Image: Gem Sanchez
The Myth of the Inaccessible:
Experimental Writing, Writers of Color and Language
Amanda [Ngoho] Reavey
I teach creative writing workshops to the broader community: mostly retired, mostly those with Master’s degrees, always white.
Except. A couple weeks ago: a Sunday.
As usual, I took the bus to Denver to teach a one-day workshop in which we took somatic approaches to generating ideas, and then wrote narratives from those. For the first time ever, my class consisted of white students and students of color. While I noticed it, I did not really think anything of it until the moment students began introducing themselves. I began to wonder if some of them had read the description of the class, which clearly states that this is a hands-on, tactile workshop and that we will “experiment with various nontraditional ways of generating ideas.”
Within the first few minutes one student asked, “Are you really the teacher? You look too young.” (I am small, 4’ 9” and Filipina). I laughed it off, “Yeah, I get that a lot.” Another student raved about how wonderful another teacher with whom she has taken many creative writing classes. This other teacher is actually a friend of mine who has taken my other Beginning Creative Writing class twice and has told me that she wants to take it again. I told the student that this other teacher is great. She is more mainstream and traditional and I respect her a lot. I could tell the student was suspicious of the somatic approach (as I was my first day of a semester-long experimental writing class!); she tapped her pen on the desk. I asked her to trust the process. Yet throughout the class, as I attempted to explain and clarify, as we took walks and considered memory and the form and the frame and sensation and avant-garde art versus classical art and outlined our stories through the medicine wheel, this same student continued to gush about how this other teacher offered more writing space, understood story and plot structure, characterization, and craft. Finally, I explicitly said that I do teach traditional Western storytelling techniques (i.e. Aristotle’s Poetics and Gustav Freytag’s pyramid), work on creating characters: dialogue: conflict and carve out a lot more space for writing, but that is not this class. In this class, the focus is on breaking and redefining rules. It is about thinking outside the box—not intellectualizing it—to incorporate other perspectives on how one might arrive at a story.
She leaned back in her chair, crossed her legs and stopped talking. She began to write one word lists instead of sentences and when I pressed further on what sound or movement or texture might look like on the page (and gave examples), I felt her resistance. The hostility permeated the room and seemed to amplify the other hostilities that were not as vocal. I tried again: what might movement look like on the page: does it have to be linear. A white student said, “I thought this was writing.” A student of color said, “Well, this is about nontraditional ways to generate ideas and I like it,” and went on to explain sensation and her meditation practice. I added that the form or frame of a story is what allows us to experience sensation. So the form and frame of the story might change depending on what sensations we want to illicit from the reader. I gave the example from M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! Still, I could see the question “What the fuck?!” written all over the white students’ faces. “Where are you from?” the vocal white student asked me.
I felt defensive but said “Philippines.” She asked where. I said I didn’t know for sure. That it is a complicated question. (I also wanted to say that it is a boring and an exhausting question). And suddenly, there were very personal questions about my family, how I was raised, why I don’t know things. The (non) answers to these questions I explore in my own creative work, but for the record, my birth mother was 13 years old. I am adopted. My family is white. We are American. I felt like I had to defend my body and my own experience.
And I noticed a curious thing: a stark contrast in beliefs about what writing is or should be, and a clear divide between those who were white (who wanted traditional) and those of color (who had never been exposed to somatic approaches, but loved it). The divide shocked me; why was it so divided? I had never experienced this before.
Why do my white students resist the nonlinear, cyclical, somatic approaches to writing? Why are my writers of color more comfortable with code-switching between somatic approaches and Aristotelian (Western) approaches? What does it mean to approach writing through the body? Is this (inadvertently) a political statement? Are writers of color more used to having to grapple with identity and politics? Are they more used to having to defend their point of view? Addi Strasser, a good friend, a writer and political activist, wrote to me: “White readers and writers are spoiled! Everything is told from our point of view. Everybody listens to it (in North America and Europe). It takes a LOT of work to unwind out of that and learn to listen to another voice. It really does.” (This conversation is not a new conversation. See Bhanu Kapil’s post or Barbara Jane Reyes’ post on Poetry Foundation.)
Perhaps one cannot write experimental prose or somatically about the body (a woman’s body) (a brown body) or the body itself without it becoming a political issue. Perhaps, being an MFA student at Naropa University, I am spoiled by the openness and willingness of writers no matter their race to take non-traditional approaches to their creative works. The willingness to write into the resistance.
Initially shocked and angry, I wrote about race until I realized that perhaps the issue is, at its core, not actually about the colour of skin, but the lack of cultural memory, which is held in language. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon writes,
I began to wonder if it is because writers of colour are continually reminded of their status as “other” and thus forced to frequently think about body, expectations, family histories and experiences, and how it fits into the dominant culture. Also, by writing in a language (English) that holds a history that is not ours, we are continually grappling with how to express those experiences and histories. We are always translating, despite the fact that some concepts do not translate.
In an interview with Kate Eichhorn in Prismatic Publics, Gail Scott says, “As experimental prose writers, we’re used to resistance from poets—those married to genre, I guess.” She continues to say that experimental prose is an investigation of “language, syntax, complex subjectivities” (87). Because we experience through language, the language in which we communicate and experience the world will alter our relationships to and our perceptions of ourselves and others, as well as as their perceptions of us. By investigating or breaking apart language and syntax, we are opening a space in which we might very well be wrong; concepts may not be as clear-cut; and life may be less secure and more ambiguous than is comfortable.
Thus, this kind of writing—a site of resistance—requires the willingness to be vulnerable, and also, perhaps, it is a shameful place. Who wants to sit with and examine shame? “Shame may be fatal,” writes Kapil on the Harriet poetry blog. It takes a lot of work and courage, but does that mean it is inaccessible, as some had decided in my class? In another interview with Eichhorn, Erin Moure says,
The unknown: the void: the abyss. Experimental writing pushes me past my own limits to self-reflection. To realize that identity is fleeting. It is always just beyond where you (think you) are. The Tao says to become like water. But we tend to hold onto what (who) we think we are as if there is some kind of safety or security in it. And we are not always willing to let it go. We must be forced. Are writers of colour, because they are not the dominant culture, more exposed to situations in which they are forced and therefore, more willing to explore the nontraditional, because they’ve always had to do so? Renee Gladman asks, “What does it mean to be a person in the world?”
A jungle crow born in the Philippines, Amanda [Ngoho] Reavey has lived and traveled throughout the US, the UK, and Europe. She is an MFA candidate at Naropa University currently working on her thesis, which explores architecture, language, and the immigrant body. She blogs at Space Inside Borderline.