H.A.G.S. #2: Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl/Cynthia Ward and Copper Mother by Alyse Knorr
In this week’s edition of H.A.G.S., consideration is centered around the speculative work of “the other” and two unrelated books that have quite a lot to say to each other. The first book is an essay collection by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward that resulted from the 1992 Clarion West Writers Workshop—in which “one of the students expressed the opinion that it is a mistake to write about people of ethnic backgrounds different from your own because you might get it wrong—horribly, offensively wrong—and so it is better not even to try.” The second book, a new poetry collection by Alyse Knorr, “imagines a future in which Voyager makes first contact with alien other.”
Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press, 2005)
Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward
As I’ve begun to write more and more fiction, I’ve had to evaluate parts of my poetic process and what kind of space the short story as a form gives me. For one, voice-driven poems are usually read as a performance of self (perhaps they inescapably are)—while this may be something a poet rejects, it’s common for readers to conflate the identify of the poet with the text performed on the page. I’ve wondered: how does the form the fiction writer utilizes differ from the poet? Does it? Unless you’re writing an epic poem, generally the short story gives more space to flesh out character via word count alone. And maybe that’s just it: the “character” work being done inside stories provides much more space between the self and the work being done on the page as opposed to the shorter distance in poetry.
Inside my own stories, I’ve had concerns that if I neglected to mention certain markers, e.g., gender or race or signifiers of sexuality, that the character would “default” to the majority. I found myself resisting this parallelism in my own work—which is very “have your cake and eat it too,” right? I want to write a character and not give any signifiers of race, but then feel salty if this character is interpreted as white! The sort of narrative entitlement this gets tied up into is one of the quandaries that lead me to being recommended Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, as this book uses this exact framing to conceive on writing “the other.”
In the titular essay, Shawl and Ward use their term, the “unmarked state,” to describe this “normative” state that characters will default to if no identity markers are placed. What does it mean when you take on the voice of someone separate from you, the writer’s, identity? What shifts are made in narration? The writers then go on to build upon the idea of the default by borrowing the astronomical term “parallax” to describe how the viewpoint shifts once you move from the unmarked state to one that is “marked” (i.e.: those social identities marked by oppression). For example, if you wrote a story with a paraplegic narrator, but the character never noticed anyone else around them was able-bodied, this would be an incorrect parallax. While no, perhaps, a disabled person isn’t constantly thinking about their own disability, they are certainly more aware of able-bodiedness than able-bodied people are! The writers scaffold this idea of parallax with one of “congruence,” finding shared traits between characters (this could be benign as a love of Goa trance or two characters realizing they were both on the wrestling team in high school). By the end (including a list of pitfalls to avoid) we have a framework for building complex character identities.
If you, the writer, have never considered what privileges you have before, especially from a place inside your writing, this would be a great essay for you. For those who actively read critical theory, this book might seem a little gentle and “101” for you. Still, I would LOVE to bring this into a high school or undergrad or local community creative writing workshop, as it contains multiple writing exercises that students could try out. Although with some of the stories I’ve seen inside my graduate workshop, I honestly think it could be vital for MFA classrooms too. The titular essay opens up a conversation as to how identity can be used to create complex characters—although I’d say you, the writer, would need to be someone who acknowledges their own privileges first—and be aware that people will read your writing who are not in the cultural majority.
I should say that while both writers are doing work inside the spaces of sci-fi and fantasy (and it sounds like these areas could use the intervention, if you’ve been following any of the recent horrifying events surrounding the Hugo Awards), that doesn’t mean this advice is solely for sf/f writers. In the second of the three essays, “Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere,” Shawl makes a call for activeness in doing your homework, which complements the titular essay well. The final essay on cultural appropriation builds on this concept as well. Despite the titular essay overshadowing the book, I found the other two essays by Shawl to be more insightful and nuanced.
If I had to summarize this book, it’s saying: don’t be passive, don’t be lackadaisical. If you’re committing to writing about a cultural identity or experiences far removed from your own, do the research. Be nuanced. Be cognizant of cultural stereotypes and biases. Commit yourself to reading outside of your immediate identities and/or the cultural majority. What could ultimately be summed up as “don’t be lazy” brings up additional questions of labor, access, ability, and deeper questions regarding appropriation and entitlement to writing about subjects—nevertheless, this is a good place to start the conversation.
