The advice to “write what you know” and the exhortation to “let your imagination soar” are not mutually exclusive. If all we ever wrote about was “what we knew”, at best the world would be glutted with second-rate confessional autobiography, or, in the worst-case scenario, backed up to overflowing with indigestible vocational manuals. (Some might argue that we are already overwhelmed by a virtual tidal bloom of mediocre memoirs by glib alcoholics and dubiously-gifted ex-junkies, though, I suppose, but for the contributions of functional addicts, the whole Marketplace of Letters would probably implode overnight.)
The point is that imagination is how we understand and refine experience, and thus, the two are inextricably bound up together in the creative process. In fiction, the narrow beam of experience is refracted through the prism of imagination. fanning out into a glorious spectrum of story, an infinite continuum of emotion and conflict, passion and prejudice, love and hate, knowledge and wisdom. The extreme, invisible ends of the spectrum, the hot, seething infrared and the cool, introspective ultraviolet are the mysteries of human nature itself, an abiding source of fascination for writers of erotic fiction.
This past week, in the wake of the banal farce that is the Rachael Dalziel affair, and the very real soul-crushing tragedy of the Charleston massacre, many of us are reexamining the way we write about “other-ness” in our fiction, particularly how we talk about and portray race. I have been thinking about this as well, though, for me, a consideration of “other-ness” must also include my own personal, life-defining experiences of disability and the discrimination I have born because of that disability. The question I ask myself is this: what stories am I entitled to tell?
We don’t often think of being “entitled” to write a story. In theory, anybody can write about anything they want, from any point of view they choose, and, in practice, this is not uncommon, especially in erotica. We talk a great deal of noble talk about never self-censoring where erotic description is concerned. But are there instances in which, perhaps, an author should exercise prior restraint when contemplating the creation of fictional characters that are unlike him or her in terms of gender-identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, ideology, culture, and, particularly, race?
In considering some of the cultural and racial components of my own work, I’ve come to the conclusion that I do not fear approbation, or even the possible accusation that I may be a racist, a misogynist, a pornographer or a pervert. What I fear is the complaint that my writing—my characters—will come off as inauthentic.
Authenticity is harder than it sounds. To achieve it, a writer has to balance the scales of genuine, honest experience, and the subtle nuance of imagination. A truly imaginative writer doesn’t just write something because “it sounds like it would make a good story.” Astute readers can smell inauthenticity from a mile away, and there are many stories that clearly don’t pass this “smell test”. Purloined experience has a particularly stale odor to it, and sensitive readers quickly get their nostrils full of it, along with the indelible impression of writers whose lives consist of little more than channel surfing, a steady diet of TV drama, and tabloid pap. Yet, sometimes, even a gifted, thoughtful, ethical writer can relate a true story—that is, true to his or her understanding of observed life—and still be accused of inauthenticity by people, upset that the narrative does not jibe with their particular personal understanding of a similar experience. (I refer you to Remittance Girl’s recent essay, Stealing Pain; Writing the Other.)
So, I ask myself again; what stories am I entitled to tell? And, perhaps, more importantly, whose stories am I entitled to tell? Now, I have to get a little personal, which generally makes me uncomfortable, especially in this world where social media is designed to elicit instantaneous shallow responses, and actively discourages thoughtful deliberation and cumulative reflection. (And, let’s face it, some people “can’t be fucked” even to accept praise with grace!) I am not doing this to elicit sympathy, but to try and get to the heart of my own artistic struggles, and, perhaps, offer a few useful examples of what “other-ness” means in fiction.
Here are some (by no means all) facts that have shaped my experience:
I was born legally blind. I was bullied because of it; held back in school—at one time, even being classified as retarded, and threatened with banishment to the intellectual gulag of “special ed” which, at that tender age, would have spelled certain death for all my potential. Only my mother’s intervention saved me from this fate. Nonetheless, I was denied opportunities “normal” kids were given as a matter of course, barred (even in college!) from taking classes that interested me on the assumption that I couldn’t handle the visual material, and, ultimately, discriminated against in almost every area of endeavor, often by well-meaning but ignorant people who thought they were protecting me from myself. I have been discouraged even from volunteering. I have been literally spat upon for being blind (by an African American, somewhat ironically), and cursed (or, far worse, pitied) by so-called “people of faith” who still labor under the atavistic misapprehension that blindness (or deafness or any “handicap”) must be the outward manifestation of some inward moral defect—I highly recommend the 9th chapter of the Gospel of John to any idiot who actually still believes this horseshit!
I learned early on to compensate for my limited vision by carefully observing and digesting every perceptible detail around me. I was inspired in this by reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes when I was 8.
My father was a Protestant minister, and the family moved around quite a bit. I grew up decidedly unprivileged, perpetually poor and pissed on, in a drab series of tiny farming towns in remote parts of the upper Midwest; towns where nobody had ever seen a person of color in the flesh, where, nonetheless, the “n-word” was thrown about like parade candy on the Fourth of July. In one place, the local Lion’s Club produced an annual black-face minstrel show well into the 1970s! (I refer to these experiences in my short erotic story A Girl From White City. Though, I freely admit, the handsome African-American who becomes the title character’s lover is reduced, if not to a stereotype, to the level of sexual object in her telling of the tale. The point of the story is that many people never realize how prejudiced they truly are, and for the title character, growing up as she did, a one-night fling with a black man would be tantamount to the ultimate sexual taboo.)
