Friday, November 12, 2010

On risky ambiguity in autobiographical writing

A month ago, I published a short personal essay in the St. Petersburg Times about race and hazing ( ). In it, I explored some very loaded questions, most notably: is there a link between hazing and race? I made some bold comparisons between my own experience of homophobic violent hazing under apartheid, in a whites-only school, and the experiences of Courtney Howard, who joined an all-black sorority at San Jose State and got badly roughed up. Implicitly, I posed what I thought was possibly the most outrageous question I could pose, as a white South African living in the United States—are there any similarities between my own racial minority’s experience and that of the most famous racial minority in my adopted country, African-Americans?

After the essay appeared in print and online, I held my breath. Typically, my op-eds get a flurry of livid responses. When I published an essay in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette arguing that recent anti-illegal immigrant legislation in Arizona had echoes of apartheid in it ( my email address was all afire with readers’ fury. I was dumb; anti-American; just didn’t understand about the rule of law. So this time, I was sure I was going to provoke a firestorm. Come on—white South Africans, probably one of the most privileged and oppressive racial minorities on the planet? Think the settler family on the farm, enjoying leisurely days supervising the cook, gardener, and maid who have had everything stolen from them. Against this, African-Americans, survivors and descendants of slaves. The man in Morrison’s Beloved whose mouth gets ruined by the metal bit. The flogging and back-breaking work and dehumanization that extends into the present day, where African-American men in particular are pulled into a mind-bogglingly enormous prison system—something like ten times the per capita size of the next most imprisoning industrial nation—that, to me at least, seems very reminiscent of slavery, down to chain gangs and the tradition of depriving felons of their voting rights.

Talk about chutzpah on my part, for even referring to these two minority experiences in the same sentence! At least that’s what I thought when I published the essay—even though I had my reasons for doing what I did, which I’ll get to in a minute.

But here’s what fascinated me: nobody confronted me. At least not in print. One reader commented that s/he couldn’t understand why I was so hung up on race—even though I explain in the article that I got the shit beaten out me so I wouldn’t be too sissy-ish to defend white power. Another rolled out the by now exhaustingly familiar “ranking of oppressions,” saying that apartheid homophobia couldn’t possibly compare in its intensity to apartheid racism. (For the most part, I agree with this argument, although I’m not sure how useful it is go down this road. There were white South African defense force conscripts tortured and drugged to suicide by apartheid homophobia. Are our brains too small to take in the gravity of this fact without having to ignore apartheid’s other enormous crimes?)

It was left to one of my colleagues here at the Susquehanna University Writers Institute to say the obvious. “Your essay was very risky indeed,” she commented. “I can imagine a black person reading it and being highly offended.”

She was, of course, right--although I was glad no African-American readers apparently got angry at me for writing it, suggesting the piece perhaps did manage to work well, overall.

So why did I do it?

Part of the reason, I’ll admit, has to do with literary form. The personal essay/op-ed for newspapers is an unforgiving genre, reminiscent in some ways of the TV soundbite. The writer must say one thing clearly, strongly, emphatically. The idea is to provoke controversy rather than explore all the nuance. In my essay, I had to educate readers about the Courtney Howard lawsuit; explain the Ricky Lee thesis about race and hazing, namely that hazing traditions, while harmful and destructive across the board, are influenced by cultural traditions; share my own hazing experiences; and—the final point--talk about why I emotionally identified with Howard. In a 5,000 word academic essay, would I have offered a disclaimer about what I think the limits are of this emotional identification? You bet! Would I have carefully listed what seemed similar to me between my experience and Courtney Howard’s as well as different? Yes! Similar: the style of beating; the racially segregated context; and the reason given for the violence, namely to strengthen the race against a hostile numerical-majority culture. Dissimilar: the fundamental power dynamic, in one case, the hazing being meant to preserve racial privilege, in the other case undermine it.

I would also probably have gone very deeply into the pros and cons of this instinctive emotional identification of mine, the way on the one hand it shows in me a sensitivity to my shared humanity with Courtney Howard; on the other hand perhaps a tendency to forget about white privilege.

But fact is, formal limits are not the only reason I need to or like doing this kind of “risky” writing. I was kind of happy to publish this piece of autobiographical testimony as it was, without the cautious clarifications. Here's the reason: I’m a literary artist, not a critical race studies analyst. In my personal essays—for newspapers or elsewhere—I’m not always trying to get it all right, nail the argument with perfect intellectual clarity. Sometimes I’m wanting to just show a suggestive fragment of myself and let the reader reach her own conclusions. Hemingway thought a short story should be like an iceberg, with most of the movement sensed beneath the surface. Sometimes that’s what I’m trying to do, too, with my autobiographical writing: showing what feels to me like a poignant and true part of myself, and trusting the reader to feel what I mean, without it being explained. This was my hope for a personal essay like “On being a minority, hazed.”

I have no idea what to make of the absence of commentary on my piece. Maybe they understood everything that I meant--sensed my good faith and didn't get offended. Maybe people just thought, "Oh, this guy is too screwed up about his painful experiences, I can't talk to him about this." I like to believe it wasn't callous indifference to the problem of violent hazing in our society and the trauma it causes.