In the past month I have been learning a lot about the world, both historically and present-day — but not from reports of current events. I do not like admitting this, but I don’t follow the news very closely. Oh, I might as well come out and say it. I hardly follow the news at all. If anyone is going to judge me for it, let them do it. I am done with letting fear of judgment rule me. I don’t follow the news because I feel like unless I already know what’s going on, there is no “follow”: I can’t keep track of places and people and events, and it makes my head spin to try to do it from narrow little columns in the newspaper. I don’t have time or interest to read news I don’t understand, and so I don’t.
But I am interested in what’s going on around the world. Actually, I think that’s why I don’t read the news: if I’m going to know what’s happening in, say, Libya, I want to really know, I don’t just want what little the news report can tell me. If I were to seriously follow world events, I think what I’d have to do is start with a good summary of the history, then keep abreast of developments on a daily or weekly basis, using detailed news reports (preferably from multiple sources), on-the-ground sources like blogs, and as many media as possible (video, radio, etc). But at the moment I don’t have that kind of time. For the past six weeks or so, though, I’ve managed to absorb some information about some situations, through old-school media like books and theater. Doing so has sharpened my understanding of my own privilege, and reinforced my commitment to using my art and my life to serve the world in whatever way I can.
The first chapter in my recent global education occurred in Berkeley on Erik’s birthday, when, after an incredible dinner of a vegan pizza and a beef burger, we went to the Berkeley Rep to see a play called Ruined. The play is about women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which we knew nothing about, but this performance of Ruined was preceded by a talk from Anneke Van Woudenberg, the Human Rights Watch‘s senior researcher on Congo. I had thought her talk would place the play in a bit more context, but I hadn’t expected Van Woudenberg to become my new hero. She was the most brilliant speaker I’ve ever heard. She sat composed and nicely dressed on the stage in an intimate auditorium, and told us about a man who’d watched his entire village killed with sticks, or her own meeting (alone and unprotected) with a warlord who had tortured people to death. My eyes were not dry. When someone asked her about going into dangerous regions without a guard, she responded, “I can come home. I can leave. Others in the region can’t.” And she got into this line of work because she was an investment banker who was sick of her job, and took a drunken dare to apply to work in Congo!
After her talk, we went in and watched the play, and I came out of it remembering again what a huge gift it is that we live in a place where we can reasonably expect that we will live to grow old — and our children will live to grow old, and we will be able to watch them do it. It was a strange thing to remember, there in the comfortable Berkeley night in our going-out clothes after our good dinner. I think everyone there felt the knowledge prickling all over our skins: elsewhere in the world, people are dying for stupid reasons or for no reason at all, and here we are warm and safe and happy. Our friend Caroline had joined us at the Rep, and she remarked, “The sad truth is, at this stage in our lives, on the paths we’re on, the best thing we can do to help is to give money.” But that isn’t all. We can bear witness.
About a week after we went to Ruined, I started reading a book called Red-Color News Soldier, a collection of previously unpublished photos taken by photographer Li Zhensheng during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (interspersed with Li’s own account of the era). Li worked as a newspaper photographer, so he published his most “palatable” photos during the time, but the other negatives he hid away underneath his floorboards. When they started to compile the News Soldier book, he brought the negatives out again — some thirty thousand of them. The book is filled with images of meetings, “struggle sessions” where people were publicly humiliated and often physically abused. One of the chapters has several photos of a group execution. The images brought tightness to my stomach and chest, but on some level I was so glad to see them — so grateful to Li for risking his safety to save his documentation of the period. Cameras were not common in China at this time, and of course no one was supposed to have any kind of negative depictions of the “revolution.” But thanks to Li’s efforts, we have this record.
We tend to feel that the world is so complicated and the powers-that-be so corrupt, there is little that any of us can do to ease suffering. But political action doesn’t have to be huge to be important. To go to an event like the HRW/Berkeley Rep talk and play, to read a book like Red-Color News Soldier — these are also political acts, and the first step toward larger action. To bear witness means to recognize that there are bad things going on and move toward them deliberately, rather than turning a blind eye. To look directly at suffering and say, “I see you. I hear you.” The worst thing is for bad things to happen and for no one to see — or for the witnesses to pretend it never happened. Bearing witness alone is a valuable contribution, especially for those of us who are privileged to live comfortably and securely, with resources at our disposal. It is so easy for us to turn our backs and pretend that everyone else shares what we have. And there are vast networks of money and power invested in making sure we do turn our backs, because then we won’t notice the damage they are instigating.
