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Two Recent Essays

On Wednesday, April 21, Charles Tan published this essay on his blog. Today (or last night, in my time zone) ephemere (miir) published this response on her Dreamwidth journal.

She writes:

"Disabuse yourself of the notion that you are doing this country a favor by writing about it in a non-negative light. It's not a favor, and treating it as if it were deprecates its potential for damage. This is a necessary realization: perpetuating colonial mindsets and ideologies isn't just "getting it wrong". What concerns me, when I read outsider perspectives that continue to misconstrue what the Philippines is and who Filipinos are, is not that the writer has gotten it wrong, but that the written work is contributing to a structure of ideas that are preventing us from shaping who we are."

This, in my opinion, is the essence of the larger issue of "writing across difference," especially when an author of greater privilege and power and social access writes about people with less. One can even replace the words "this country," above, with the name of any marginalized group in one's own country, and the message still applies. Portrayals that are intended as "not negative" (or even as positive) have just as much potential for damage as those which arise from negative intention. And the fundamental problem of outsider portrayals "contributing to a structure of ideas that are preventing [marginalized, colonized, oppressed people] from shaping who we are" is a universal one.

To mis-frame the central issue as one of "getting it right or wrong" (as if cultures are homogeneous), or as one of what an outsider author has "permission" to write (as if colonialist or oppressive regimes ever asked, let alone required, permission of the oppressed), it to distort the issue fundamentally, to make it all about the oppressor. It's not about the privileged author -- whether that author gets it "right" or not, what that author is "allowed" to do. It's about the marginalized people. Is publishing your story impeding those people from telling their own story (through making their story your own instead, and through having the privilege to disseminate your ideas to a broader and more influential audience than their ideas could reach)? Does your work have the impact of impeding those people in their efforts to shape and define who they are, to liberate themselves from the colonial or oppressive mindset, to be in control of their own destiny? How does your work contribute to the ongoing struggle of the [name] people to define themselves, to tell their own stories? At the very least, is yours a story which does not diminish the daily struggle of these people to shape their own identities, does not cast them as passive players in the plot, does not invent and misrepresent (out of "creative license") their culture, practices and beliefs, does not rely on stereotypes to make its point?

Is this analysis subtle? For too many people, sadly, it is. But it's necessary, and to see it as unnecessary is not simply an instance of privilege, it can have very detrimental effects on the psyches and lives of others.

Ephemere writes:

"Many people act as if this expectation -- that writers expend energy and incur emotional cost, not only to do thorough research but to seek to understand the culture of the Philippines and to examine their own privileges and motivations in the process -- is unreasonable; that it asks for too much. That the fact that an effort is being made should be enough; that we should laud people simply for trying. I disagree. In this I may likely be told that I'm not being encouraging at all. That's fine. To reiterate an earlier point: if a writer cannot surmount fear by toiling through all the demands of this task, I will not excuse or try to take away from that fear. If a writer cannot make (and succeed in) the effort to see the sources of our anger, I do not see why that writer should be protected from that anger."

Remember, if your work draws anger from the people you write about, that that anger is from someone defining and liberating him/herself and his/her people, that what it cost that person to contain that anger -- and to express it -- is far more than it costs you to hear it, and that social justice is furthered best if you pause, take a deep breath, apologize for what you've said or done, and thank them for being so honest with you. And then learn from your mistakes, and don't do it again. Somewhere in that expression of anger lies a gift -- and, like all gifts, it's an insult to throw it back in the giver's face. Don't reject it. It's not pointless, it's not worthless, it's not without long history, and it's not given without reason. Sometimes the gifts you need are not the ones you want -- what you want to hear is not always what you need to hear.

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