Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by poet and playwright Imadé Jones.
Writing From The “Margins”
For those of us who write from the “margins,” there is often a focus on “remembering.” We’re usually called to remember a past when our colored selves were not fractured from our queer selves were not fractured from our female selves or whatever other selves there may be.
In other words, remembering is always about re-membering.
I believe that attempting to recall such a time can help us to imagine its existence in the future (which is the thing many of us are writing toward).
However, I also believe that in order to fight the temptation to write more mainstream (read: less colored, queer, female, poor) stories, it’s important to forget.
There are three things specifically that it’s helpful to forget:
Forget About The Market
The very first thing you should forget about is the market. While we would all like to make money from our writing someday, having that goal in mind as we write will keep us from writing certain stories.
I was recently expected to write a short play with no restrictions whatsoever. I spent so much time thinking about what would appeal to the market (white, middle-aged theatregoers) that I ended up writing a play that I didn’t care about or recognize. I wanted to write about a boy who was going to lose his leg for no other reason than the fact that he was born black. But then I decided that I should avoid writing a play that made too direct a statement about race because I didn’t want to alienate the audience.
The result was that I wrote a play about an affair between a man and a woman. It’s not to say that the second story isn’t valid or interesting. However, it wasn’t the story I felt compelled to tell. It wasn’t the story I would have written had I simply forgotten about the market and written what I wanted.
Forget About “Art for Art’s Sake”
So someone somewhere decided, at some point, that writers shouldn’t write because we have a message to communicate to the world, but because we simply want to tell a story.
I have something against the rule about avoiding a message. It implies that great works of literature don’t seek to influence their readers’ beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ve been acutely aware of that rule for as long as I can remember. Having it in the back of my mind has often led me to question my impulse to write characters who belonged to marginalized groups. My fear was (and often still is) that the writing would be deemed “political” and, therefore, not literary. There are definitely examples of messages ruining novels. (See Richard Wright’s Native Son.)
However, for most of us, we write because we have something to say. That something isn’t always earth-shattering, but it’s a message all the same.
Forget About Your Family
While ancestors tend to figure heavily in a lot of writing by people of color, I think it’s necessary to forget about your family, at least your immediate one.
Worrying about what our parents think of us can stunt our growth as adults. The same is true of our growth as writers.
My parents are ostensibly devout… no, obsessive, southern Catholics.
Shortly after I first started writing, I realized that there was some sexuality “stuff” that I needed to address. However, I stopped in order to consider what my parents’ reactions would have been to seeing the words “I like girls… like, like-like girls” in my handwriting. Because I was worried about how they would respond, I wrote around “like-liking” girls for a good two years.
Although I was no longer living at home and keeping a diary that my mother could potentially search my room for, I couldn’t forget about her opinion. If I hadn’t forgotten about my mother and admitted, on paper, that I found myself attracted to women, I would have never written the first poem I ever got published. (And I’d still be praying to St. Catherine to send me a husband.)
Forget… So That You Can Remember
In the end, you have to forget so that you can remember the stories that compel you.
I recently heard a writer say:
“Everything you write should be as urgent as a suicide note.”
Stories that address issues of race, gender, and sexuality are that urgent to me because I’m walking through this world as a queer, black woman.
Writing about that keeps me from the suicide note, so whether my work will ever be popular just doesn’t seem to matter that much to me.
Imadé Jones is a poet, playwright, occasional short story writer, queer woman of color, and all around indecisive person who likes words.
How do you sum up the courage to write stories that address issues concerning race, gender, or sexuality? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
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