If, after witnessing the suffering of others, we feel we must do more, there is speaking: using one’s own voice on behalf of those who have been silenced or are otherwise unable to raise their voices. This can be as simple as talking to friends, or as powerful as making speeches or making art. And after that, if we feel our voices are not enough, we can call the whole body to arms and take action. This is where it gets tricky, because what is action? Action can be as small as giving an apple to a homeless person, or it can be as big as running for President or fighting with one’s body or doing Anneke Van Woudenberg’s job. The question of how we get from zero to action is one that interests me deeply, because it’s an artistic question (how do I, as an artist, use my work to propel people to action?) as well as a personal one (what prevents me, as a person, from taking more action to change the world). I’ve written about it before and think about it all the time. What stands between us and action?
What can I do?
As a human being, I see suffering and feel compelled to take action, but I’m not always sure what action to take. Caroline said after Ruined that it’s probably best for us to give money. In conversation with Erik, he said: “We need to assess our skills to figure out what’s the best way we can help. Honestly, nobody wants my physical labor, or envelope-licking, and I would suck at Anneke’s job. What I can do best is make money and then give it.” If he’s right — and I think he is — it seems likely that the best thing I can do is bear witness and use my voice. But then I feel great responsibility to make my voice propel people into action, and I’m not sure how to do that… but I suspect it’s important for people to understand that we can make a difference, instead of just feeling like we’re powerless.
It’s a central question for me, because sometimes I feel like — aside from giving money — my privilege actually prevents me from being able to do more. Now I know that isn’t true, but sometimes I have really wondered. In our first IWL meeting last Saturday, a class member posed the question: Is trauma necessary for building character? She said that as an individual, she can trace the lines of her own character through the paths of her past trauma — but as a parent, she shudders back from the thought of her children going through the same thing. I hear her in this. My parents sheltered me my entire life, deliberately and forcefully, but constantly tell me I’m “spoiled” because I’ve “never known suffering.” It troubles them to see my innocent existence, even though it is their doing.
I won’t agree that those of us without trauma have nothing to contribute. But I do often feel less as a result of my uneventful, privileged life, especially among artists. I have been afraid that my lack of suffering prevents me from truly being able to call myself an artist. Some people would surely say so. And yet: does it really matter? When I worked in adult literacy in LA, I was faced on a daily basis with my privilege and how much it distanced me from the lived experience of many members of the community. But it didn’t stop me from reaching out, and I helped make a difference in many people’s lives. Perhaps someone else could have done a better job — and I never stopped comparing myself to this imaginary individual– but ultimately, I was the one who was there, I did my best, and I helped. I suspect it’s the same thing with art. I can’t write with firsthand knowledge about immigration, rape, war, abuse, or even extreme alienation, but that doesn’t mean I have nothing to say, or that what I have to say isn’t important. It’s always tempting to compare myself with others, but I want to stop that.
I don’t think I could have come to this self-affirmation without my previous work in learning to love my body and writing my life-art handbook. I have felt such strength lately in being who I am — good and bad — and trying to live fully from that place of self-connection. I’ve spent so much of my life judging myself from outside, hearing the voices of so many imagined critics. I’ve felt the need to apologize for things I didn’t choose, like my privilege (my education, my financial security) and the myriad ways I differ from others. I’m now aware of that need, and have decided to let it go. Let go of the worry that people won’t take me seriously because I’ve had a comfortable life. Let go of the fear that I can’t be an artist because I haven’t experienced trauma. Let go of the anxiety that I can’t make a difference because I’m young and — so many things. I am who I am, and regardless of the circumstances, that is the exact same starting point that everyone else gets! We are all who we are.
This afternoon I began reading I Live Here, a collaborative graphic novel that interweaves fiction and nonfiction stories from four troubled regions of the world. I was working my way through the chapter on Chechnya, getting that same deep-gut feeling of sickness as when I saw the execution photos in Red-Color News Soldier, and examining Joe Sacco’s comic as a fine example of the medium. Previously I would have been comparing myself to Sacco, or to the others who created this book, and saying to myself: “God, I haven’t been through anything like this! I’m not out there in the field risking my life, looking at dead bodies, dodging fire. How can I call myself an artist?” But this time, without saying so explicitly, I was asking myself: “As someone who has been privileged enough to escape such experiences, how can I use the experience I do have, to help those in need?” I don’t fully know the answer yet, but I am glad that this is the question I’m now asking.
Thank you for reading such a long entry! Come back for the Open Mic tomorrow when Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe returns for her second guest post. I’ll see you then.