feminism and me—it's complicated
last trip to staten island

privilege, culture, appropriation, stories

BNFMoiOkay, I rarely do this here, because I rarely let my non-fandom and fandom lives intersect, but in this case, they already do. I posted this originally on my LJ, where I usually post goofy Star Wars crap and my own fan stories. But fandom often gets its knickers in a twist over what litcrit types call meta issues. It seems there are a number of litcrit type people in fandom, especially in slash because of its transgressive appeal. Every so often, someone expresses the opinion that X shouldn't write Y because they're not Y. The latest round arises from a protest by some gay men about straight women writing male homoerotica and is just . . . stoopid, as stoopid as such protests always are. I say this as a pro writer, as a writing teacher, as a teacher and student of literature, and a straight, female writer of fanfic. I have a number of unpopular reasons for saying this, reasons that do not pay lip service to popular critical theory in the Academy, because those theories are mostly developed by people who do not write fiction, but only dissect it. Criticism, too, is a form of appropriation, if you like. Whatever, criticism and fiction writing are two very different heads and rarely coexist happily.

Am I speaking from the proverbial position of privilege? Why, yes, probably, depending on your point of view (thanks, Obi-Wan), but I have some thoughts on that too. I have some problems with this concept, not because I don't enjoy a certain amount of it as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered citizen of one of the richest countries in the world, but because I believe at least some of this idea, the way it is being currently expressed, also arises from a sense of not just exclusion, but of desire: desire for something one thinks one does not have and believes others do, i.e., the grass is greener syndrome. I believe, like Eleanor Roosevelt, that "no one can make me inferior without my consent." Now, I am female, and a feminist, so I do have a strong sense of what discrimination and injustice and exclusion mean and what they do to people's lives. I see it every day in the lives of my students, too, and hear it in the stories they tell me. Privileged? Moi? Depends on what you're comparing me to and how you structure your hierarchy. If you want my bio, check it on on Facebook and you decide.

Nonetheless, this is a bullshit issue from any POV.

First of all, this is not about the GLBTQ community. It's about censorship. Here's why:

Writing fiction is only partially a political act. It is only a political act if you, the writer, intend to make it one, not if someone interprets it that way. Nobody gets to say what the ultimate meaning of your piece of fiction is but you. Other people can interpret it as they like, and see what they want to see, and do, which is the wonderful thing about literature, but the only one who really knows What It Means is the writer. To say otherwise is to believe you, the critic, have a special mission from the Gods of Literature, and there are good drugs for that now. If the writer sits down and says, "I am going to write this story to bring this issue to the attention of the public," that's a political act; if that writer says, "I wonder what would happen in this situation with these people under these conditions?" and proceeds to write that story, that's not a political act, it's an act of imagination and psychological exploration. Either way, if you insist that writer has no right to tell that story, FOR WHATEVER REASON, that's censorship.

If fiction writers were restricted to writing only about their own experience, literature would be a dull, dull place. Because, yanno, writers mostly don't get out much, except in their heads, having to spend hours in front of their keyboards writing and DOING RESEARCH. Sometimes the DOING RESEARCH entails getting out and experiencing something new or talking to new people, sometimes not. But DOING RESEARCH is a lonely business too. The beauty of fiction is that, as a writer, you get to take on different personae. This does not make you that persona, or make you an expert, but it allows you to SEE THE WORLD IN A DIFFERENT WAY. Sometimes, looking from the outside in provides an interesting perspective. It's not the only perspective, just a different one.

