When the Other Is You
Being part of an underrepresented group and trying to write our experience into our work can be tricky. We might have internalized some prejudice about ourselves, we might not have the craft to get our meaning across perfectly, and even if we depict our own experience totally accurately (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observed in her TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story"), we do so while struggling against the expectation that our experience is or isn't "representative" or "authentic." How do we navigate the pitfalls and responsibilities of being perceived as spokespeople? What potentially pernicious dynamics allow us that dubious privilege in the first place? Which works make us cringe with their representations of us, and which make us sigh with relief and recognition?
Chesya Burke, Samuel ("Chip") Delany, Peter Dubé, Mikki Kendall, Vandana Singh, Sabrina Vourvoulias (leader).
(My standard note on accuracy and names.)
Chesya: black woman
Chip: gay man, science fiction writer, black, partnered w/another gay man who was homeless
Peter: gay man, middle-aged, (something about mixed language heritage that I missed), working-class, mostly strongly Othered as having strong Left political opinions
Sabrina: middle-aged Latina
Mikki: seasoned not middle-aged, writer of non-fiction and fiction, "Low End" (Chicago, below working-class)
Vandana: writer, physicist, from India, female; categories are contextual, take seriously but also use to say screwed-up
Sabrina: is newspaper editor at fully bilingual paper; job has shown that issues of representation are often generational. Is this a changing conversation? Do you think that in five years we will have this panel?
Chesya: yes, and in 10 & 20 years--problem see is that in lot of ways, generally, we (broader than just genre) become stagnant, like to repeat things of past, not very easy to change things, small minor changes; but maybe pessimist
Chip: of course in generational terms probably not old enough to be Sabrina's father, but maybe great-uncle. _Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders_: interesting to watch nature of reviews of novel. Most were pretty positive, but all seemed to say "a novel in which Delany is pursuing all of his regular things, promoting tolerance." But he thought he was writing different kind of novel. People who didn't like it also said was always saying same old thing, which was promoting tolerance! Reads from bit of review that surprised him b/c thought got it (which I believe is this one at Gukira): talks about how men in the novel have had possibilities multiplied in unglamorous ways (food, health care, etc.): "works tethered to . . . black gay liveability" very rare. Does not engage in exceptionalism that would make black gay male characters acceptable to white mainstream. White character dismisses "nothing more important than the lives of some crazy black faggots". But review notes that other reviews keep devaluing this & removing them from the reviews: somehow reviewer after reviewer didn't mention that 800 pages about poor black men. That's what happens when other is you, or in this case me. (Was by a black African critic. Shortly after this review went back to Nigeria to be activist for gay rights.)
Sabrina: how often reviewed and depictions of our lives decried as "political" just by virtue of representation
Sabrina: panel description: sense from default readings that are we authentic in terms of fitting tropes, also sense way we ask ourselves within our community if our experiences are authentic, seems to be based in part in class
Mikki: "If God Is Watching" story (link): 1919 race riots in Chicago, magical look at; no comments on that site, but comments about it do exist, and in reading them, discovered that readers convinced that black people would not be okay with "drag balls", almost upset to discover (challenge to) narrative had created for selves about black people & homosexuality, couldn't move past that to deal with that fact learned. Comment thread went on to talk about other work by her, "always have this gratuitous scene of sexual violence, why???" because if going to talk about lives of black women in America . . .
Chesya: never get called on fantastical elements, but on aspects that are part of my life
Mikki: (happens when) start challenging any narratives--Mammy characters, modern incarnation of black best friend who caretakes and has no inner social life
Sabrina: people get very attached to what see on TV (stereotypes that I didn't write down b/c I was behind on notetaking): get challenged when create characters that challenge
Peter: had some issues with description of panel, b/c what's interesting about alterity is that it gives you an outsider's view of things and that's tremendously useful. Example: gay rights as marriage assimilation, what, why rush, institution is flawed, no-one should get special privileges based on relationship status.
Vandana: strongly agree, people not in minority categories often wonder about the uses of diversity, of course we should be nice to other people, but particularly spec fic loses its power if doesn't acknowledge respect for alterity, why people of every category should be in this room
Sabrina: brings up question of language, all speak to it in different ways. Should there be a cohesion in language that we use, does that eliminate nuance?
