Switching Pockets

Who do you think you are?

If you’re a fiction writer, you know this question, because it hangs in the air every time you sit down to write a story. It doesn’t always come in such an accusatory tone, though. Sometimes it’s more like, Who can you be, believably, for the length of this narrative? Because that’s one of the freedoms of fiction: you can tell a story from the point of view of a newborn baby, a person from ancient Mesopotamia, the President of the United States, an envelope—anybody or anything. And it seems like all you have to do to earn that freedom is to inhabit that character convincingly, to make the reader believe that they’re really listening to an envelope talking.

Except sometimes the accusatory tone applies: Who do you think you are? Because let’s say you are a straight, cisgender, white male (like I am), and you decide to write a story from the point of view of a black man, or a woman, or two lesbians raising a son together, or any other character who isn’t a straight, cis, white male. At that point the question gets a little pointed.

Here’s the obvious thing: every time any of us writes a story, we do it in a context. We do it in the context of centuries of literary history, which is mainly a history of people like me (straight, cis, white men) doing all the talking and none of the listening—people like me, in fact, telling everyone else’s story for them. Don’t worry your pretty little head about writing, the guys in power have said again and again. I know you better than you know yourself, and I can write your life better, too.

(Which is one reason that even writing this essay is problematic. I’m right now explaining stuff that a lot of people already know, stuff that people of color, queer people, women, and so on, figured out way before I ever did. So let’s assume I’m talking to other folks writing from a position of privilege, who may not have figured this out yet. Or maybe I’m just talking to myself.)

And so we have crucial organizations like Cave Canem (https://www.cavecanempoets.org/), Kundiman (http://kundiman.org/), Lambda Literary (http://www.lambdaliterary.org/), Letras Latinas (http://letraslatinasblog.blogspot.com/), and the Rona Jaffe Foundation (http://www.ronajaffefoundation.org/), to give just a few well-known examples: these organizations give historically silenced people a dedicated space to raise their voices. And it’s why we need mainstream literary spaces to make more room for those voices, too, and why we need organizations like VIDA (http://www.vidaweb.org/) to keep the literary world accountable.

But that’s the easy part: let’s always raise up voices that we haven’t been hearing. Who wouldn’t see the justice (not to mention the aesthetic rewards) of that?

For me, personally, the harder question is what I’m supposed to do with my voice, my writing. Specifically, do I have the right to tell stories that aren’t directly rooted in my own experience? Who do I think I am?

And the question isn’t just pointed at me. Does an Asian man have the right to write the story of a Black woman? What about a cisgender woman writing the story of a transgender man? A wealthy blind woman creating a character who’s white and male and straight and living in abject poverty? All these situations—and lots of others—are fraught to various degrees.

I honestly don’t think there’s an easy answer to this. We already know that careless literary imperialism isn’t a good answer—but neither is the opposite extreme, the extreme where we each allow ourselves only our own individual stories. That answer doesn’t work because it guarantees a literature of complete narcissism, a world where everybody gives up on the enterprise of fiction, which is to say a world where everybody gives up on the enterprise of empathy.

Because I think stories—all of them—depend on empathy for their existence. The only reason it even makes sense to tell one another stories is because we are, in fact, capable of understanding one another. A story is a rope we throw to other people, a rope other people are capable of catching. The fact that stories have stayed with us is proof of that.

And empathy is not just a cute trick either; it matters. As the author Azar Nafisi says, “It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless. Outside the sphere of literature only one aspect of individuals is revealed. But if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them.” And Nafisi isn’t being metaphorical; she’s talking about actual murder. She means that lives are at stake.

It seems to me that writing literature probably has the same effect, making it harder to kill each other. I, for one, have written more than one story from the point of view of a character who at first I didn’t really understand or even like, and writing those stories has made me more generous in my understanding.

Witnessing other authors do the same thing is also powerful. Think of “Going to Meet the Man,” James Baldwin’s incredible, feeling story from the point of view of a racist white police officer. (Or, once you’ve read it, try to ever stop thinking about it. It’s that good and important a story.)

We’re trying to do something incredibly delicate. On the one hand, I think we have to both read and write outside our own boundaries because it helps us understand and because the alternative is narcissism and a contempt for one another that can promote actual violence. On the other hand, we can easily shade over into arrogance if we’re not careful; the ability to empathize to an extent doesn’t mean we do it perfectly and it certainly doesn’t erase an entire history of privileged people stepping on other people, and arrogance, too, can promote both metaphorical and actual violence. In this way, I think both extremes—writing only yourself and blithely telling others’ stories for them—represent a failure of empathy. In one case you say I can’t understand you; in the other you say I understand you so loudly and with so much self-assurance that you prevent yourself from doing any listening.

How do we find some tenable middle ground?

There’s an old Jewish teaching that I love: it says that we should carry two slips of paper with us everywhere we go, one in each pocket. On one slip is written, I am nothing but dust and ashes; on the other, The world was created for me alone. The idea is that both are true—at different times, or even simultaneously. The idea is that we have to hold on to these contradictions. In the terms of this discussion, we might keep both I understand and I don’t understand close at hand.

Any individual person probably knows more than you’d think by just looking at her or him. After all, sure—I’m a straight, cis, white male (in case you’d forgotten). But I grew up in a house of women—my mother raising me and my sister—and so it makes sense to me that some of my main characters are women; that was my life, growing up. And I grew up in a mostly African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, so it makes sense to me that I’d have some African-American characters (as in my story “No Shame in Rooms Like That” for The Journal). And so on. This is true for almost everybody, isn’t it? Life is big, touching a lot of different surrounding lives, and our experiences are complicated. If we’ve been paying attention, we should know some things.

At the same time, we don’t understand everything. In fact, we probably misunderstand more than we understand. We see through a distorted lens. And being near someone else’s life isn’t the same thing as living it, obviously. Whatever my growing-up experience was, the only childhood and adulthood I’ve actually had is my own. I always need to remember that.

I guess what I’m suggesting is those two pockets. In one, you’ve got I understand, which is an impetus toward boldness and, more importantly, the desire to grow and empathize and make connections, but we become arrogant and destructive if we spend too much in that place. In the other pocket is I don’t understand, which pushes us toward humility and deep respect of others, but which can become paralysis and narcissism if taken too far. And so maybe we need to keep our hands moving, and always be reaching into the other pocket. Maybe we need to push ourselves toward bold empathy and then respectful deference and then back again. Maybe we can stop writing over each other and still write toward each other.

David Ebenbach is the author of several books, including two short story collections—Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House) and Between Camelots (University of Pittsburgh Press)—and a guide to creativity called The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books); he teaches Creative Writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.