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Shriver, Abdel-Magied, and writing fiction.

19 Sep

 

imagine

 

I’ve spent the last few days thinking about cultural appropriation and the writing of fiction, as a consequence of the controversial keynote speech given by author Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers Festival, and the distress expressed by Yassmin Abdel-Magied that caused her to walk out of Shriver’s presentation.

Briefly, Shriver stated her hope that the concept of cultural appropriation will be a passing fad, whilst Abdel-Magied argued that the appropriation by white fiction writers of experiences they can only imagine and have not lived is a racist and silencing act of cultural theft, in a world in which the voices of oppressed people are far less likely to be published than are those of their oppressors.

As an example of cultural appropriation, British male author Chris Cleave’s novel Little Bee, in which his protagonist is a female Nigerian asylum seeker, written in the first person, is cited.

It’s the job of fiction writers to imagine and convincingly convey to the reader experiences the writer has not necessarily lived, just as it’s the job of actors to portray characters with lives very different from their own. The “authenticity” of the creative work of both writer and actor lies in her or his ability to first fully imagine, and then fully realise their characters.

I can’t interpret this creative work as an act of theft. I can imagine how it might be experienced as an act of theft, but I cannot conclude from my imagining that it is an act of theft. This seems to me a crucial distinction in an argument that has as one of its requirements that a fiction writer (or actor) seek permission from a particular group to construct and perform a story around events he or she has not directly experienced, in order to avoid committing identity theft and cultural appropriation.

From a writer’s perspective, the core of this debate is the freedom to exercise the imagination, and to realise on the page the stories and characters it produces. The writer’s imagination is nourished from all manner of sources, personal experience being but one.

That both the film and publishing industry are dominated by privilege and largely white, is beyond dispute, yet this is perhaps a separate argument, and a situation for which the imaginations and performances of writers and actors cannot be held responsible.

At the same time, a writer or actor has the option of refusing to portray the experiences of a minority to which she or he does not belong, and instead urge their industry to seek out the voice of experience rather than settle for the voice of imaginative empathy, or at worst, exploitation.

I think both Shriver and Abdel-Magied have crucial points to make, but I can’t agree that the solution is the regulation of the imagination, or perhaps more accurately, the regulation of the imagination’s output. If a fiction writer is forbidden through shaming and accusations of theft from writing stories that contain experiences not their own, we’ll have nothing left but memoir.

As I haven’t read Cleave’s novel, I don’t know how successfully or otherwise he created the character of a female Nigerian asylum seeker, but I do know that the silencing of any writing voice is the privilege of publishers, not writers.

As Roland Barthes observed, any text is a tissue of all texts that preceded it: writers are also readers and nothing we produce stands in isolation. The text exists in a political culture of material relations that continue to produce ideologies, actions and beliefs.  As he also observed, the text is incomplete without the reader, and the reader brings to any text personal experiences and previous readings that necessarily influence interpretation.

Shriver’s acerbic reaction to charges of cultural appropriation are unfortunate and defensive, yet she is right to aggressively fight for a fiction writer’s freedom to imagine and narrate experiences that are not her own. If we cease to imagine the experiences of other, we become indescribably diminished. The oppression suffered by those for whom Abdel-Magied speaks can only become less penetrable, while the possibility of redress retreats even further.

Story is one of the most powerful weapons with which to crack the frozen seas of apathy and hatred. Without the imagination, we are as nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cabinet of Wonders

22 Feb

Cabinet of Wonders

 

I’ve decided to re-open my blog The Practice of Goodness as the place where I post stories, poems, fragments, etc, keeping No Place for Sheep for politics and commentary. This piece to my late husband is the last of its kind I’ll post here.

 

Cabinet of Wonders

I dreamed I was walking through the park at the end of an autumn day. The tree shadows were long and the light golden. I saw you on the path in front of me, and hurried to catch up. Your hands were in the pockets of your jeans. You wore the dark purple sweater I knitted for you to keep out the cold you felt so keenly. The pattern was elaborate, it took months to finish, and you marvelled that my hands, with wool and needles, wove for you enduring warmth.

My wife made this, you told people.

Sometimes you would cradle my face in your hands and look at me and say, my wife.

