Do I have the right to IMAGINE you?

I wish I could speak with ironclad certainty about the right of fiction writers to portray anyone, from any culture, in any way we wish. In her opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Lionel Shriver, a celebrated U.S. author, adamantly took that stance. Her argument appeared sound: the genre is fiction, therefore it’s made up, imaginary, and nobody should take offense.

I’ve pored over her speech and studied the uproar of commentary it incited. Do you remember the movie, Fargo, now a television series by the same name? The Coen Brothers created the film and billed it as a true story. Here was a movie about my state, my peeps, getting rave reviews. I couldn’t wait.

I’d heard it called scathing social satire, but that didn’t prepare me for the film’s insulting portrayal of people, dare I say it, like me. I couldn’t separate myself from the exaggerated Scandinavian backwoods brogue littered with you betcha, golly,and gee whiz. But the problem went beyond a personal affront. People all over the world watched it and formed an opinion of Minnesota, a state of hicks who talk funny and are a little stupid, but really, really, nice. Nobody sat beside them saying, “This is a farce, a parody, people there aren’t like that, seriously they’re not!” It was cultural appropriation at its box-office best.

We can’t help ourselves. We believe what we read, see, and hear in the media. If we don’t swallow it whole, there’s an impression left in our mental data banks that sticks.

So I had a problem when Ms. Shriver, from a position of white American privilege, told the rest of the world in so many words: Shame on you for feeling marginalized. This is fiction. It isn’t about you, it’s about the author’s freedom to IMAGINE you.

Is she right?

Don’t we all love story? What if the freedom to imagine and create is censored, given walls, boundaries, taboos?

I didn’t like my group being portrayed in an unflattering way. Who does? And yet I’m a creative writer and imagining is what I do. I invent unsavory characters as well as quirky, funny, bumbling, brilliant, and dull ones. I visualize them in skin: tanned, pale, olive, sallow, wrinkled, white, brown. I identify them ethnically, socially, culturally, and by their own, unique voice. I give them place and purpose and bring them to life. It’s never my intent to ridicule or malign others. But have I unwittingly done that by creating people who are nothing like me?

How I love getting lost in a book that someone else has imagined, living with those characters in their reality while momentarily escaping my own. And how I love to create story, allowing my normally serious mind to come out and play, to run with abandon waving my magic wand as my dreamed-up people populate the pages and live and breathe before my eyes.

It’s scary when I extrapolate the issues of cultural appropriation in fiction to various possible outcomes. What if we were banned from writing anything but what we have personally experienced? Memoir would be off limits unless the only character was me. As soon as I introduced another person, an ex-husband, mother-in-law, one of my children, and shined my prejudices upon them, whether in a positive or negative light, zap! Guilty!

The fact that literary festivals are springing up all over the world, and writers are being introduced cross-culturally to a degree never before possible, brings issues of sensitivity to the forefront. Years ago, when authors wrote for a small segment of the population: those who could afford to buy books and also knew how to read, this was a moot point. But now that events bring writers and readers together world-wide, and literacy rates are increasing, those who have been portrayed in ways that don’t ring true to what they believe about themselves, are speaking out.

I get an uneasy feeling in my gut when the word censorship is bandied about. As a writer I come down solidly on the uncensored side of the debate. As a human being who identifies with a specific place and a distinct heritage, I’m torn. Cultural appropriation is a valid issue and one that won’t resolve anytime soon. Pandora’s Box has been flung open and as we say in Minnesota, who knows where the chickens will come home to roost.

How does this strike you?
Have we gone over-the-top with cultural appropriation, politically correct, sensitivity issues? Or have we barely scratched the surface of a necessary heightened awareness of The Other. Please share your thoughts.


Poetry Slam at Bar Luna

I’m afraid my friends at home will find I’ve become terribly dull. I managed to stay awake late enough to get myself out the door at 6:30 last night, just at sunset, and walk the quarter mile to Bar Luna. This popular watering hole is an expat hot spot in Ubud. The first Thursday of the month, poets gather here to read their works and be judged. I really hate to admit this, but I have never been to a poetry slam even though I love poetry and was writing verse almost before I could talk. I heeded the warning to come early if I wanted a good seat. The actual event was scheduled for 7:30.

My friends and I (Halla from Iceland, and Karin from Manhattan) arrived in plenty of time and took front row seats. We had no more settled into our cushions than in walked a face I hadn’t met but looked familiar. Steve Castley, of course! I recognized him from the photos on the jacket of the book he co-authored with Julie Silvester, A Taste of Bali. I was staring intently, trying to make sure because, frankly, the book photos don’t do him justice. After introducing myself I asked if he was reading tonight. Affirmative. Then he asked if I had a piece to share. I told him I’d brought a poem but had never been to a poetry slam. He assured me it was great fun and I should participate. Kicking myself for admitting I had come prepared, I walked to the bar and signed my name. My anxiety level surged. We know how to fix that, don’t we? Order a drink! As you might suppose, there are a great many alcoholic options at Bar Luna. The Coconut Killer was tempting, but I settled for a mixture of turmeric, lime, and honey in young coconut water. No alcohol. (I know, friends. You’re shaking your collective heads. But I had in mind the walk home in the dark where pieces of the sidewalk sometimes go missing over the sewer below. I needed my wits about me!)

Photo copyright 2011 Rudolph Helder

Did I mention the event was to start at 7:30 p.m? Yes? Well, that time came and went with much laughter and conversation but no poetry. At 8:20, Karin (who turns into a pumpkin even earlier than I do if that’s possible) inquired politely when we might expect things to get underway. She was answered by a laughing face reminding her that Bali operates on ‘rubber time.’ Then added, “We’re starting right now.” And so it began.

Photo copyright Bar Luna

The emcee with charisma and dreads,  got things going with a sort of rappish poem of his own to set the example for those of us needing guidance. He oozed talent which would become increasingly apparent as the night rolled on. I will spare gory details, but suffice it to say the skill levels varied. Men presenters outnumbered women three to one. And here’s a fascinating observation: the men almost exclusively wrote of love, sex, and lust. The women’s themes covered political activism, social injustice, spirituality, and personal growth. I didn’t expect that and was quite delightfully surprised. (The picture shows a Luna Bar audience staring in rapt attention at the presenter.)

When my name was called I approached the mic with a mixture of relief that it would soon be over and stage fright. I have an uneasy relationship with microphones. They seem to suck up the sound of my voice. I don’t know how singers stay on pitch using a mic when they can’t hear themselves sing. I didn’t win the competition, but I managed to face the crowd, smile, read, and sit down without utterly disgracing myself. Major accomplishment! The judges were volunteers from the audience so it wasn’t a test of literary genius, it was more about entertainment. The woman with a sultry jazz singer’s voice who sang her poem won by a narrow margin. In my opinion, the man who came in third was absolutely brilliant.

It was a wonderful evening. Now I can say I competed in a poetry slam in Ubud, Bali. I like that!

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