Near Maitrichit, 2001Read More
What a wonderful bunch of people to work with. We had a lot of fun in those days!
‘several things dovetailed in my mind and at once it struck me, what quality went to form . . . Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’
“Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity—substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment. The sooner Americans get used to these likelihoods, the better.”
“This is one of those clarifying moments in American history, and like most such, it came upon us unawares, although historians in later years will be able to trace the deep and the contingent causes that brought us to this day. There is nothing to fear in this fact; rather, patriots should embrace it. The story of the United States is, as Lincoln put it, a perpetual story of “a rebirth of freedom” and not just its inheritance from the founding generation.”
A friend, and fellow Singaporean writer, asked me to take a look at one of her short stories in near final draft. The question of ‘cultural appropriation’ arose - although it was not an issue in her excellent story. The issue was discussed recently on FB in a strident critique of the treatment of a Malay character in a story appearing in Cha last year by another Singaporean writer.
Generally, I think it is fine to write about other cultures and races - after all, that’s what writers do, imagine other worlds & lives - but obviously there are pitfalls and there is a need to be self aware, reflective, and aware of topical issues. Above all, one should be sensitive to the limitations of one's experience. Exploitation can turn cultural exchange into appropriation.
One needs to be politically aware enough to understand where cultural appropriation could occur and then research the specific pitfalls and biases (e.g. mentioning names of deceased aboriginals, tribal marks, clothing, Indian headdresses etc). It’s always important to recognise one’s own unconscious biases and therefore seek the input of wise friends from the group that you are writing about ... and listen to their perspective. If you’re going to be provocative you have to be prepared to take the criticism.
I’m not sure I always succeed in achieving the right balance on cultural sensitivities. In several stories in We Rose Up Slowly I try to shine a little light on stereotypes and casual racism. The implied criticism in the text is directed at the privileged protagonist.
- In A Long Bicycle Ride into the Sea, the white male, privileged, protagonist exoticises a Singaporean young woman. She calls him out on his condescending attitude: “You see me like those Asian women … an always-smiling, demure, malleable, acquiescent slave. You don’t see the real me. Do you realise how much you’re insulting me?”
- In The Finger, a privileged expat housewife is told by her domestic helper: “No. Ma’am, you don’t get to tell me what to do anymore.” The housewife ends up alone. The domestic helper has the agency to say no.
- In Other People’s Cats, the protagonist is told firmly “ I am not your manic pixie dream girl. Don’t even think about it.”
- In Idiot and Dog, the Australian young man is racist towards a singaporean immigrant. He ends up alone. Sometimes I think I should have been harder on him.
- In A Fleeting Tenderness at the End of Night, a PRC hostess chases her dreams & challenges the authority of her boss. She ends up surviving.
The question then arises how a writer should be sensitive to describing what is rather than what should be (a positivist approach versus a normative approach), and whether it's right to judge a story on the moral outcomes for its characters. Questions of authenticity are also raised.
Feel free to critique and/or provide input on these principles.
I share below the questions I ask of my stories to try to avoid ‘cultural appropriation’ or reinforcing privileged discourses. It’s useful for me to set out these principles.
a) Do my characters of a certain type/race/gender/ethnicity/culture etc "accessorise" other more “normal”/hegemonic characters? Do they just provide comic relief? Do they reinforce stereotypes? Are they one dimensional? How can I make them a bit more nuanced and complex?
Does the uniqueness of the non hegemonic characters come through so their individual identity transcends their culture/gender etc?
b) Who has agency? Is it only the privileged or the members of the hegemonic group who have agency, who gets to make choices or assert themselves? Who gets to change? Where there is attraction/repulsion, does that attraction/repulsion arise from the exotic in the other, or a trope of ethnicity? Does attraction/repulsion arise from the uniqueness of the other person?
c) Whose power is being challenged or subverted in the story?
d) What are the discourses surrounding the ethnicity/race/gender/culture of the characters? How is intersectionality working in the story? Does the story treat these issues with awareness & intelligence or in a facile, simplistic, reinforcing the hegemony/privileged way?
e) Do the reader have empathy with the non hegemonic characters? Where are they coming from? Are their motivations more than just stereotypes/cliches of their group? Am I ‘essentialising’ their character?
f) Is there behaviour rooted in ‘lived experience’ & an outcome of their uniqueness or does it pander to stereotypes and preconceived ideas about how such people would behave?
g) Have I asked a diverse range of relevant, wise friends to read my story for their perspective. Have I asked someone who is from that minority ethnic/gender/race/cultural group to read the story & have I listened to what they have to say.
In Singapore, Australia and Jakarta, worlds fall apart, everyone is looking for an escape, and nothing will be the same again. Exploring possibility and desire, yearning and identity, We Rose Up Slowly is the debut collection of short stories by Jon Gresham. Buy We Rose Up Slowly on line here.
Enough of that blatant self promotion. Here is a poem:
I see the boys of summer
I see the boys of summer in their ruin
Lay the gold tithings barren,
Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils;
There in their heat the winter floods
Of frozen loves they fetch their girls,
And drown the cargoed apples in their tides.
These boys of light are curdlers in their folly,
Sour the boiling honey;
The jacks of frost they finger in the hives;
There in the sun the frigid threads
Of doubt and dark they feed their nerves;
The signal moon is zero in their voids.
I see the summer children in their mothers
Split up the brawned womb’s weathers,
Divide the night and day with fairy thumbs;
There in the deep with quartered shades
Of sun and moon they paint their dams
As sunlight paints the shelling of their heads.
I see that from these boys shall men of nothing
Stature by seedy shifting,
Or lame the air with leaping from its heats;
There from their hearts the dogdayed pulse
Of love and light bursts in their throats.
O see the pulse of summer in the ice.
But seasons must be challenged or they totter
Into a chiming quarter
Where, punctual as death, we ring the stars;
There, in his night, the black-tongued bells
The sleepy man of winter pulls,
Nor blows back moon-and-midnight as she blows.
We are the dark derniers let us summon
Death from a summer woman,
A muscling life from lovers in their cramp
From the fair dead who flush the sea
The bright-eyed worm on Davy’s lamp
And from the planted womb the man of straw.
We summer boys in this four-winded spinning,
Green of the seaweeds’ iron,
Hold up the noisy sea and drop her birds,
Pick the world’s ball of wave and froth
To choke the deserts with her tides,
And comb the county gardens for a wreath.
In spring we cross our foreheads with the holly,
Heigh ho the blood and berry,
And nail the merry squires to the trees;
Here love’s damp muscle dries and dies
Here break a kiss in no love’s quarry,
O see the poles of promise in the boys.
I see you boys of summer in your ruin.
Man in his maggot’s barren.
And boys are full and foreign to the pouch.
I am the man your father was.
We are the sons of flint and pitch.
O see the poles are kissing as they cross.
Dylan Thomas, 1914 - 1953