One final thought: since this collection is now over a decade old, the work being done in it might be starting to feel slightly dated, even though it’s very cognizant of different analyses of oppression and begins a vital conversation. This is also just the limitations of trying to tackle the complex idea of “the other” with only two contributing writers. I’d love to read a bigger, updated anthology with more writers of various racial identities, trans writers, queer writers across the spectrum, etc., writing about their own experiences and ideologies from personal perspectives. The essays also purposefully leave out class, which seemed like a miscalculation to me. Also: maybe feeling more centered around a place of poetry I’m a little more biased, but I’d love to hear some poets chime in to the conversation too. The construction of identity and character in any piece of writing is complex, and the more voices that contribute to this conversation—the more we can listen to and learn from each other.
Copper Mother (Switchback Books, 2016)
What is it about the Voyager program that continues to rustle the artist’s imagination? Is it the inconceivable idea that our entire planet’s diversity of life and culture could be consolidated into a time capsule? Is it the idea that if we sent said time capsule into a void, that we hope intelligent extraterrestrial life will find it and respond? Even now, the idea of a gramophone record cast completely in gold sounds like some prop from a 20th century fairy tale. It is a futurist gaze created in a past that has departed.
Alyse Knorr taps into this emotional space—all the sights and sounds of Earth from a few gilded discs—in her new book, Copper Mother. The citizens of Earth move as chorus-cum-tour-guides, channeling both the impossible act of speaking for all of Earth’s citizens while compromising to the sublime movements of personal reference and the beauty of benign acts like being brought to Burger King. Or visiting the Mall of America. Or watching a live web stream of the Academy Awards. The phrase and characters “Our Friends” move through the book as a metonym for the extraterrestrial at the most pronounced level, but under the surface it also becomes a way to speak to the other. Which, possibly, is inescapable: to do speculative work inside the trope of “the alien” is to always be in conversation with “the other.”
Although a daunting task, Knorr’s poems contain such a heart to them, one that is aware of the complicated ethics of its own endeavor, and one that does it quite artfully and seamlessly too. The chimerical soundscape is one that moves between “go go go Johnny go” to “billion billion billion [birdsong]” to “Selamat malam hadirin sekalian” to “[hyena laughter]” and “[heartbeat].” Inside the big, too, is the small. Knorr is aware of her position as a writer, how all of us have our own limited points of reference and personal experiences that we bring to the page. The character of Jane engages solipsistically inside this chorus, providing contrast to the descriptions of enveloping sight and sound—a contrast to the music of Our Friends’ messages. Jane, too, creates a dynamic emotional core beside the static nature of the “time capsule” as an object—how as soon as it’s buried or thrown into the ocean or shot deep into outer space—it becomes a moment from a past.
One of the most startling poems is “Golden Record: Outtakes,” which adds another layer to the quandary of what a record means, what a timeline means. What are its failures and erasures?
a dog with no legs
woman raped in the back of a bus
children standing in the rubble of a school
two women kissing near a ship
all of which we are capable
This provides a stark juxtaposition to the “forest mushrooms shepherd leaves” and “children cross-legged mathematical” from a previous poem entitled “Golden Record/Images.” It provides cracks in the surface of the Golden Record itself, the defeat in presenting one timeline for all timelines. In a similar poem where Knorr fires off a litany of all the first names of those who were directly or indirectly involved with NASA activities in 1977—which includes “Robert Robert Robert Robert Robert Robert Robert Robert”—we find another fracture—one that is entirely presented via the lens of the masculine. There are the limits of this patriarchal curation—a limited imagination of predominantly white American men—and what they could say to represent us all when they created that capsule. Although honest in its representations of hegemonic violence, the mirror that Knorr holds up to ourselves is not just limited to the evils of war and the smaller evils we do to each other each day—it also shows us our tenderness, our softness, our loneliness. This is not just the loneliness of the individual—no—but the loneliness of all of us who share a common place of a planet, and the hopefulness that coincides with that knowledge of being so alone:
Remembering, like children,
impossibly little of what
enveloped us in the before,
nothing more than a pocket of
days—blink of a blink—to
say were our own.
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