(Here's where the flame war really starts:) It is absurd to say someone else is "appropriating" YOUR story. Unless you have a copyright on that baby, your story is just as free in the world as any other idea. If what you are calling "your story" has to do with your culture and upbringing and language, I have news for you, there is no one story of your culture or language. Even within each culture people tell different versions of the same story. And here's the thing: those stories? In all their different versions, they're told everywhere else on earth with different characters, wearing different clothes, in different cultures, in different languages in somewhat different situations. Every story told anywhere, I don't care what it is, boils down to an archetype and a motif. Every story told anywhere, about anything, can be boiled down to one of a large number of motifs or plots, something we'd all be more aware of if folklore studies were still a viable field. There is no such thing as a culturally unique story. There is only the human story, in various costumes. Human behavior is human behavior. Our cultures are just fancy dress. Stripped down to our cores in extreme situations (which is what fiction does) we are just human, that's all.

It's also absurd to talk about the appropriation of something as ephemeral as stories and culture because appropriation in this context refers to something akin to theft. I can't steal something that continues to exist in its original form when I use it. No matter how much I transform it, the original is still going to be there, as long as someone is telling that story, or engaging in those activities or whatever, somewhere else. Anglo Saxon Culture ca. Beowulf no longer exists, not because someone co-opted it, but because no one speaks Olde Anguish anymore (except Merlin, on TV). No one speaks Old English any more because History Happens: The Normans arrived, for one thing. Times change. Unless you wall yourself off entirely from everyone else in the world and become completely closed and insular society, outside influences are going to change your culture. Even if you manage this, say, the way China has managed it (incompletely but with more success than elsewhere), your culture will not remain homogeneous and monolithic. You think your culture has never, will never, is not now going to change? You are delusional, my friend. It is changing as I write this, with every breath you take.

I have more news for you: appropriation under this definition happens all the time, too. It's not just an act of colonization, though it can be that and sometimes deliberately is, though suppression of said literature is an easier and quicker method of assimilation. Any time you retell any story you've heard or read from someone else, you are "appropriating" it unless you tell it exactly the way it was told to you, with the exact same tone of voice, vocabulary, AND INTENT. (See Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.) Ever play that game Telephone? It's usually done to make a point: that we all edit and change everything we're told and that goes for what we read and write too. Human beings are storytellers, even if it's only of the "Man, you'll never believe what happened on the bus today!" kind. At one time, before the advent of copyright, stories were currency. The cost of a night of hospitality was often a story. During the middle ages, there were fairs where singers and storytellers met to exchange stories and learn new ones. The farther afield someone had been, the more popular their stories were because that was news. Stories are, and always have been, the way we learn about each other. If you keep other people from retelling your stories, you close a major highway of communication and information. One of the early ways we begin to know the world is through stories about other cultures, no matter who tells them. By trying to control those stories, you are turning them into propaganda, and preventing them from being vehicles of cultural exchange. You are stifling access to your own culture.

Once you start saying to anyone "Hey, you can't write that, you're not X," most of the canon--most literature ever written--goes out the door. That story about a hunchback? That story about musketeers? That story about a time traveler? Lady Chatterly's Lover? The Odd Women? Louisa May Alcott's horror stories? Sherlock Holmes? Edgar Allen Poe? Are you getting my drift? Literature is an exercise in imagination and in exploration of what other writers have written. If the storyteller's imagination does not match yours, tell your own damn story. There's plenty of room. In addition, books and authors talk to each other, so by stifling one piece of literature, who's to say what other writers you're stifling? As an example, let me direct you here.

Finally, fiction, while powerful, is still fiction, not fact. While it may shape one's personal viewpoint, it is not legislation. It does not cause harm in the same way that, say, the Ugandan legislation imprisoning people for being gay will. Fiction is  true in a particular way, in that it portrays the behavior of human beings and the results of certain situations in a more emotionally powerful and interesting way than mere fact can, precisely because it is unrestricted by fact. If you think all human beings act according to your own view of them, you are either naive, inexperienced, or extremely arrogant. To confine any story to that preconception is to have a failure of imagination. If your imagination fails there, you might learn something by reading someone else's view. If you're not interested in learning anything from someone else's point of view, then just get out of the way and stop whining. Or write your own. The best remedy for misrepresentation is not less writing, but more.


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