“Mr. Rochester definitely needed a better support system.” Talking writing and identity politics with Tiffany Monique

I feel like this topic needs no introduction. In our American artistic spaces there has been an ongoing conversation about race and racial disparity, about gender and gender disparity, about minorities and minority disparity. We’ve been talking and reading alot about perspective, agency, representation, about being heard and being given a voice. Theatre festivals all over the country emphasize not only the kind of work they want to present but the kind of writer that they want to write that work. With my own theatre project Sticky, now entering its 15th year of existence, we engage, in every programming meeting, in conversations about inviting in more people whose perspectives and identities differ from our own. It’s a big deal, it’s a big topic.

Last year on facebook I reconnected with my best friend from middle school. I’d been trying to find her on fb for years, but as she was using her author name, and I didn’t know it, I hadn’t found her. That’s right, she’s an author. What’s super rad about that is so am I, and the kicker is, way back in middle school THAT’S WHAT WE WANTED TO BE WHEN WE GREW UP. That’s right kids, we’re living the dream, and as sarcastic as that sounds, I actually mean it. We used to hide out in the lunch room with our other odd assortment of weird reader girl friends, and talk story. A firm memory is that Eva Z. always brought pizza for lunch on Fridays. And that the exquisite corpse style story we passed around, each penning a few paragraphs before passing it to the next girl, was nsfw.

Tiffany and I have been hashing out these articles from authors and artists about identity all this last year, so we decided to formalize the conversation beyond likes and comments.

Li88y
Do all writers need to be thinking about identity when they write?

Tiffany
I’m going to give this caveat before I discuss identity: coming from a very layered personal experience as an African-American woman in the United States, growing up with a very traditional southern family, who happened to have relocated to New England in the 50’s, I will always come from varying points of ‘identity’ i.e. race, region, tradition and religion all of the time. What I say is not set in stone or the end all of ethnic identity rules. What I will say is that writing “what you know” is a fantastic trope in my opinion.  It’s a very good way to keep your standard of writing and your literary voice consistent. That being said, I don’t believe writing what you know always means writing ‘your experience’. With enough research, interviewing, traveling and the like one can ‘know a subject matter’ very well without having been there in person or been raised in that culture. So I guess my bottom line is if you respect a subject matter enough to give it it’s proper due ‘writing what you know,’ no matter what the social framework is, can be applied. If we took that idea literally we would all be writing varying degrees of biographies and wouldn’t that be boring?

Li88y
I totally agree. So often an experience is less about a given thing that happened than the emotional reality of that thing. My son asks me to tell him stories about when I was little and what I find when I delve into memory is not a unified narrative, but a story of emotions that influenced my perspective. The feelings are what I remember, almost like they are a lens through which I see the past. So when I write characters who share commonalities with myself, what we are sharing are the emotions that color experience. And I appreciate your caveat.

Tiffany
Thanks! People don’t give emotion enough credit. In our efforts to be high-brow, cultured and historically accurate I think we forget how much of history (i.e. American History) is based in or occurred because of a the play on emotions: southern businessmen feeling ‘slighted’ or ‘dommed’ by northern bureaucrats/politicians, Native-Americans being accepting and welcoming, Blacks being oppressed from the moment they stepped foot onto American soil until the very moment I type this, women having that epiphany that “their place” is where they make it. Though facts come into play in all narratives the reason people want to hear them is because of the emotional draw.

Li88y
Is the concept of identity politics so entrenched that to write a contemporary American character who does not subscribe to an identity, or an intersectionality of identities, disingenuous to our time?

Tiffany
Ignoring identity politics in any time will seem disingenuous. One’s identity and sense of self permeates everything we do. To have some Pollyanna view that we are all ‘the same’ is naïve and almost offensive to your reader. If one is not giving your reader a character with roots in some culture how do you expect a reader to feel anything for them, root for them, hate them, or invest in them emotionally? That background doesn’t have to be a focal point of the character’s journey in your piece but it must be represented so we know the path the character came from and can decide how we as a reader will take that journey with them.

