The Chronicle Review

Policing the Imagination

Selcuk Demirel for The Chronicle Review

May 17, 2017

In the latest issue of Write, a publication of the Writers’ Union of Canada, its then-editor, Hal Niedzviecki, argued that "anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities," and to write about them. There was an immediate outcry from other contributors and union members. The union apologized for what Niedzviecki had published. Niedzviecki resigned as editor. News coverage made it clear that he had effectively been convicted of disbelief in the concept of "cultural appropriation," which in the view of his accusers amounts to a form of heresy.

The identity politics informing this scandal and other recent and similar episodes (such as the novelist Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year) date back to the 1990s. Since then, an unwritten rule prohibiting a member of a particular identity group from speaking as if from within the experience of another identity group has gained power, and nowadays it is often very loudly and stringently enforced. A kind of silencing ensues from the enforcement.

In the present social and political situation, clinging to this style of identity politics strikes me as something like refusing to eject from an exploding airplane. Give me a minute to explain why.

The rule has its origin in a right and reasonable objection to travesties and caricatures afflicted upon different identity groups by poorly conceived and executed texts. Let’s agree we should give up writing characters like Tonto. We can afford to be ashamed that anyone ever wrote characters like him (or Uncle Tom, or examples of your choice). But what about Faulkner’s Dilsey? If the rule is applied to the literature of the past, it’s not only that Mark Twain can’t write about Jim. Henry James can’t write about women. Flannery O’Connor can’t write about the Misfit or Hulga’s wooden leg. All historical fiction, from War and Peace to The Clan of the Cave Bear, has to be wiped from the lexicon. Were this logic to be consistently followed, then Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie couldn’t write about white Americans or indeed about anyone outside the Nigerian communities within which her stories are set.

Writing isn't only about self-expression. It's about imagining the lives of others and representing them in a convincing way.
I am a white male fiction writer from the rural South. I have written some material about people who share my background, but the fact is that my own personality doesn’t interest me much as a subject, and I am far more interested in imagining the lives of others. In the first 10 years of my publishing career I was often assumed to be African-American because I often wrote from the points of view of African-American characters. This illusion was supported by the fact that my triple-barreled Southern-style name sounds a little like "George Washington Carver." (More recently I am often assumed to be a woman, not because of anything I write, alas, but thanks to all the little girls named "Madison" after the mermaid portrayed by Daryl Hannah in the movie Splash.)

Meanwhile I was also writing from the points of view of mice and hydrocephalic dwarves, and from the points of view of women as I began to learn how to do that more convincingly. I spent 20 years writing novels about the Haitian Revolution, a late-18th-century event in which all the players were completely foreign to my personal experience, from the French colonists to the fugitive slaves in the hills above the cane fields. These books, which began to be published in the 1990s, were warmly received by Haitian artists and intellectuals (I do not claim by all of them). More recently a white scholar has attacked this work on grounds of sensationalism, cultural misappropriation, and other now-familiar academic buzzwords. I’m not complaining; the guy spells my name right; all publicity is good.

For thirty-some years I have taught fiction workshops at Goucher College, a small institution with what has become over those three decades a large creative-writing program. The same period has seen sweeping social changes, both within and outside the academy. Goucher prides itself, with some justice, on diversity. We have more students of color; more foreign students; more gay, transgender, and gender-fluid students than ever before, and we try, seriously and sincerely, to make them all comfortable. For student writers, the richness of potential subject matter is exciting.

Much has been written about the cultivation of special sensitivities in these kinds of communities, and the risks pertaining thereto (e.g. "The Coddling of the American Mind," published in 2015 in The Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, as well as "And Campus for All," a pamphlet produced by PEN America). In a landscape hemmed in by "safe spaces" and by an unwritten (and thus unexamined) law that people can speak only from within their own identity groups, freedom of speech for student writers can be jeopardized. Last fall it appeared that in some of our workshops some students were asking instructors to ensure, a priori, that no stories capable of giving offense be turned in to their groups at all — perhaps without realizing that compliance with such demands would hamper not only their classmates’ freedom of speech and imagination but also their own. Some of my writing-faculty colleagues and I were inclined to see these developments as an existential threat to all our practice, at least potentially.

During the same period, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

I had seen it coming a long way off; that is, even in the 1990s I had perceived that the more insistently the various identity groups broadcast their many iterations of the statement, "It’s a _______ thing, you can never possibly understand," the more the sectors of American society considering themselves to be mainstream could argue, "Look, those people over there are incomprehensibly alien to us. They say so themselves! If their interests are not our interests, then they are a threat to us. We must protect ourselves from their incomprehensible alien purposes. We need to wall them away from us," if not worse. On the strength of such thinking, a reactionary movement might very well come to power; in fact, it has now done so.

For the past couple of years I’ve been opening fiction workshops by running through some version of the paragraph above. I then point out that an essential goal of liberal-arts education is to broaden the views of students and improve their capacity for empathy by exposing them to kinds of people different from their kind. A great deal of that work used to be accomplished by reading imaginative literature under the umbrella of the now-rapidly dwindling English major. Now that so many students would rather write than read, it’s incumbent upon us as teaching writers to get the same job done.

Writing isn’t only about self-expression, I argue. It’s about imagining the lives of others and representing them in a convincing way. So you, students, are encouraged to think and write outside your identity group’s comfort zone. If you bring us Tonto, you can expect to be reproached for that. But if you research and learn in good faith, if you imagine in good faith, if you compose with enough artistry and conviction, you might bring us back something that enlarges our view of the world and the people in it, even as it expands your own.

To make that happen, I tell the students, requires a community of trust — but we don’t automatically have that now, when we have just convened our group for the first time. Now is when we have to start building it — right now, without delay.

So far I’ve been able to get that approach to work in my classroom ... but maybe it’s not such an accomplishment to create the necessary community spirit in a group of 15 young people who already share a number of good intentions. Outside the academy, the stakes are much higher. If there was ever such a community of trust in the American national discourse, it is a shame that we have lost it, and we need to get it back. We need to abandon the fortified positions into which identity politics has forced us, and find a way to make ourselves not only heard, but understood, across the chasms that divide us.

Madison Smartt Bell is a professor of English at Goucher College and codirector of the Kratz Center for Creative Writing there. His novel All Souls’ Rising (Pantheon, 1995), the first in a trilogy about the Haitian Revolution, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.