Friday, November 6, 2009

I don't want to represent

Yesterday I guest lectured for a colleague on a book I'm very familiar with, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the book is hard to categorize--part memoir, part fable, part coming-of-age novel, definitely part fiction. It's hard, at times, to figure out how much Kingston is describing about her life as a Chinese American girl growing up in Stockton, CA in the 1950s and how much is embellishment. The students were very interested, concerned and confused even, in their inability to distinguish the "real" from the "fake" of her storytelling. When I pressed them to explain why it was so important to know the difference, one student said that knowing the difference between the "real" and the "fake" would help her understand what is authentically Chinese American culture since this book is a representative of Chinese American life and only by knowing the difference between the facts of her life and the fiction she creates would the student be able to determine what is authentic about being Chinese American.

Which is a lot to ask of a single book or a single author. It's a lot to ask of anyone--that they be an authentic representation of an entire culture. I pointed this out to the class--that it's a tall order and one we usually only make of "ethnic" American writers or artists. That their works get to stand in for an entire culture or ethnicity. We KNOW what it's like to be black because Langston Hughes' poems tell us about his black experiences. We UNDERSTAND what it means to be Chicano because we watch Stand and Deliver and watch Edward James Olmos portray the real math teacher, Jaime Escalanate. We COMPREHEND the complex history of American Indians when we read the novels of Louise Erdrich.

But the truth is, these works, whether based on one's real life experiences or a fictionalized version of the lives of various "others" in America can't really stand in for the millions of stories of a group/culture/ethnicity. And it's a LOT of pressure to ask people/authors/filmmakers/artists to "represent" their culture.

Of course, we do this all the time. In fact, some of the biggest pressure comes from within an ethnic community--we hold ethnic artists responsible for portraying their ethnic community with respect and accuracy. Of course, it should go without saying that "ethnic" is meant to suggest the "non-white"--the minority in America. In other words, white American playwright David Mamet isn't asked to "represent" white American respectfully but black American playwright Suzanne Lori-Parks may get push back on the black bodies which populate her plays.

I am especially struck by the idea that a single individual can represent an entire group after hearing the tragic news about the Fort Hood Army Major, Nidal Malik Hassan, who went on a shooting rampage, killing thirteen soldiers and civilians and wounding thirty others. It's horrific and tragic. And immediately American Muslim groups (because Hassan was Muslim) have been decrying his actions and pleading with average Americans to understand that his actions are not a reflection of the values of Islam but an isolated and individual act of violence.

And I am sad that there may be those in our country that look at Hassan's violence and believe that he represents all American Muslims. He does not represent the face of American Muslims or Palestinian Americans. Yet there will be people pointing at him and taking him to be the face of Muslim America. Which is another sad and tragic aspect to this already sad and tragic story.


Daddy Squeeze Me! said...

Yes i know what you mean girl. Im black and I know i have witnessed the hatred towards Muslims. its sickening

Mixed and Happy said...

Hi there. I love the blog! I also wanted to tell you about something I am doing over at my blog, Mixed and Happy.

The blog is a reply to Keith Bardwell's decision to deny a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for the future children they might have.

On Dec. 15, 2009, we are sending him a colorful Christmas card to show him that mixed-race people, families and couples are indeed happy people who produce happy, healthy and loved children.

If you or any of your readers would like to be a part, please email pictures to to join us!

And feel free to pass it on:-) Thanks so much!

Mixed and Happy said...

I'm also going to link you on the blog!!

kushibo said...

Aloha! Recalling a discussion we had in the past about Euna Lee and Laura Ling (and Mitch Koss) in August, I came by for a quick visit and found this post.

I see we share some of the same sentiments, though I sort of felt a little browbeaten (by a friend, in fact) to reword what I'd written.