a fag? a queer? a black? a chicano? a zionist? a commie? a jew boy? american? anti-amerikan? afro-american? a racist? a bassist? a solipsist? whatever?
This column is about identity politics and identity writing. For it? Against it? Ambivalent? Covering up your ears at this point? I’m with you.
Among my literary compadres (I’m an English only speaker with no Latino or Hispanic background, can I use that word?), this subject is guaranteed to create discomfort every time it comes up, even among close creative partners.
Says one: I’m a writer. Period. I don’t want to write about my so-called “identity” and I’m not interested in anybody else’s “identity”—I only care about good writing.
Says another: But you can’t separate identity and personal/community history from the writing! The willingness to engage these is part of what makes it good writing—even if the mechanics are fucked up. And, moreover, a lack of awareness of these matters can make it lesser, even bad, writing—even if the mechanics are excellent.
Says one: Bullshit! I’m not interested in bad writing no matter how politically correct it is. And I support good writing even if I don’t like the content. The work is everything!
Sound familiar? I bet it does. I’m not gonna take sides and I’m not gonna try to resolve this argument. But it does get me thinking: how does identity effect my writing? For that matter, what is my identity?
Try this: make a list of your identities and ask yourself, “Do I ever write from this identity? If not, what might I have to say from this perspective? If I do, have I explored it thoroughly? What remains to be done?”
Here’s a list of some of my own identities, off the top of my head: Jew, Queer, Homosexual, Gay (three different things), Short, Clumsy, Senior, Poor, Rich, Privileged, Abuse Survivor, Unemployed, Teacher, Brother, Son, Monastic, Contemplative.
Do I contradict myself? So be it. I contain multitudes.
I propose an exercise: Write a poem that makes a point of voicing one of your identities. Repeat, from the same premise, with a different one. Again. And again. Or, try it from an identity that is totally outside your experience (does such a thing exist)?
Let me tell you how I’ve come to write this: I’m 55 years old. I’ve been an out gay man (and often an activist) for my entire adult life. And yet, my strong sense of “gay identity” has slipped some in recent years. I feel alienated, to be frank, when I attend such events as the Queer Open Mic. And I won’t even begin to tell you about the Castro creepy. You could read a lot of my stuff and not know I’m gay. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m not sure how I should feel about that.
A Jewish friend of mine, a poet, very much an atheistic child of enlightenment, who has been devotedly religious in the past, has been breaking through to something new and wonderful in his current writing. To my surprise (perhaps to his), Moses has made an appearance in this new work, walking around, looking and sounding all prophetic. How is this possible?*
Who stalks me, I wonder? And what should I do about it?
Food for thought. Go forth and ponder.
– Charles Kruger
The Storming Bohemian
* This happened one time, Charles. One time! – Ed.