When I caught up with you I slipped my hand into your pocket to touch yours. You turned your head and your look was quizzical. I saw the man I thought was you, wasn’t. The difference was barely discernible, but it was there. Shaken, I pulled my hand out of your pocket. We kept walking side by side, in silence.

We came to a bandstand, painted white with green trim, and hung with paper lanterns. Silent still, we walked up three wooden steps to the platform. We stayed there for some time, leaning on the railing, watching park life. I started to cry. You gazed at me then you pointed to a small house with double doors, off to the right, whose windows top and bottom looked to be filled with hand-carved toys, painted silks, and the mysterious devices of starlit sorcery. A cabinet of wonders, I thought. Our hearts.

You started down the bandstand steps. I cried harder. You looked back at me and smiled and pointed again to the house. I was to go with you there, I believed.

I could barely see for weeping as I stumbled down the wooden steps and followed you. But I was far behind and you forged ahead and I knew I wouldn’t catch up.

That moment in time, between when I put my hand in your pocket and when I realised the man I thought was you was not, has now settled deep in the cradle of my belly, where it has taken on the qualities of eternity.

I watched as you looked back and raised your goodbye hand. I watched as you disappeared into the cabinet of wonders. I watched as its doors closed behind you and I did not try to follow.

Awake, I know again that you are dead, and there is not one part of me that does not grieve you.

Wife. Time. Eternity. Wonders. The mysterious devices of starlit sorcery. Come back, and I will throw my arms around you.

Treading on bees

18 Feb

This post is not about politics. Don’t complain that I didn’t tell you.

bee lifting leg

I woke from a dream of my lover’s shoes. 

He always wore dirty black shoes with square toes when we met up. I asked him as I watched him undo them in preparation for getting into bed with me, “Do you ever clean your shoes?”

He shook his head. “I only have one pair,” he told me.

I thought that was all right. I have lots of shoes but I prefer wearing boots. Mostly in the climate I live in it’s better to go barefoot. The only problem with going barefoot is treading on bees. I accidentally tread on bees a lot and as you might know, a bee sting can itch for around five days and it’s no picnic.

I’ve been trying to keep a dream book for a while and interestingly, the effort has provoked more dreaming than I can remember for years. Dreams are like poems, or bits and pieces of them.

Shattered people are best represented by bits and pieces. Rainer-Maria Rilke.  I know this to be true. I have never in my life been able to sustain a continuous narrative.

My lover was in his shoes in the dream, but I couldn’t see him. I wrote down the bits and pieces  I could remember, and then the phrase ” erotic vulnerability” dropped into my head from out of nowhere so I wrote that down too. A writer ought to jot down everything, no matter how disparate the bits and pieces might seem at first blush.

After that I could no longer ignore what I was trying to avoid. I was having one of the worst feelings I’ve ever felt in my life. It was a feeling of the most abject, and infinitely lonely desolation. I was looking into an abyss, but it was inside me. The abyss was filled with the miasma of all the grieving I have never done.

I did what I was taught to do, and let the feeling linger for as long as it wanted. That made my day difficult, trying to be ordinary as all the while this dark, dank grief came over me in minor thirds.

The grief wasn’t about my lover. It felt as old as the world. Yet somehow, his dirty black square-toed shoes took me right into it. I forget, sometimes, the unsaid things we do for one another, without even knowing that we do them.

The next day the feeling was mostly gone. Only a few miasmic wisps remained. I thought, well, that’s interesting. I’ve felt the most abject feeling of utter desolation that I’ve ever felt in my life. For a whole day I looked into the abyss, and it didn’t, as I’ve always feared, kill me.

Childhood sexual abuse damages the soul. I don’t use that word in a religious sense. I use it to describe the sense of oneself that is forbidden to a child who is sexually abused. The sense of me. Sometimes a child has little chance to form that sense of me, if the abuse begins very early.  Sometimes the task is to restore it after the damage.

It never crossed my mind that I might find a fragment of me in the abyss.

I have been in the garden, sitting under the mango tree beside Big Dog’s grave. Of course, on my way barefoot across the grass  I trod on a bee.

I don’t know what will happen next.  The abyss will probably be there again some time. These things never entirely leave us. We are shattered people and we are best represented by bits and pieces. Sufficient unto the day.

 

Lies

10 Jan

This was your heart
This swarm of flies
This was once your mouth
This bowl of lies… Leonard Cohen, “Nevermind”

For weeks now, months even, I’ve been thinking about lies.

