Feeling my way through

This is the sixth draft of this post. I was having a very uncomfortable feeling and I knew I needed to write about it, but I couldn’t get at the heart of what I wanted to say. I finally realized the problem was that I don’t know what I want to say. But that’s important too. I know this uncomfortable feeling has something to tell me, and I know that eventually it will. I know this because in the past few weeks I have been rereading some of my LiveJournal archives, and in retrospect I can see very clearly that my most important insights are months or years in the making. So I’m not going to try to draw conclusions here; I just want to record this process of feeling and thinking and seeking.

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Over the weekend, in between packing and giving away our belongings, I read (and listened to) an inspiring interview between my IWL friend Sarah and poet Matt Blesse. Finding out more about Matt brought me to the blog of Lisa Marie Rollins, whose final reading at VONA 2010 moved me very much (I never caught her name, so I am really glad I’ve found her now). I spent hours reading the entire archive of Lisa Marie’s blog, and I talked about it to Erik afterward, I was so rocked by what she wrote.

As I read, I could feel Lisa Marie’s and Matt’s words and thoughts resonating through me like dreams that tell the truth. I was filled with gratitude for their teachings and their work. But soon I realized there were also uncomfortable emotions moving through me: shame, sadness, fear, resistance. I’ve had these feelings before, when I’ve encountered other powerful work, and this discomfort is the heart of what I’m writing here. What is it all about?

Some of the feelings are easy enough to analyze and understand. I’m comparing myself with others, and not liking what I see; their words make me feel bourgie, reactionary, sheltered, and privileged.* Not that I shouldn’t try to be otherwise, but the reaction is fear, childlike and instinctive: I’m afraid I am not good enough and people won’t like me. I try to let go of the fear because I know — I’ve been training myself — I can grow without needing to apologize for who I am or where I come from. On a related note, thoughtful, intelligent critiques bring me face-to-face with the narrowness of my own assumptions and my too-often complacency. I’m forced to think new thoughts. This is a really good thing, even if it hurts. I can accept these uncomfortable feelings without needing to question them.

But there’s another kind of discomfort at work here, and this is the one I have most trouble with. These writers are sometimes angry. They’re forceful. They express strong thoughts in strong language, and that makes me uncomfortable. Why? They are right to be angry. There is much to be angry about. But… I don’t like it.

A few days ago, I think Friday night, I was reading a magazine and found a quote from Diablo Cody. She’d said,

I’ve learned that you absolutely cannot create anything without offending somebody. Like ever since everyone on Jezebel discovered the term “privilege” in a textbook, suddenly anybody who’s not like a destitute amputee isn’t allowed to write a book because they’re privileged. And it’s like, look, ladies, you’re privileged, too. I’m just saying, I give up. I’ve stopped caring.

Taken in context (from this interview), the quote makes sense, but when I read it by itself I had a strong reaction to it — two strong reactions, in fact. As an artist — in the sense that art can be this thing unto itself that stands alone and apart from the world — I say “Yes! Go for it! You tell ’em!” As artists, our job is to preserve our self-integrity, to do what we need to do in complete disregard of what others may think. An artist shouldn’t care, an artist shouldn’t give an inch to anyone. But as a person — particularly as a person in community, particularly as a marginal person — I want to shake her and yell, “But it is precisely because of your privilege that you can say that!” We’re all here at the expense of someone else; we all bump up against each other in ways that are hurtful, offensive, damaging. But does that mean we accept it? Does campaigning to right some wrongs give us permission to forget that by our existence we create suffering for others?

Obviously at this point I’m no longer saying anything about Lisa Marie or Matt (or any of the other artist friends whose work — or Facebook updates — sometimes gives me that unpleasant feeling), but am now writing from who I am and the way I respond to other people. Lisa Marie writes, in one of her most popular posts, that her love for her family does not stop her from critiquing them. Well, it does me. Is it because I’m Chinese? I have a very, very hard time reconciling love with critique. Not that I don’t say plenty about the people I love, but I bite my tongue too. People don’t even know the half of it (which is, alas, integral to my ongoing identity crisis with my parents).

Whenever I read a scathing, self-righteous response to an ignorant remark, even if I want to throw my first in the air and shout, “right on,” I always want to cringe too. I think of my own flubs, my own moments of ignorance (and there have been some really appalling ones), and I plead compassion. Lisa Marie says intent doesn’t matter. I agree with her, and yet… I don’t. It seems to me that even if intent doesn’t fix bad choices, it should count for something — not excuses, not permission, but something. As someone who’s been on the flip side, I’m sure it matters somehow.

I think, to be honest, this is something I started thinking about at VONA and then even more with IWL. I have a lot of friends who are politically and socially apathetic. VONA and IWL have brought into my life a wonderful, energetic community of artists of color who are also politically and socially aware, radical, and activist. I read or hear their words and I’m filled with pride and love and support — but sometimes I’m also ashamed, timid, nervous, and uncomfortable (for the reasons I named above). Sometimes I’m thinking of myself, and sometimes I’m thinking of those other friends I love equally dearly — the ones who shop at big-box stores and never read the news, the ones who don’t vote and only carry reusable bags because they’re chic right now — or of my relatives who still think “sex” is a bad word. I understand that too, because that was me, and maybe, depending on the situation and who you ask, is still me.

It could be that what this comes down to is what kind of person I want to be, and — since to me it’s the same thing — what kind of artist. When I compare my work to that of a Staceyann Chin or a Suheir Hammad, I just feel so insignificant. But maybe it’s quite simple: maybe some people are just more comfortable being warriors, doing what must be done, at risk to themselves and sometimes at the expense of others. Maybe what I’m learning is that I am not one of those, and if so, I should make my peace with that. What I do is needed too; the world is not always soft and nice, but I am, and I believe that takes courage of a different sort. We can’t all do things the same way. Could be that my discomfort is just telling me, This is not your way.

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Okay, I thought this was going to be one of those posts in which I came to no conclusions because this was something that would be figured out later. Turns out it’s a different kind of post: the other side of the room. Half a year ago I decided I was authentic enough; this is another riff on that.

*Footnote: If I’m not going to apologize for myself, I might have to accept my bourgie-ness. Is it too stupid to claim it as part of my heritage? Because if I’m fully honest, it is; at least, it’s a part of the heritage I know from my parents and grandparents. I come from bourgie people. We all know it. Maybe that’s okay, as long as I never cease to be mindful about it.

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