Paradoxically, writers in general are simultaneously notoriously reclusive and remarkably sociable. To do our work, we must spend hours alone with words, reading and writing in a self-imposed vacuum. When we’ve finished, most of us seek out the company of other writers. We go to literary parties, readings, writing retreats, workshops, classes, and, these days in particular, political or protest events. Most of us, it seems, have a great taste for one another’s company. We want to be with the folks who understand.
With the sheltering-in-place required by the crisis of Covid-19, these divergent tendencies have been exaggerated. Alone in our homes, with limited social interaction, we argue on FB, sign petitions, respond to events, ZOOM into one another’s’ private spaces, and, thanks to the modern wonders of the internet, live very much in one another’s’ pockets.
Not surprisingly, this stressed intimacy in the direst of times has resulted in some very intense interactions. And none have been more intense than the mashup of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. With the depressing awareness of the pervasiveness of racism becoming more and more salient in the minds of more and more people who have not previously been “woke,” discussions of race-related matters and issues of racism in the literary world have been cropping up everywhere. Especially on social media, which is more-than-ever ubiquitous in our daily lives, thanks to shelter in place. Feelings have been hurt, careers have been affected, and resentments have run rampant, even as progress has been made and celebrated. It is the best and the worst.
As recently as last night, I found myself in the midst of a painful and complicated discussion on a FB “poetry group.” The discussion had begun with a reference to Walt Whitman’s documented racism and had quickly degenerated into some flagrantly racist posts which found defenders among those who seemingly could not see the obvious. As one who, in the past few years, has been accused more than once of being “racist”—an accusation which I found very difficult to grasp as applied to myself—I naturally have reflected a good deal on how these flareups occur so readily.
It seems to me that as soon as the subject of racial injustice comes up in mixed groups, it’s as if everybody is suddenly swinging figurative baseball bats at each other, and, often, these bats connect and the blows hurt. The curious thing, though, is that the bats are invariably completely invisible to whoever is wielding them. We can see the bats and feel the blows when somebody else is swinging, but when we ourselves are swinging the bat we can’t see it or feel it when it connects. We all have invisible bats.
The hurt is real, the pounding is real, the damage is real and lasting, but the ability to see it is compromised by the disease of racism which so infects everything in American life.
I have struggled with how to develop (and challenge) this interesting insight, and have not been successful in fully articulating my as yet very nascent understanding.
Then, miraculously, last night, I found the following FB post from Bay area writer Christine No that brilliantly articulates what I have been clumsily struggling to understand.
For this reason, today I am turning over the remainder of this column to her outstanding piece. Its many excellencies include keen insight, great honesty, compassionate understanding, and extreme clarity.
Please read her words, and take them to heart.
What I experienced last night in a literary space was infuriating and awful and I don’t have the words or the education to express fully why. All I have is this ache deep inside about perceived community as a platform not for discourse and listening, but for ego and fragility.
I cannot explain and I cannot argue this without someone jumping in to tell me that I am acting out of personal discontent over some petty slight. You may disregard my experience because of my inability to articulate it fully. I know. But what can I do?
Because it hurts. Physically. And it confuses me. It feels deeply violating. I know it inside my chest, where it’s a hard lump of heart and bone shard. It hurts. And I won’t trust these dismissals and justifications from people who claim to “know better” anymore—be it because of their lofty degree, their line of work, their service to society, their occupational integrity, or their behaviors. These defenses, the micro and macro aggressions, are unbearable and I have no room left to swallow.
I hate my own intellectual lack and my inability to point it out or express the issue correctly, coherently, without tears. Especially in the face of power. White power. The intelligentsia. Karen at the world mart. Karen at the MoMa. Pill shaming cis white male therapists. Academic dinosaurs who refuse to continue their education. Mothers who teach their children to be reliant on old dogma and fear change.
I shrink when I should be speaking truth to power. Power trumps and erases truth, dismisses it as dramatics and whining, dubs it “creating problems where they do not exist.”
And this in liberal spaces, amongst “our” people.
This from the literate and the “colorblind” who claim to live only by the rules of truth and equity.
This from those who can speak eloquently the jargon they never practice, as though the buzzwords are enough.
Am I also those things? I know their truth is not my truth. Am I in the wrong? Should I be? Am I, already?
I wish I had words that opened doors and smashed windows. Words that would make people see the impact of their refusal to acknowledge difference and ownership of experience—especially experience that in no way is their own.
I understand about cultural exchange. Art creates worlds, morphs, and enjambs to jam. But it does not take and benefit. It does not retell truth to create victors and losers to its advantage.
I’m confused and sad and hurt by those who think all stories belong to whoever tells them the prettiest. I’m hurt by those offended when stories are otherwise presented.
Good writing is not just good writing. Our stories matter. It matters that they ARE ours.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” might be pretty and fluffy language but it is an act of appropriation. He was male. He was white. He made lots of money on a story about age-old customs and romanticized that which could be studied as a beautiful tradition or the oppression of women—their only escape from obedience to the patriarchy (and still never a way out).
I want to believe in the human ability to hear and be heard. I long to believe in cultural exchange and inspiration. But isn’t this different from appropriation where only one side gains?
But do I believe still? I don’t know anymore. My attempts are often met with dismissal and a closed door, a hand wave, an abrupt end to discourse. How many backs have I seen mid debate? It is easy to turn heel when the answers are difficult or perhaps nowhere to be found.
I’m lost and sad, y’all. I want to hide and never come out. I hate myself for feeling like this and fearing that I am not educated enough to get my point across effectively.
I know this is work that I must do. But how can I, when I’m told I’m apparently wrong to do so; that I’m making up issues about race, gender, identity, and ownership that aren’t really there?
I’m making non-existent issues worse and fighting for stories and histories that aren’t always mine.
To those in control of the narrative, these stories belong to the whole wide world; they belong to whoever makes the best art out of struggle. Anybody’s struggle.
But this argument implies that art can be art even without lived experience. That art is colorblind and without history, humanity, or context. That art is artifice. Because “good art/writing is just good art/writing”.
Help me. What do I do? How do I say?
You might call me reactive and this expression bombastic. Go ahead.
I want this erased from my memory. No, I want it seared into my heart. Jesus, I’m tired. I feel alone.
I want to be understood.
I want to understand.CHRISTINE NO
Brava, Christine! Brava! THAT is really punking the muse. Thank you for your words!
Everybody, please listen with your heart. There is so much understanding to be attained.