My childhood was steeped in the lies of the adults closest to me, and I think this has left me with a visceral horror, even terror, of being lied to and/or about.

The worst lies are the ones intended to eradicate  your history, to rewrite events as you’ve known them, the lies that deny your experience and leave you shaken, uncertain of the trustworthiness of your own perceptions. These lies can be personal, and they can be political. They can be lies of omission and commission, they can be half-truths, or they can contain just enough of the truth to be almost incontestable. Perhaps these last lies are the worst of all.

I don’t know if lies, lying, and being lied to and about is as important in our culture as it once was, or if it has always been as unremarkable as it seems to be now. Was there ever really a time when a person’s word was all that was required, and if that word was broken the offender was ostracised? Or did such an idealised moral code of an individual’s responsibility to speak the truth exist only in romantic novels?

And when someone lies about you or about events you have shared, the sense of helplessness and rage at the injustice of such lying can mess with your head for quite a long time. Personally and politically, individually and collectively, lies are at the root of all injustice.

I would rather know the worst truth than be told a lie. Fighting my way out of a childhood that consisted almost entirely of lies has left me with a hunger for truth that is quite likely excessive. It’s made me forensic. But I do believe lies have the power to destroy the liar and the lied to, whether the lies are personal or political. Lies erode trust, and without trust we are nothing to one another, we live as empty shells, bereft of intimacy, lonely and alone.

I always thought the Rolling Stones song was about the loneliness and lovelessness of lies:

And you can send me dead flowers every morning
Send me dead flowers by the mail
Send me dead flowers to my wedding
And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave

 

 

dead flowers

Missing Big Dog.

2 Jan

Big Dog

This is the first time we’ve been in the Snowy Mountains without our Big Dog, who died a few weeks ago after fourteen years with us.

On the drive down we reminisced and cried a bit at all the places we drove through where we used to stop to let him run and pee and drink, before loading him back in the car and continuing further south. Here, in the house where we always stay, there’s an empty space where his bed used to be and his absence is so strong it’s a presence.

Big Dog loved the mountain air, especially as he got older and his lungs packed up. The only thing I miss about home just now is looking out the kitchen window at his grave under the mango tree. Home is hot, wet, humid, and there are mosquitos so there’s not a lot to miss compared to this:

Cascades Track

Whenever I came home Big Dog would take my forearm gently in his mouth between his great big teeth and softly gnaw me. That was him saying hello! I’m so glad you’re back! It’s wonderful to see you! I’ve missed you so much!

I can honestly say I’ve never known a human who’d do that for me.

The mountains are for me a place of reflection, self-accounting and deep contemplation. Each time I come here I never want to leave. I think it was Seneca who recommended that we take time every night to recall the events of the day and fall asleep at peace with them. This, he claimed, is our preparation for death, so that we leave the world as we’ve left each day, as settled as possible with the events of our lives.

In a small way I understood this with Big Dog’s death. We had a few days to prepare ourselves, to make it the best death possible for him after a long, honourable life filled with love and affection. We know he did his best with his life and that we did our best with his life and death as well. I don’t know if this counts for much in the scheme of things, but it seems significant.

We don’t have anything of value other than our lives. The rest is dross. Know thyself, says Plato through Socrates, and what that means, I think, is that the more knowledge I have of myself, the less likely I am to do harm to others, and the more willing and able  I am to make amends for the harm I inevitably do.

But anyway. Look at this and lift your eyes unto the hills, and good wishes for this brand new year.

Cascades Track Two

On being irresistible

31 Dec

Perhaps I’m contrary and ungrateful but I never felt good about being told by a lover  “You are irresistible.” I’d much rather he or she said something like  “I can’t resist you” and in that utterance, joyfully assumed the burden of supernatural compulsion instead of burdening me with it.

It would also be much more honest if things went wrong and my lover said “I now can/must resist you because my wife caught me, or I found someone else, or I’ve changed my mind” or whatever event provoked a change in his or her assessment of the situation. Instead of undermining my sense of myself with their change of heart, the responsibility then properly rests with the one whose desires, for whatever reason, have shifted.