Fortunately, for the most part, my parents rejected this kind of overt racism—would that they had rejected homophobia and sex-negative thinking half so vehemently! This “in the world but not of it” attitude didn’t help me fit in with the other kids at school, and the isolation I experienced because of my visual-impairment was only exacerbated by being a preacher’s brat. Only when I got to college did I begin to feel comfortable around people of color—but, again, my inability to read people’s gestures and body language put me at a terrible social disadvantage. (I discuss these issues in my soon-to-be published erotic story collection Dark Ménages.)
I was physically and psychologically abused at home, and sexually molested in one town by a man who was under the tacit protection of the local police. My parents never learned about this, and wouldn’t have done a damn thing if they had, as raising a stink would only have compromised my father’s already-precarious standing in the community. I grew up constantly being told to “be nice” no matter what. Not surprisingly, I suffered from clinical depression, Bi- Polar II, and undiagnosed PTSD for over forty years. I had my innocent bi-sexual questionings bullied and Bible-thumped out of me, leaving me hollow and even more alone. (This experience was fictionalized in my story All The Things They Never Got to Say). The cruelty of Middle School and the feral hormones of puberty nearly drove me to suicide. I was labeled a “disruptive influence” and put on Ritalin to become docile and more easily controlled.
I converted to Catholicism at 23, lived in a Benedictine monastery for a while, liked it, and thought about becoming a priest. (More on celibacy and self-loathing in a later installment!) The monks, however, decided that my visual impairment made me unfit for a religious life, and I got the same spiel from the Franciscans as well as several other minor orders—this at a time when they were all clamoring for new vocations! (Talk about “medieval attitudes”.) All this was just as well as I could not have kept any of the vows; I believe that poverty is a curse, I hate authority, bridle at the notion of unquestioning obedience, and I really, really enjoy sex to the point of being hyper-sexual. I converted to Reform Judaism at 35 and learned Hebrew well enough to write simple original poetry in the language. I now consider myself an agnostic—having been screwed over by three of the world’s great religious traditions.
I have lived in tiny lifeless villages and large soulless cities, colorful, diverse, crime-ridden neighborhoods, and stifling, whitebread suburbs. I have no special attachment to any one place or person or group. I am not a joiner or an identity-politics crusader. I do not care what people believe or do not believe. I do care deeply about how they act, speak, and write. In the end I choose to associate with people of good will or no one at all. Privileged, wealthy, self-absorbed, helplessly impractical people are of no interest to me as potential characters.
So, given these experiences, what stories am I uniquely entitled to tell? What stories can I relate that come from a genuinely original point of view, refined in a distinctively-formed imagination—stories that only I can tell in a particularly honest, authentic voice? The answer is a good deal less clear than one might think.
Most people who read my short story Night Vision assume that the narrating main character is black. He is an ex-jazz DJ with a beautiful James-Earl-Jones voice, but now somewhat down on his luck. He is a near-sighted, middle-aged loner who discovers that his very ordinariness renders him invisible. I did not necessarily set out to write a black character, but someone, much like me, who loves music, and art, and beautiful language, feels isolated by his impairment, and yet also discovers that his near-sightedness gives him a special way of perceiving the world around him. This is one of my very favorite stories among those I’ve written, and I do think that, whether or not readers imagine my character as African-American or white, or something else, the emotions are universal, and real, and—honestly!—what else matters?
I’ve written from the point-of-view of a 16-year-old Jewish kid with a speech impediment in Summer of ’69. Nate’s feelings of isolation, of being an outsider, are emotions universal to adolescence, regardless of race or culture, and echo my own turbulent teenage years. But his “handicap”, the impatience and the hostility of the adults in his life, add an additional layer of conflict, and his struggles to be normal, to be accepted, to be loved, give this story a heart. I also happen to love Hebrew and Yiddish, and this story afforded me a delightful opportunity to indulge that love.
In my novel A Song for the Girl with the Almond Eyes, the title character is a perky 22-year-old Asian American girl from Orange County California, and the object of my whitebread Iowa-native narrator’s near-manic sexual obsession. I have tried my best NOT to portray May-Lin as a one-dimensional object. I have given her intelligence, agency, self-awareness, a profound sense of her own desires and the active--if sometimes seemingly perverse-- exercise of free will. She is by no means a predictable character, or a shallow stereotype. The things she talks about, and her way of seeing the world are based, affectionately, on a blithe, charming Chinese-American woman I knew in college. Then, too, Sammi from Mr. Friday’s Midlife Crisis is a fascinating, smart-mouthed Amerasian coed who speaks with a seductive hint of an east-Texas drawl—and I have no idea where that combination came from. As in all my stories, I have tried to refine observation through the honest filter of imagination, from the cynical Serbian chamber maid, Branka, and her dalliance with her boss, Mr. Patel, to the conservative WASP title character, and Sammi's maddeningly diffident Caucasian boyfriend.
The point here is that if I insisted only on “writing what I know” or tried to play it safe by never daring to court controversy, none of these characters would ever have found their way onto the page. And that would be a pity, because I love them all. I love them for their diversity, and their uniqueness, and the things they think and do and say in spite of all my efforts to make them conform to my ideas of how a plot ought to proceed. In the end, for me, it is this love—probing, unprejudiced, all-encompassing, non-judgmental, unconditional love—that makes the difference between a stereotype or an object of pity, and a believably real living creature; it is love that informs the stories I am entitled—and compelled—to tell.
(You can read PART TWO here)