My website is changing… evolving… transforming! from a little, hairy, yellow and black caterpillar into, um, a little yellow and black butterfly. Soon, I hope, it will be unrecognizable. But it will still have my face. Yes, my face with antennae and 36 eyes or whatever. It will still be mine, and I hope you’ll stick around to witness the rebirth, and that you won’t stomp on me with your big human feet.
Not being a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, I haven’t received a copy of its member publication, Write, so have not had the chance to read the essays of the Indigenous writers featured in the Spring issue, or the contentious opinions of the former editor of that issue. The question however of how writers approach characters whose identities are not reflective of their own is one I have some thoughts about which I write about here.
I was once of the opinion that anyone should write any character they wanted to and could imagine, including writing from that character’s perspective. Later in life, I came to the opinion that writing from the point of view of any character not reflective of my identity and from a historically oppressed group was a bad idea. There are a number of reasons for this but the one that I stand by most is that people who have been oppressed should be acknowledged as the experts of their experience, and offered the space to exercise and share that expertise.
How does a writer from a historically oppressive group take away from the acknowledgement of the expertise of a writer from an oppressed group if they write from the perspective of a character from the oppressed group?
Some would say they don’t. Some would say that depending on how they write the character they may be contributing to cultural understanding and appreciation of diversity.
I guess my view on this is influenced by my experience of my own identity. I identify as a Mad, mix-raced and now middle-aged woman. In the area of mental health care there are many representations of people who are considered mentally ill. There are case studies, and things I think of as pathological profiles with checklists of symptoms; I admit to cringing every time I hear a so-called expert– a psychiatrist for example– speak about that experience as if they know what it’s like –because, by definition, they stand on the other side of the divide, unless they have experienced madness for themselves.
It is not wrong for psychiatrists to try to cross that divide by imagining and empathizing with my experience. But if i am sitting right there, why would they do that, unless they value hearing their own voice over hearing mine, and over what my actual experience is?
Airspace is valuable and limited, and so is publishing space– column space, and space in fiction publishers’ annual dockets. I don’t think a psychiatrist should be given airtime about my experience over me, and I don’t think a writer from a historically oppressive group writing from the point of view of a character from an oppressed group should be given airtime over a writer who has had first hand experience of belonging to that group.
What I’m really arguing for is my instinct that people need to be supported to tell their own stories if we really want a world that’s different than the one we live in now. Fiction is powerful. That power belongs in the hands of the people who it’s about. “Nothing about us, without us” as the disability rights movement first said.
And thank you Jesse Wente for saying this.
I found this story whilelooking for something else. Wrote it and forgot it. 2011
Elaine had lost her wig. It blew off her head as she gripped the crook of Stanley’s arm, on the way to the car after chemo. The wind was high, driving a warm, exhilarating rain into their faces. Though Stanley held their big umbrella in front of them with his other hand, the rain found its way like a worm, under their collars, their buttons and into their boots.
He’d stayed with her the whole time, as she sat in the reclining chair with the IV dripping into her veins, fast asleep. He read the paper or chatted to the people accompanying the other chemo patients, and to the patients themselves. He never asked them about their cancer, although they seemed open, even eager, to talk about it. Instead he talked sports, the news of the day, but no politics. Politics, religion and now cancer, were off limits. He didn’t want to upset anyone here, especially the sick people, in case it somehow disrupted that smooth drip of pure poison into them that was, perhaps, their last hope.
At least, it was Elaine’s last hope…or more accurately, it was Stanley’s. Elaine hadn’t wanted it. After they removed her left breast, and told her she needed chemo, she wanted to let go. She was tired, she said, but would do it to please Stanley. Still the more chemo she had, the more she seemed to weaken. Her skin was dry and tired looking, her energy much diminished. Her once robust body whittled away to nothing It wasn’t just the chemo or the cancer, Stanley thought. She was giving up. If he were the crying kind, he would have wept tears of anger and frustration. Instead he distracted himself with woodworking projects. He’d made a birdhouse the other day, and then another. He wondered, sheepishly, how many birdhouses the world really needed. He figured he could supply the town at least.
Elaine didn’t cry either, she simply faded. Stanley imagined that one day he’s wake up and the woman beside him would be as translucent as a jelly fish, and the next day she would have disappeared altogether.
When Elaine woke up she smiled sleepily at Stanley. “What day is it?” she asked. He knew she was joking. Gladness swelled in his throat, threatening to make him a dancing weeping fool. He smiled at her but she closed her eyes again, as though exhausted. Stanley’momentary joy crumbled. How could a woman who’d raised three children and worked hard every day of her life, be tired from simply telling a joke?