Li88y
I think it’s interesting, the assumption that people who have similar appearances or skin tone automatically relate to and come from the culture that their skin or appearance would indicate. I’ve had people ask me my ethnic background as though the answer to that will tell them something about my fundamental self. What of the assimilated? Those who don’t relate to, or haven’t grown up with, the culture their appearance or ethnicity would indicate? I feel like that’s a pretty common thing. But of course I only have the experience of growing up and living in the northeast U.S., so my perspective begins and ends with New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

Tiffany
That assumption is really just about laziness in my opinion, individuals will swear up and down they are well-rounded adults with varied experiences that makes them layered and interesting human beings but if a stranger explains that they are a non-Christian, person of color, from Germany or Italy or even London the stranger becomes a circus act…. because apparently races, languages and cultures don’t mix anywhere but in the US 🙂

Li88y
In the case of writing fiction that is either speculative or historical, must writers ascribe contemporary American identity awareness to their characters?

Tiffany
Absolutely not, if you mean do you have to be PC in your books regardless of the time of your story. It would actually sound really awkward to me if an 18th or 19th century person referred to a black person as AA or if no one commented when a free couple of color came into a social gathering of only white people as “equals.” At least throw in a guffaw or some uncomfortable twitters. People, writers included, are uncomfortable with the concept of race being a factor in ‘polite society’ because it hurts feelings, is ugly sometimes, it offends, excludes and opens historical seeping gashes in the American psyche. Race is a factor in every conceivable economic, business and social situation we can make up. Talk about it, mix it up, be EXTREMELY wrong in your conversations so you can be right in your actions/writings later. All I look for is that the characters be accurate for the time and region in however they identify themselves.

Li88y
I love how you say be extremely wrong. The idea of showing contrasts, even as part of the background of a narrative, I think is such a great thing for the reader. Navigating a story, thinking you know what is happening, and then having that concept of character or story be suddenly turned or twisted, is great. Like when your feelings about Mr Rochester change so drastically when Jane finds the ex-wife imprisoned in the attic, and you’d like “whoa, Mr Rochester, you are not the man of my dreams.”

Tiffany
Right?! That made sense, Edward?! Which best friend co-signed the jail in the attic for the mentally ill wife? Mr. Rochester definitely needed a better support system.

Li88y
It’s interesting what you say about polite society. So in theatre these days there’s lots of talk about creating more inclusive stages, bringing in more writers who are not white, and women, all of whom are underrepresented on American stages. For some reason, it’s been a hard sell to the not-for-profit and commercial producing community. They seem to feel like the default is white. Hollywood, too. I hope that the more aware people become of this absurdity the more they will question media that attempts to portray white people experiencing the wealth and breadth of emotion while people of color are only enlisted portray capital P People of Color.

Tiffany
First, I do believe it’s easier (and more profitable) to live a life where people that don’t look like you or live like you have less emotional currency than you do. That’s why Hollywood does that. That’s why the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries target certain demographics.  If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It makes money. The end. It makes ideas of morality a non-issue and usually assists in making profits. If a citizen is jobless and aren’t WILLING to do whatever it takes to pay your bills and an immigrant (legal or not) is willing to clean toilets, pick fruit, stand on a corner and hope they get chosen to work, live in homes with a 8 or 9 family members until one of them graduates from college, save every dime they can so they can buy a small house to all their own in a crappy neighborhood then yes it is EASIER to be angry at some ‘job-stealing’ brown folks then face the real issue: that you are not STRONG ENOUGH, GOOD ENOUGH, TOUGH ENOUGH. So brown people become the problem.. across the board, a wide swath of negativity is painted on thousands of folks.

Defaults change when money changes hands. That is all. That is when change comes. When people of color spend money on their own community of arts and support indie movies and plays … things will change. I believe that with Tyler Perry and Shonda Rhimes and Oprah Winfrey controlling both the financial and artistic of many ventures the wheels of change will being to turn. Just like with anything else, the moment women and people of color (usually black) deem something important enough to throw money at and do it with conviction, white males will follow in an effort to cash in and those traditional doors that are closed on Broadway and Hollywood will fly open.

Li88y
In the meantime, is it any wonder that neither of us wait to be invited but share our own work on our own terms? You can find more about Tiffany Monique and read her work here: Amazon, her blog The Heiress of Eros, and facebook. And I’ve got a busy spring, with my play I Am Not an Allegory at Under Saint Marks in March, and a series of Sticky at Lovecraft in April and May.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s