June 24, 2016
A Peter Steiner cartoon from the New Yorker. Two mutts are in an office. One, seated at the computer, says to the other: ”On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
When I discovered that the residency theme was “Body, Language” and that I was expected to deliver a keynote, I grew despondent. Maybe what I really was, was overwhelmed. Because let’s face it: anything with “body” in it is one hefty mother of a subject. Body is everything: You can’t just section it off. According to recent studies on free will and determinism, there’s a lot less of a mind/body split than any of us might have imagine. And like it or not, that pesky, fleshy shell conveys so much… and not just the basic stuff like gender, race, disability. Bodies also reveal clues about gender identification, age, health, what is considered attractive or not, class, profession, status, sexuality and sexual preference, what is considered culturally appropriate or not, religion, tribal affiliation, region, education, history of substance abuse, history of sunblock use, wealth, ancestry. Vanity. The lack of vanity. What era we’re in. What country we’re from. What planet we’re on.
Like I said, everything.
What’s more, neuroscientists discovered that the neurons that respond to gender and race are linked by stereotypes. Think about it. As one of the authors of a recent study wrote, “The moment we actually glimpse another person … [stereotypes] are biasing that processing in a way that conforms to our already existing expectations.” I.e. it’s all pre-conscious! The seemingly objective sight of a body can trigger responses that themselves have ramifications, real ones that can be a matter of life and death. The protagonist of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is in a sense the African-American male body: its historical and institutional theft, the constant danger it faces, and its subsequent lack of true agency. Perhaps one definition of privilege might be the freedom from having to obsess all the time about what messages your body is inadvertently giving off to the world.
So what does this have to do with this keynote? Good question. Does body matter in what we write? Should words be removed from who and what we are? Can language be disembodied?
A personal anecdote: I am at a restaurant in NYC with the guy who will eventually become my husband. He orders. Then I order. Then the waitress – young, white – frowns, confused. “Excuse me,” she finally says to my husband, who is also white. “But can you tell me what she said? ‘Cause I can’t understand her accent.” Keep in mind that a speech coach once told me that I had one of the most boring dialects he had ever encountered. “American network TV,” he had said dismissively. “No regional specificity whatsoever. A mildly interesting “r.” That’s about it.” And yet this woman’s preconceptions of body apparently disrupted her ability to even understand my request for a Cobb salad.
Last year, Sherman Alexie edited the Best American Poetry anthology series and chose a poem that seemed to have been written by a Chinese-American woman named Yi-Fen Chou. “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” was, in fact, the work of a middle-aged white guy named Michael Derrick Hudson. Hudson’s poem had been rejected forty times under his real name. And as he had apparently done in the past, he decided to play the race card, although in this case, his card happened to be forged. To be fair, he didn’t attempt a different voice as Chou; he would simply submit a poem under his real name and if that didn’t work, he would resubmit it under the Asian, female name – the name of an actual person and high school classmate, as it turned out. Anyway, this time, it worked. Alexie chose this poem influenced, in part, by Hudson’s purported ethnicity and gender.
There’s lots to unpack here. But one thing I found interesting was something that Native-American Alexie himself wrote about this whole mishegas: that he hadn’t sensed anything “inherently Chinese or Asian” about the poem. So what exactly is writing that is inherently Chinese or Asian? Or female for that matter? Or male? We are enjoined to “write what we know,” but is knowledge so heavily circumscribed by race or gender? Is it strange that a Japanese-born man wrote the echt British butler novel, The Remains of the Day, or that a white American guy wrote The Orphan Master’s Son? Is anyone surprised that female authors used to take male pen names like George or Isak or George or that they still use initials like S.E. or J.K.?
There are not only artistic and political considerations at play here, of course, but market ones, as well. In 2006, Nadine Aldred, writing under the pen name Millenia Black, wrote The Great Pretender, which Penguin subsequently acquired. However, Penguin also assumed – possibly because of the race of the protagonists — that Black was white. When they found out she was African-American, they changed the cover art to feature characters of color, against her express wishes. Black later sued, arguing that categorizing her book as African American effectively ghettoized it and hurt its sales.