A young nurse came over with the second IV bag. “How’s she doing today?” she asked Stanley, in a loud, friendly voice. Elaine’s eyelids fluttered but she didn’t bother to open them. Stanley squeezed her hand. “She’s about done” he said. “Brown on both sides.” The nurse seemed delighted that he had a sense of humour. She laughed heartily, patting his hand and repeated the joke to her coworker.
When it was all over, it was early afternoon. Stanley helped Elaine into a wheelchair and they sat for awhile, nibbling on the cookies provided for the chemo patients. Stanley’s stomach gurgled and he thought longingly of takeout burger and fries, but he knew the smell of it would make Elaine nauseous. Anyway, there was a tuna casserole at home from one of the neighbours, who told Elaine they were going away and couldn’t eat it, but which Stanley knew was a gesture of concern.
He wheeled her into the elevator. Stanley had always loved being alone in the elevator with Elaine. On their third date, he had kissed her in an elevator like this, on their way up to her parents’ apartment where he would say goodbye to her and hello to her parents, who had watched from their living room window as his old Volkswagon pulled into the visitor’s parking lot, and Stanley opened the car door for Elaine, and walked her into the building right on her curfew. They wanted to know he was a gentleman, Elaine said with a laugh as he nuzzled her neck and fondled her breasts, all the way from the ground floor to the 9th.
Elaine had been remarkably uninterested in the fact that she had lost a breast. “Good riddance,” she said at first, whereas Stanley bore the shock of the loss. He’d always loved her breasts, the soft harbour they made for his head when he fell asleep. Elaine was more concerned about people knowing she was sick. She couldn’t tolerate pity.
At the front door of the hospital, Elaine insisted on getting out of the wheelchair and walking to the car. He knew she didn’t want to leave the hospital as an invalid. Luckily he had found a free handicapped parking spot and on account of his prosthetic leg, he had the parking pass to go with it.
Elaine refused to wait for him to bring the car to the front door. “You’ll drive off without me,” she said, gripping his arm. She was just being stubborn but he was relieved. He knew how easy it was to stop doing for yourself in the face of tiredness and pain, and if you give in one day, the next day you’ll give in a little more, and that would be the end of you. When he lost his leg years ago, crushed by a dump truck on the building site where he was a new foreman, he’d been in a blue funk for days, believing somehow that his reason for living had been attached to the missing leg,. Elaine did her best to make him angry, taunting him for his foul mood as he sat in his wheelchair. He’d never been a violent man, but he swiped at her with his fist. She simply pushed her chair back. “Come and get me, you fat assed gimp,” she whispered meanly. It wasn’t physio that helped him recover, it was Elaine pissing him off.
As they stepped out of the hospital’s front doors, he opened the big umbrella in front of them. It sounded like someone was flinging pebbles, the rain was so hard. He hesitated a moment before stepping out from under the overhang. Elaine, however, tipped her face upward, as though to receive the sun. She’d always loved the rain. Her wig of grey curls was slightly askew, darkened by the watery onslaught.
They took a few steps toward the car, the wind tearing at the umbrella. With Elaine gripping his left arm he had no control over it. The gale ripped it from his hand. At the same moment Elaine’s wig, as wet as though she’d been swimming in it, slipped sideways over her ear, then fell completely away. Stanley watched it roll behind them like a tumbleweed.
Elaine put her hand to her patchy baldness. She looked like a young eagle chick, Stanley thought. The rain slicked her hair to her head, which, Stanley appreciated now as never before, was a beautiful shape, an elegant, even regal shape. She blinked in the rain, as though she couldn’t move.
A security guard was watching from the shelter of the overhang at the hospital entrance. He scooped up the wig and shook it, then handed it to Elaine with a solemn look. “Here you go ma’am.” The diehard smokers in the bus shelter on the sidewalk, one of them pushing an IV pole, looked too. Elaine put two hands up to cover her ears, as if someone had told her something so terrible she couldn’t bear to hear it.
Stanley wanted to hold her, to whisk her away from view. But instead he grunted, “Rain getting’ in?” She looked at him, stunned. “Rain getting’ in your ears?” he asked, as he gently propelled her by her elbow into the passenger seat of their car.
Elaine looked straight ahead of her. Stanley dumped himself into the driver’s seat, lifted his leg in, and slammed the door. “It could of been worse,” he said. He waited for her question, so he could utter the punch line, but she was too lost to humour him. “It could have been my leg,” he said to the air around them and started the engine.
Stanley drove them home, windshield wipers going so fast they almost seemed a parody of themselves. He took Elaine’s elbow, got her settled on the couch with pillows and blankets, taking the wet wig from her hand. She fell asleep right away, mindlessly, gratefully, he thought. It occurred to him that she wouldn’t see the end of the year, that their time was coming to an end and he knew finally that there was nothing he could do to stop it. He kissed her fingers and turned on the television.
If you sit with grief
and hold its hands
in yours, they will be cold,
it’s true, but they won’t
steal you from yourself.
