your “identities”? What if identity, as understood/defined by identity politics, isn’t really all that central to your experience? What if you feel like you don’t really have a home culture, what if you feel like you sort of live in that in-between place in a Venn Diagram, where lots of circles overlap? What if you feel sort of like an ex-pat in every culture you inhabit? I do: I’m a woman, who is married to a woman. I’m a lesbian housewife and an ex-lawyer who never knows what to say when people ask, “And what do you do?” I’m a mother who has never given birth. I’m a white mother with a black son. I’m a middle class white woman who has lived in a predominately black, working-class/poor neighborhood for over 20 years. I was raised secular but converted to Christianity. I’m a low-church Protestant who sometimes wishes she were Catholic. Or Quaker. (Or both: Quatholic as one of my favorite nuns said once.) I’m a Midwestern country girl who lives in an East Coast city. But even when I was a Midwestern country girl, I didn’t really belong there: my parents were hippie intellectuals who moved to a conservative rural community when I was in middle school. My mother was an immigrant who lived all around the world, displaced by war and its aftermath; my dad was an intellectual and cultural refugee from a dysfunctional working class family from whom he was largely estranged. If I have a complicated relationship to identity and culture, at least I come by it honestly.
But still, if I am to write what I know, as we are so often encouraged to do, what exactly am I to write? I know black people, lots of them, including my son, and many lovely upstanding neighbors and friends, and also drug dealers and mentally ill ex-prostitutes and wise homeless men who are also addicts. Can I write them? Am I “allowed”? What about a former high school football player from a small town in Indiana? What about a heterosexual, sixty year old Iowa farm wife? Can I write them? Is it more dangerous to write the mentally ill ex-prostitute, even though I have lived with her for 20 years, than the ex-football player, whom I haven’t known since high school (and didn’t know well even then?) What about a black lesbian nearing 50, who is married and works as a lawyer and is fascinated by Catholic mysticism? She’s an amalgam of all sorts of people I know, including myself, but mostly she’s just made up. Am I allowed to write her? These are all characters I am writing, and I’ve just decided it’s OK, or at least it has to be OK enough, because these are the characters that populate my imagination. I don’t know how to make them shut up, and anyway, why would I want to? Silences within silences, voicelessness spawning voicelessness, and into the abyss we go….
But, oddly, I have yet to be smacked down for any of it. Of course, I haven’t been writing and workshopping fiction all that long – about four years. In that time I have submitted for workshop a story about a homeless woman (no one believed she could be homeless because she was white and middle class, but no one said I wasn’t allowed to write her, just that they didn’t believe her …); a novel excerpt about that black lesbian lawyer (no smackdown in that workshop, exactly, but deep confusion about how a lesbian could possibly feel, as my character does, that Roe v. Wade was more significant in her life than Brown vs. the Board: how could Roe possibly be relevant to a lesbian?); and a novella excerpt about that former football player – no questions of trespass at all on that one, although, interestingly, that character actually emerged specifically from a sort of trespass challenge: I was arguing with a friend of mine about Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, in which there are five main characters – four white and (mostly) straight, one black and gay – but only four of them get a point of view. Guess which one doesn’t? You got it: the magical Negro! I was offended by this – I wanted to smack Harbach down for not daring to give voice to his black, gay character – but my friend defended him. It’s really hard to write outside of your own experience, he argued. Not that hard, I said. Oh yeah? said my friend. Could you write from the POV of a football player?
I haven’t seen all that many writers get smacked down either; only a few examples come to mind: I was in a workshop once where an upper middle class, suburban Jewish woman wrote a story from the POV of a slave woman whose child had been killed (or stolen from her? I can’t remember, but something terrible), and the POV character had gone mad as a result. My first reaction when I started reading the story was, Oh no you don’t! Who do you think you are to write this woman? I will admit, with some regret, that that was my first reaction. Just a couple pages in, though, and I was totally convinced: the voice was nuanced and spot-on, the character compelling and moving and real. In the workshop – where everyone was white – no one exactly said you’re not allowed to write this character, but instead they did a sort of stealth smackdown by way of a really bad reading of the text: The way this character talks is based on offensive stereotypes…. Isn’t it racist to make this slave woman sound so crazy? …. She seems so powerless, couldn’t you make her more angry, or articulate, or something? The problem, it seemed to me, was that none of those critiques were based in the story itself but rather in some script of a critique of a white-person-writing-a-black-character. I said as much, several times over, but was not able to move the sense of the workshop.
Another context in which I have witnessed, or heard about, workshop smackdowns is when writers depict characters who are misogynist and/or violent. This is not exactly the same thing, I know, but I think it’s a related issue: readers who merge the writer and the narrator, or the writer and a character, and can’t get past that. I’m really offended by this story because it’s misogynistic – I mean, look at the way that character is treating that woman! It’s so violent! And I just don’t like violence! In such a situation, I have tried to point out that the story isn’t necessarily misogynistic just because the character is. Depicting violence, even quite graphic violence, isn’t the same thing as condoning it, or glorifying it, or celebrating it. These distinctions have also often been lost on the workshop.
How’d I feel about those smackdowns I witnessed? In each case they pissed me off. It seemed to me that the questions being asked were not the right ones, but instead were cribbed from a sort of script of “cultural trespass offenses.”
But still…. Like I said, I have mixed feelings about it all, because it does seem to me that there can be a critique of attempts at “cultural trespass” – especially by those who inhabit the cultures being trespassed – which is not so much about permission, or who has the right, but rather about the work itself. But even then, I’m not sure what questions those critiques should be based on.
What do you think, dear readers?