I’ve never in my life found anyone to be irresistible. I’ve been overwhelmed by desire, overwhelmed by love, overwhelmed by seriously significant stupidity, but overwhelmed by my own sensations, the agent of my own downfall, not a victim subjected to another’s supernatural powers. In the end this matters, this sense that if I am drowning in love and desire, however recklessly, I am doing my own drowning the other isn’t bewitching me into it.

This may seem like unimportant hair-splitting carping, but it’s actually about taking responsibility, and empowerment. The statement “You are irresistible” gives the other all the power, and denies me the opportunity to take responsibility for my own actions. “I can’t resist you” takes all responsibility, and taking honest responsibility always empowers. The inability to resist is not in itself a negative thing. Denying it as part of one’s character might well be.

And there is something endearing about a human being who can admit an inability to resist as an aspect of his or her own self, rather than it being the fault of an irresistible other.

For women, being thought irresistible has caused and continues to cause us no end of grief, abuse, and in some instances, death. If we are credited with supernatural powers, we will also be made to pay for them. Excessive restrictions are placed on our freedoms in an effort to contain and control our perceived potentially uncontrollable natures. Those who abuse us may be leniently viewed in the light of our magically seductive powers. At its crudest, the irresistibility narrative says wearing short skirts will make men rape us, and there is a continuum from there. Telling a woman she’s irresistible is always an abdication of responsibility. You can’t resist her. It’s your thing, not hers. Own it.

End of rant.

Happy New Year.

 

irresistible

 

 

 

Flanagan. Rachmaninoff. The Dog.

22 Nov

Richard Flanagan may well be the only writer in the history of the prestigious prize to win the Man Booker, and be nominated for the worst sex scene in fiction in the same book by the London Literary Review, in the same week. The scene is in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and involves “circumnavigating” lovers being interrupted in their coitus by a dog with a dead fairy penguin in its mouth. I have to agree, it isn’t one of the book’s best bits.

Flanagan is interested in desire, the myriad ways in which it might manifest, the unforeseen consequences when it is lost, repressed or denied, and when it is fulfilled. I first felt the impact of the author’s reflections on this topic when I read his 2008 novel Wanting in which he dissects the complex desires of Lady Jane Franklin and her explorer husband Sir John, as well as those of Charles Dickens for his mistress, Ellen Ternan. I thought the link between Dickens and the Franklins a tenuous one on which to hang the novel, but Flanagan has such insight into the human condition I can forgive him almost anything.

In The Narrow Road, protagonist Dorrigo Evans enters into what is to become a long, unsatisfactory but absolutely binding marriage that creates in him “the most complete and unassailable loneliness, so loud a solitude that he sought to crack its ringing silence again and again with yet another woman.” The presence of the absent woman he deeply loved and lost has shaped his life and his marriage: “As a meteorite strike long ago explains the large lake now, so Amy’s absence shaped everything, even when – and sometimes particularly when – he wasn’t thinking of her.”  Yes.

It takes determination to stay with the descriptions of life in the Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma railway, and yet it would be cowardly to turn away from knowledge of what humans perpetrate on one another, what can be survived, and how desperate the desire for survival can become in conditions where one would imagine death to be a better option. Oh, he is a fine, fine writer is Flanagan.

Narrow Road to the Deep North

 

It’s been about ten years since I last listened to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. I came across the CD this morning, put it in the player and lay down on the floor to listen. It’s a big, dramatic concerto with surging melodies, rhapsodic in nature, and has at times been dismissed by critics because of its “gushing” romanticism and alleged lack of subtlety. It’s been used in a remarkable variety of films, including David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch, Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, and Japanese anime. I don’t know how it became so familiar to me, but when I listened again after so long, I knew it as well as if I’d been listening to it every day. It is, I think, quite beautiful. There was a tosser in the seventies who used one of the themes for his popular song, All By Myself, for which he should have been hung.

 

Rachmaninoff

 

And finally, today has been a very sad day. Our vet Terry, Mrs Chook and I decided it’s time to say goodbye to our old Big Dog. He’s fourteen, almost blind, full of arthritis, deaf as a post and Terry says his lungs are fucked. I did tell him to stop smoking but would he listen? We have him till Wednesday, and after that he’ll be under the mango tree in the back yard. He’s a ripper dog, Terry always says. I don’t quite know how we’ll get used to being without him.

The smiling dog.

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