If you sit with sorrow,
and hold it to your heart,
you will ache
but it will not take you with it
when it lets you go.
If you sit with hope
it floats above you
til you choose it
grasping its tail and pulling it
on to your shoulder.
and then it is yours,
for its lifetime, as long as it lasts.
Feed it, scratch it under the chin
and let it roam free.
It may bring you a pebble,
a treasure, a fruit
and when sorrow and grief
it will sit on your shoulder
looking at them with bright eyes
until they know
it’s time to go.
Here are two thingamabobs that I have had a hand on making that are helping raise funds for two mental health organizations that are close to my heart!
The 2017 Colouring Calendar is $10 and all proceeds go to the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia. Poem story What Hope Looks Like and accompanying line drawings by me! Order the calendar from SSNS. For more information: http://ssnsc.blogspot.ca/p/2017-fundraising-colouring-calendar-now.html.
Kindness is a colouring book based on my poem of the same name, with colouring page illustrations collaged by me from my line drawings and found images in the public domain. They are for sale for $12.95 from me or from the Canadian Mental Health Association Halifax-Dartmouth Branch, which receives $5 from the sale of each copy.
Hope you’ll consider supporting these two wonderful organizations. Both calendar and colouring book are ideal gifts to send by snail mail!
I loved Halloween as a kid. Running around in the dark, half spooked, breath ghosting the air, feeling my pillowcase get heavier and heavier with wonderful things like chips and chocolate bars. There were stories of older kids stealing candy from younger ones. I thought how unspeakably cruel that was, but I never knew anyone that had that happen to them. Then when I was 14 living in Boulder, Colorado, there was a scare of some kind–someone tampering with Halloween treats. I wondered how twisted did a person have to be to do something like that. Everyone was a little worried.
Now there are teal pumpkins to protect kids with food allergies by signifying homes giving out allergy safe treats. Seems like a great idea… sad that it has to be done but for whatever reason food allergies seem to be a lot more prevalent and teal pumpkins help Halloween to be inclusive of everyone, including the kid with a deathly tree nut allergy. There is also a conversation about Halloween costumes, the ones that are offensive to some because they are seen to be culturally insensitive and inappropriate. To others, the conversation itself is offensive. But to a big majority is seems to be a conversation that bewilders. From the comments made on cross Country Check-up tonight, people don’t seem to know what the fuss is about. The vast majority agree that “black face” is offensive but don’t seem to know what to do with other cultural and religious depictions in costume.
Most people don’t have the intention of hurting anyone with a costume, and yet nevertheless, costumes apparently have the ability to hurt people. I think this is indisputable because people have said , “That costume hurts and offends me.” It doesn’t matter that someone doesn’t mean to hurt a person, it still hurts. People may say another person has no reason to hurt. It’s just an innocent costume, they say. Some people will be concerned enough to change their costume because they don’t want to hurt the people who expressed their feelings. It’s when people get angry to be told that a costume is insensitive, hurtful and offensive, that I begin to think that they feel threatened to be told they have even inadvertently done something that hurt another person. It’s weird because if someone stepped on another person’s foot without meaning to, and were told that it hurt, they wouldn’t get red in the face and tell the person they’d hurt that they have no reason to hurt, that they are infringing on their rights by telling them they’ve been hurt. They’d get off the person’s foot, apologize,and try not to do it again.
I think the problem is really that people like me, raised in a society which has oppressed and violated and destroyed whole cultures, don’t see it or don’t want to see it. Both are problems for the people at the other end of that oppression.
There’s a big and interesting conversation to be had about how to address this problem. I see it as a problem, when the stated feelings of people are not acknowledged. Some think that legislating bans against certain types of costumes is the way to go. I don’t really know. Rules can be a helpful tool to creating social change and changing minds, but it seems like there should be better ways. It always does seem like there should be better ways, and there are, if only we would use them.
Listening to the people who say they are hurt would be a start. Not brushing them off, not talking over them, and not dismissing their feelings as nonsense. I have learned the hard way that I should shut up sometimes and not talk, but listen. I recommend it as a starting point to a meaningful conversation with hurting people.
i need to let go
but i don’t want to
it’s only a reflex
it’s only a reflection
of a need long ago
like when you were waiting
at the airport with the sign
with their name on it
but they never came.
That fear of abandoning
the thing your heart
in case it forgets
how to want something else.
saying goodbye to people places and things. it’s like eating pebbles, it’s that hard– but apparently some birds do that because it helps them digest. I am just a featherless chicken… and clearly balking at the need for gastroliths… that’s what the swallowed pebbles are called. whoever invented goodbyes probably never had to use one. just like it was probably a man who invented the corset. it was probably someone with no heart and eyes in the back of their head who invented goodbyes.