Not everyone can write outside of the body, of course. In fact, I think most writers, even and maybe especially some of the best, have found it extremely difficult. Have you ever tried it? Have you ever created a character who wasn’t of your gender or your sexual preference, someone who was of a different race or class or age, someone with different convictions and beliefs? Have you ever written someone from a different time or culture? Doing so is a test of not only your skill, but also your empathy, imagination, powers of observation, research, and life experience. If you tried it, how successful were you? And if not, what were the results? If you’re like me, I bet some of were pretty hair-raising.
At its best, failing to write beyond the limits of who you are bores your reader. At its worst, you risk offending and hurting others who may conclude you are merely attempting to co-opt or exploit a narrative or historical suffering that isn’t yours for the taking. As for me, I just can’t stand to see characters used as plot devices and objects, devoid of complexity, believability, or even agency. It’s lazy, it’s usually childish, and it’s just plain bad. Due to many business factors, mainstream Hollywood is a serious repeat offender. Did you read the Twitter thread last year that consisted of the descriptions of female characters written by male screenwriters? JANE stands dressed in a paramedic’s uniform – blonde, fit, smokin’ hot./ Or Like draping the Venus De Milo in a burlap dress, Jane’s sensational natural beauty fights through her plain blue Ann Taylor outfit. / Or A gorgeous woman, JANE, 23, is a little tipsy, dancing naked on her big bed, as adorable as she is sexy. And don’t get me started with the magical person of color – characters like the guy in The Green Mile to, I’m sorry if this hurts, The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi. How about the saintly, usually sexless person with a disability? Or the tragic LGBT person who invariably dies? Playwright John Patrick Shanley once told me that his pet peeve often found in modern drama was the character he called Killer Rapist Man. And in the world of comics, Women in Refrigerators.com has a seemingly endless roster of female characters who have been killed, tortured, or otherwise stripped of their powers – essentially ending up in refrigerators, literally or figuratively, to better serve the male protagonist’s heroic arc.
We writers are fairly timid folk. Posturing aside, most of us don’t like to offend and more than that, we really don’t like to look like idiots. I know I don’t. Yet critic Stanley Crouch takes this thinking to task in his 2004 essay, “Segregated Fiction Blues.” In it, he bemoans what he sees as the trend of serious American writers turning away from the “big sweep” of our “roiling, ever more surprising society” in favor of a kind of self-absorption that’s “broken up into ethnic, religious, sexual, class, and regional franchises.” He blames this trend on author cowardice, tracing it very specifically to the 1967 publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner. The idea of the story of a black slave leader being written by a white man, Crouch argues, was especially controversial in a time of the Black Power movement. In fact, Crouch believes that white authors “opted for folding instead of holding, convinced that the challenge of writing across the color line was too big a risk to their careers and their reputations.” The results, he says, resulted in work that was “both dull and dismal.”
So what are we to do?
Outside of Goddard, I write a lot for kids and young adults. In addition, my sister is a lower school librarian. And one thing she and I know for sure: children REALLY need to see themselves reflected in their stories. They need characters that are their age and that look, act, and sound like them, ones that have the problems that they have, as well as families and homes and schools and streets that are familiar, too. “Diversity” is such an overused word, it’s diluted to the point of near meaningless; but this is not so in children’s literature, because it is developmentally mandatory.
Of course, childhood is finite. As kids grow older, they also grow as readers, at least in an ideal world. Eventually, they will learn to read past the boundaries of the kind of literary narcissism described by Crouch: past those stories that are pretty much about people who look and act the same as them. And that’s important for us, too: to continue to challenge our comfort zone by continuing to read books by and about people who are different from us, different in both their bodies and their life experiences. Because that is one of the best ways we can grow and not just as citizens of the world… but as writers, as well.
Yes of course, writing outside of the body is difficult… and risky. We risk getting it wrong. We risk looking really stupid. And we certainly risk offending, often the same readers we are trying to reach. But what is writing if not an attempt to expand our understanding of ourselves through our exploration of others… and vice versa? If we tackle the challenge with humility, patience, and not a small dose of bravery, I think we can succeed.