I decided to write this now after reading a post on New Lune. I’ve been meaning to write something on this subject for weeks, but–Well, ‘no ifs, no buts’, as they used to tell me over and over again as a child….
You see, this year I’ve been writing and reading for my MA in creative writing at Kingston School of Art. We have been reading about several subjects, including, The idea of the death of the author, based around that famous essay of the same name by Roland Barthes in which an ambiguous challenge is placed after a colon, as to whether the author is dead or omnipotent or indeed simply, after all, the reader; the hyperreal; to put this in simple terms the dichotomy between the Disneyland version and the actual reality; the idea of the catalogued, or the fixed and dictionarised, by Jean Francois Lyotard, which concept does not permit growth of perception; gender; too many to mention, but some notable writers on the subject are Cixous, Butler, Carter, Gilbert and Gubar, and others, and race and ethnicity.
I find the essays on the subject of race and ethnicity very illuminating and if you are interested then The Postcolonial Reader has some very good and very accessible essays on the subject of the lived experience of race and ethnicity.
I also read submissions for a journal, and have noticed that recently we are getting submissions from writers on the subject of race, which we were not getting before. Now it would be odd if we weren’t since we’ve also been receiving writing on Coronavirus of late. Writers often have their finger-on-the-pulse of the current mood of the people and they do their best to reflect on, challenge, and mirror that.
I decided, even though we were to choose from around seven subjects for our MA essay, to write about race and ethnicity. I did this because it seemed to me that this subject hasn’t been written about enough. Yes, I do mean that. I really don’t feel that the subject has been interrogated thoroughly. I wrote a 3000 word essay on the subject, which I researched thoroughly, and which, because an essay has to focus, I had to discard much of my research for, still, the question of my essay was not really centered around race and ethnicity but on what writers do. This may surprise you, but it is a subject that will not go away. I suspect this is because those of us who have not had the privilege of a university education, will not have interrogated this subject, and will, perhaps therefore, not have understood that writers who write creatively do not write subjectively. The best writers put out ideas and binary problems and leave them for the reader to unpick and to make sense of. They reflect the mood of a generation, or in this case, generation after generation, and they do this because they perhaps feel that the generation, or in this case, generation after generation, has not been heard properly. The writer seeks to illuminate the problem, the writer seeks to convey some truth about the problem.
What I want to know is, are you aware of the fact that it isn’t easy for a writer on race and/or ethnicity to get their work out there into the mainstream of publication? I know for a fact, from working for publications, and from listening to publishers talking at conferences, from reading work that is rejected, and from listening to published authors talking about their publishing journeys, that along the way to publishing, their work is censored. Why is this? You may innocently ask. Well, let me explain. This is because the publisher is accountable. The publisher is responsible for the content that they put out, and for any disturbance which arises from the publication of material. Perhaps when Trump posted on Twitter and Twitter added references for further reading, you were enlightened, I don’t know. Allow me explain another problem, not only this but it is very easy to misconstrue a work of art. The appreciation of art is a personal thing. The reaction that we get as readers, or appreciators of art is often very personal to our experience of life, which was why, as I penned my essay on race and ethnicity, I mused on the thought that the essay was really about all seven subjects of my study, it was about gender, it was about the hyperreal, it was about the death of the author problem. In fact, all writing is about all of these subjects. The reason for this is clear; we live in a world in which we act, as Shakespeare pointed out so succinctly, “all the worlds a stage”, which means that we appear in the world as this or that. We are catagorised for expediency, as Hume pointed out in ‘A Critique of Pure Reason’, we are “he”, “she”, “good”, “evil”, we are a son, a daughter, a writer, a man, a woman and we speak in a language, which again give the person we speak to an impression of who it is that we are, depending on whether or not we were raised in a place of perceived privilege, for example, or whether we choose to dress our gender. We are constantly at war with binary interpretations of who it is that we are. This, if you like binary perception, for me, appears to be the most important challenge that we face in our time.
There is a saying, “be yourself, everyone else is taken”. This clue as to who we are in this world is a powerful one, because if we continue to allow ourselves to take on the clothing of the “Other” as Said pointed out in his work Orientalism, we will only be viewed as “Other”. To be ourselves is a difficult thing, as Michael Blake pointed out in ‘Dances with Wolves’. The character in that work who was named Dances with Wolves by the Sioux was never really anything but himself, in spite of the binary judgments inflicted upon him; even the term “him” is a judgment (but we are stuck with it). Dunbar remained true to himself throughout the work of fiction; even to the point of a death-defying ride up and down a line of armed aggressors, who were so impressed by his ability to control a horse, or his downright bravery that they failed to fire on him. Perhaps this long and very vivid scene was a metaphor, as many stories are, such as ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ (who are the barbarians really in this story?), or ‘Heart of Darkness’ (who are the colonised?), or ‘Jane Eyre’ (who is the victim and who is the incarcerated?), perhaps the metaphor in that ride was this; that you must, in the end, be seen. All of your flaws must be out, and you must, above all things, own them. And then, all you have to do is accept the love that you receive in spite of all your flaws.
Michael Jackson penned the words, “I don’t want to spend my life being a colour” (Michael Jackson, ‘Black or White’, Dangerous, 1991 ). This lyric resonates with me above most lines from books and poetry that I have ever read, because, believe it or not, one of the first things which was picked out about me as a child and pointed out to me, I remember most vividly as if it was yesterday, and that line was “you have olive skin, don’t you”. Why does this stand out? Well, perhaps because, apart from a later reference to my gender, a greengrocer called me “sonny”, or my looks, my sister once asked me what I thought my greatest asset was, and told me that it was my nose, which I found liberating because I absolutely hated my nose and wanted a button nose. Still, those were the only four occasions, apart from later on as a teenager when I was derided for living in a Council House by a school acquaintance who had her parents remove her from my girls school when she found out, and much later than that when my south-west London accent was derided and, just for the accent, I was called a snob, and then too a few selfish and unthinking comments from lovers who were (no doubt) comparing me to some airbrushed perfection they had masturbated to in a magazine, in which I ever saw myself through anybody else’s eyes.
Do you notice any theme in my writing? I was labelled a gender and a colour early on in my life, and, after that, as I grew up, my looks and then my social status were a subject of interest to people around me. And yet, all of the comments were projections. Projections of perception.
Of course, I am much more than my gender, my colour or my looks and so are all of you reading this article, but who among you is brave enough to be seen, to notice me, or to really look at anyone else without the lens of the binary?
All my love,
Blake, Michael, Dances with Wolves (London & New York, Penguin Books, 1998).
Jackson, Michael , ‘Black or White’, Dangerous, 1991
Artwork is by Jill Adams, 1990s