In my continuing education on stories, I have been watching the TED talks on storytelling and posting the ones that inspire me on this here blog. The latest of these was Elif Shafak’s talk on the politics of fiction. I thought this post would counter nicely to my post on the importance of having a national literature that had some books which take place in our actual nation, and I thought it might bring up some discussion points for our new book, Blood by Lawrence Hill.
At the end her talk, Shafak suggests that instead of encouraging writers of fiction to “write what they know,” we should encourage them to write what they can feel. Quite a paradigm shift from our usual idea of writing fiction.
Shafak is a Turkish woman whose novels often do not to tell the stories of Turkish women. She does not believe that identity politics should enter into the creative process. She does not want to be seen as a representative of her culture, but rather as a creative individual. She reminds us that, while they are powerful connective forces, stories are still stories, and should be seen for what they are and not as a means to an end. Shafak makes the point that identity politics have sadly greatly affected the way books are marketed and read, and how authors are pressured to write. Those authors of a Non-American background are all lumped together and expected to write books set in or around their respective cultures. Why shouldn’t she be able to write about a Puerto Rican student in the US? Does our blood matter when it comes to creativity or imagination? Should it make a difference in how people should read or market that creativity? I cannot see any truly compelling reason why it should, though I myself might feel strange assuming that I could write from a perspective that I didn’t think was, at its core, my own.
Perhaps that is only because I was raised in the era of “write what you know” and also in an era where identity politics are so very sensitive. Writing from the perspective of a different culture, gender, orientation, or what have you, is now seen as taking the voice of another, rather than an attempt at sharing or exploring that voice. And, while I can logically say that it should be about the sharing (I’m such a hippy), I can’t deny that white authors writing books from a Native perspective makes me bristle. That might have something to do with a colonial power taking the stories of the people they colonized…so, in my mind, would it then make it okay if, I don’t know, a Polish author did it? How do we judge whether it’s taking or sharing? Maybe I’ve become too indoctrinated into identity politics, but these are tough questions for me.
Then, Shafak hits you with a James Baldwin quote that was uttered when an interviewer was trying to peg him as a gay author: “But, don’t you see? There is nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me.” If we, as readers, want to expand our minds by feeling connected to characters who exist outside of our own cultural/political/emotional/economical circle, then why wouldn’t an author want to do the same in his or her writing? Writing what we can feel can only expand our capacity to feel, and hopefully the reader’s capacity to feel. While a tricky area, I think Shafak has convinced me to generally come down on the side of never suppressing an author’s right to create whatever fictional world their imagination has led them to. And her new paradigm on writing does have me shifting paradigms all over the place – those suckers are heavier than I thought they were…