Wednesday, February 6, 2008

(mostly from a reading intro at BYU, 9/21)

A professor of mine, Tomo Hattori, taught me that Orientalism isn’t a condition of geography but a condition of power. To me, the study of Orientalism illuminates not only interactions between Asia and western cultures, but interactions between white American and Native America as well. Disclosing the obscured structures of power inherent in oppression is a way to understand and overcome the disparities created by colonialist relationships between dominant and minority cultures. To that effect, I want to talk about the difference between cultural interfacing and cultural appropriation, as appropriation in art is a form of modern-day colonialism.

Cultural interfacing is a term I’ve come across as a technical writer working with companies that structure businesses and their internet or internal IT capabilities to easily translate to different global markets. For example, globalization ensures that software code created to perform inbound and outbound tasks may be read by computerized systems abroad. It’s a term that has also been used in communications to refer to strategies for contextualizing language to adapt translations from one culture to another or in manufacturing to refer to ways of making appliances, for example, that work in different countries. If you’ve ever tried to plug in your hair dryer overseas, you know how important this kind of interfacing is. But today I’m not really talking about internationalized programming languages or translation consultants or voltage adaptors. I’m talking about empathy—about trying to suspend judgment about others long enough to imagine, based on limited knowledge, what they might be going through, given context. In fiction, empathy is the baseline and adaptive strategy—the cultural interfacing—that allows us to look at, to write about, and to open a dialogue with different cultures.

In recent decades, much has been said and written to counteract the culturally devastating effects of cultural appropriation—and rightly so. When the dominant or privileged culture has a greater opportunity to define (artistically or otherwise) a minority culture, it rewrites its history and undermines cultural identity. Imagine, for example, that LDS culture had not created opportunities to define what it means to be LDS—whether through LDS-based publishing companies, Deseret Books, or BYU—and instead the culture was widely defined by Catholics, Baptists, or Muslims, or Buddhists. Being LDS would look very different, in that case, as I’m sure you’re all well aware. The author—and in this word I include not only writers but anyone with some measure of authority for defining the variables by which we live—naturally privileges his own perception over that of his “case study.” Similarly, the dominant culture has assumed a privileged position as literature about Native America historically has been dominated by non-Native Americans authors. Native Americans authors are understandably upset; confronted with white authors who proclaim, "I want to expose the 'plight' of the Native American," they counter, But here I am, speaking as loud as I can--are you listening? Until recent years, anthologies centered around Native American themes scarcely included native authors, despite the many talented storytellers and writers in the native community. Authors such as Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich--and promotion of their material--have made progress in initiating change, but more work is needed.

Cultural appropriation is the modern aspect of the ongoing colonialism that has haunted Native American culture for centuries. White writers recognizing this might avoid writing about other cultures. But isolationism doesn’t strike me as an answer either. Misunderstandings between cultures abound, creating a backdrop of tension that seems at times insurmountable. Business has been first to overcome cultural isolation, and it all comes down to money: globalization is profitable. For better or worse, U.S.–based company can hire scientists and techies from India or China or Argentina to create marketable solutions for customers at highly competitive prices.

Of course, I’m not here to talk about profit margins either—at least, not in terms of dollars. I’m talking about using art as a way for cultures to interface without offending one another with cultural appropriation. I'm talking about observing, with compassion, the other's culture from the outside in, rather than taking the position that it’s possible to write from inside the other’s body of meaning and signification. This strategy, using empathy and honesty as a baseline for cross-cultural understanding, stands to enrich our lives with knowledge and engagement.

Writing from the outside in might mean making a number of artistic choices. It might mean not using the first person when writing a character from another culture. It might mean not assuming the intentions or emotions of the “other,” but reporting the surface detail instead—the texture apparent—and acknowledging that which the narrator doesn’t know in at least equal measure to that which the narrator does know. It might mean pulling back from omniscience, or from complete specificity, and delivering instead some of the alienation one feels when shopping at the market in a foreign country—as another mentor of mine once noted, you see the colors, you feel the shapes, but you don’t necessarily know the function or value of each and every object.

By speaking against appropriation, I’m not advocating censorship. If you want to use first person or an omniscient narrator to portray a character from another culture that has somehow left a profound impression on you, by all means, do it. But if your hope is real communication—real dialogue and respectful interaction—you might look at your project as a programmer on the global market would. You’ve got to recognize certain protocols, build a structure using certain universal languages. (In the case of human experience, I would argue that our universality lies within the particular: we are limited in perspective, inherently and necessarily naive to the experiences of the other, except that we all, by virtue of existance, desire). But how to seam the pieces together? In the literary landscape that I would like to imagine, you’ve got to begin with some medium for cohesion and context, and empathy isn’t a bad medium to start with.

By empathy, I don’t mean feel sorry for; I don’t mean anything that would suggest either looking down at someone from a privileged position or looking up to something as if on a pedestal, which is itself dehumanizing. I mean, simply, observing both honesty and compassion in relating to something on a level playing field. I mean acknowledging the possibility that even deeply flawed people have redeeming qualities, that they likely arrive at their decisions from a context that, at least in their minds, to some extent, justifies their actions. Of course, a main character can’t help but assume a privileged position, just as an author can’t help but carry a measure of authority. Knowing this, I saddled my poor character Gretta with many flaws in an attempt to balance perspective—she’s an alcoholic, a flake, a troublemaker, a troublefinder. She has difficulty not only in comprehending "other" but in recognizing "self" and allowing this ubiquitous self to assume agency in her own life. I used Orientalist texts—and their counterpoints—to allow the character to examine, in as much as she is able, her own assumptions and the forms of blind colonialism (among both colonizer and colonized) that take up residence within her and in her surroundings. At the same time, I demanded the character reflect on her positioning as a woman among various contexts—race, workforce, family—because gender, too, is a condition of power.

I’m hoping that, with all Gretta's flaws and misunderstandings, she emerges as deserving of empathy as any other character in my book, whether Native American or white, religious or nonreligious, man or woman, friend or hitchhiker. I'm hoping the divide between protagonist and antogist becomes blurred, becomes something like ambitagonist, because within the dialectic of empathy, good and bad are less useful categories than if and how. Like anyone else, Gretta is doing the best she can, given the resources and experiences she has to work with.