[I missed a transition here, because I didn't really follow how we got to this question]
Mikki: in Twitter conversations, often using African-American vernacular, my first language; conversations between other people who speak the same, then others come in and say that what they said really "means this"; single language, back to single story
Peter: want to second that, worked as a translator for over a decade, language is most important way of understanding the world, sensation is poor second; translation is creation of new meaning, "more meanings good, fewer meanings bad"
Sabrina: real political weight to Spanglish, for instance, something we wield when speaking very regionalized Spanish, convey background and understanding of US political structure by words we chose.
Vandana: thinking about two things: she published children's book a few years ago, wrote it while thinking in parallel in English & Hindi, so had quite a scattering Hindi words; one review said "unexplained Hind_u_ words," which, irritating error, but more: colonialist: as learned more English (started at 5) read books above grade, learned idioms from context: apparently these weird foreigners have to do all the work for English speakers, unlike the other way around; other thing: authenticity, translation as constructing meaning: analogy? To me, when reading/writing about non-mainstream US culture, not so much about authenticity as certain kind of emphasis. Notice between white writer about India, her; white might get all facts right but facts chose to emphasize or bring up totally different than what she would chose
Peter: translation fraught with choices (something missed): international authenticity based on hierarchy, doesn't like that; acknowledge pitfalls up front re: cultural appropriation, suggests unreliable narration as way of dealing with.
Sabrina: language itself is hierarchial, part of that is don't hear certain voices, partly what review Chip was talking about is about
Chip: remembers many years at UMass, young female graduate student said to him she didn't even know black men can be gay! That went into the next novel. Another moment, coming out of 42nd St subway, pack of friends including black & white friends, black guy turned to white guy and said "you a crazy nigger!" Put in 1975 novel, thought important, first time heard that. Every time hear language move in some way, put it down in fiction
Chesya: going back to Mammy (wrote a thesis on it): _The Help_, story that gets told is that white woman wants to facilitate the empowerment of black women, who hand stories over to white woman to be told, as though can't grasp that could tell own or thus be involved in Civil Rights movement--even more subjugated than in real life where were out there
Sabrina: with all good intentions, don't know how many times I've heard people involved in justice saying "giving voice to the voiceless," well, no, we have voices
Chesya: stop thinking of voices and as people
Mikki: for my family, rule has "will not go into any white woman's kitchen" (my grandmother's dead, but she would come back). But that's not a narrative that shows up, don't talk about people who fight in small ways, economically risky ways. The Low End is obscured (in favor of that stories) go really high or really low (who teach the hero what can't learn self). Never about people who set outside.
Peter: also about access, not just that aren't represented but can't be, about class
Mikki: if not being trusted with a story, not speaking on behalf of someone: some things are only told to insiders
Sabrina: genocide in Guatemala: lot of people of being proactive speaking on behalf of (Ixil? not sure I heard & looked up properly) women who this past summer were witnessed at the trial. How many people recognized that they have been fighting to have moment to tell story for 30 years? Re-victim people by giving even less agency than gov't that architected genocide in first place!
Audience: last week heard Veronica Roth talk to almost 1,000 people about Divergent series, seems to be about people being assigned to categories & breaking out
Chesya: "as a movie, it was a movie." One of main problems with these stories (also Hunger Games), all of a sudden race disappears, gender important sometimes, but race disappears--not a problem because eliminate all the minority people, can focus on the real problem which is all us white people being repressed
Sabrina: why all these futures without elders? (huge audience applause)
Mikki: calls them white girl face books (recent covers): often retellings of actual oppressive regimes, except all non-white characters been removed (reference to movie!Rue that in context of next note must be about outrage about her casting)
Chesya: amazing that (1) missed in book and (2) still can't come to terms with it
Chip: picking up on Mikki's comment about kitchen: thoroughly understands. But suddenly realize when on other side of 70, world has changed a lot under you, spent first 27 years of life before Stonewall; ever walked into restaurant in South and seen sign that said "Colored this way"? And gone that way? Wouldn't do that way, but all kinds of things that 10, 15, 20 years, will be thinking of something that wouldn't do now with same vehemence, except that had done. The way world works: negotiate the best you can. Lot of his life before _Roe_, remembers finding out that woman knew well had killed self because couldn't get abortion (two different times!). Don't think people realize nightmare that we are sliding towards, because don't remember what it was like before.
Sabrina: experienced much the same thing when Patriot Act was passed.
Audience: movie _Paris Is Burning_: about black gay drag community: a lot of that about how to safely talk to other; 20 years later, blackness been erased from that slang
And that was time, which was too bad, because I feel there was more to this topic.