First, a confession: I have, of late, been reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, for the 11th time. Last night, on the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I put it down and binge-watched a television show on HBO called Master of None. In it, comic Aziz Ansari takes us through his daily life as an actor in New York. It’s a fictive reality show. Kind of meta-, kind of a fine example of what David Shields writes about in his book, Reality Hunger. So up came an episode in which Aziz deals with a producer who tells him that he can’t cast 2 Indian actors in a 3-character series, because, in a nutshell, white people wouldn’t watch the show.
Suddenly, I was in L.A. circa 2002-3-4, writing Christmas movies for CBS and being told by my producer that, no, CBS would not buy my pitch for a black Christmas movie because white people wouldn’t watch it. When I pointed out that we could make history, I was patiently told no again: their affiliates were the small towns and cities across the midwest and the south, and those people would go somewhere else for their Sunday Night viewing. As would sponsors. There would be hate mail.
There was the added problem that I had no authority to write a movie like this because I was not black.
And I was taken further back, then, to a TCG Conference in the ‘80s? ‘90s? to which Athol Fugard had been invited. I was in the audience when a respected young African-American director stood up among a sea of white faces and asked Fugard what right he had to write black characters—and how did he know he’d gotten them right—when he was so obviously white. “I am a playwright,” said Fugard. “It is my job to write people who are not me. I write about people I know. If I have not done that well, then I have failed.”
Now let me skip ahead to the notion of authorial imperialism, that idea that, for instance, a man writing a female character inherently vanquishes and plunders an entire gender for his own gain. There is as well the historical reality that white men doing this have been accepted by the white establishment for centuries, lauded, produced and published, whereas practically every other kind of human being trying to write from his or her own indigenous, verifiable experiences has not.
That white man’s perspective on his own characters—his ability to speak for and through them—is just that: his perspective. That POV comes with all the inherent ignorance and emotional/psychological issues the author contains. (Hence, some of the reviews from men I’ve gotten for my plays over the years in which I was told that I was “wrong” about the way people act in certain situations; wrong about how they deal with cancer, for instance, or racism; wrong to point out the relationship between racism and sexism, wrong for the way I deal with domestic abuse… wrong, wrong, wrong…) This POV is the lens through which many of us have seen ourselves, to the point where finding our own POVs—our own voices, to use that cliché—has been a struggle to ignore all the voices in our heads, on television, in movies, in books, written from a quite different and often ignorant perspective.
How difficult it is to know yourself when you have been told who you are, how you think, what it’s needed for you to be by all the voices around you (some you love; some love you) which purport to believe they know and which are so often themselves wrong, wrong, wrong. The voices of people you admire, whose voices have prevailed.
And then I picked up Jessica Dickey’s play, Row After Row:
“TOM: It’s just… the whole men rule the world thing.
LEAH: Men DO rule the world.
CAL: Oh, come on.
LEAH: What? They do.
CAL: Oh, okay, is that what this awesome feeling is? This nauseous pressure on my chest that I live with every day, no it’s not misery, it’s just this immeasurable JOY of ruling the world.”
Ah yes. The written word turns on everyone eventually.
But what if the language I speak as a writer doesn’t have signifiers for the things I experience? (Cue Mary Daly!)
Cue Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of going back to Howard University for homecoming: “…I saw–the entire diaspora around me-hustlers, lawyers, Kappas, busters, doctors, barbers, Deltas, drunkards, geeks, and nerds. The DJ hollered into the mic. The young folk pushed toward him. A young man pulled out a bottle of cognac and twisted the cap. A girl with him smiled, tilted her head back, imbibed, laughed. And I felt myself disappearing into all of their bodies.”
Coates describes the murder of an unarmed and unwitting young black man as a product of the American Dream. And I wonder if the business of writing and publishing isn’t also a product of that Dream. Yet, for so many of us, writing is the only path to consciousness. To the struggle.
Like Coates, I feel that the struggle is the answer. The struggle with our own reactions when we hear what feels like accusation and we feel powerless and unaccounted for (a clear signal not to come up with a clever hurtful retort but to examine what’s been said for where it’s coming from and its possible truth); the struggle to speak from a point-of-view wholly different from one’s own; the struggle to speak from a point-of-view intrinsically one’s own, with all its flaws and ignorance and humiliating experiences, and knowing full well the reaction we will get from saying what we need to say out loud; this struggle is what changes culture and the only thing that might ever make it right… one reader, one couch potato, one moviegoer, one obsessed theatre kid at a time.
“…a true seeker, one who truly wished to find, could accept no doctrine. But the man who has found what he sought, such a man could approve of every doctrine, each and every one, every path, every goal; nothing separated him any longer from all those thousands of others who lived in the eternal, who breathed the Divine.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha