At Naropa I took a class where we read Toni Morrison's book Playing in the Dark about the process of "othering" in literature. One of the big questions was this: can you write from the point of view of someone whose identity is different than yours?
Let's be clear here: if the answer is no, then you have to stop writing fiction, at least where anyone but you is the narrator or a character. Everyone you could conceive of who is not you is different than you. So the stakes were big and the outcome was pretty much predetermined. It had to be yes, or else we just wasted a bunch of money and time on a useless degree.
But it turned out the question is not "Can you, as a heterosexual, portray an authentic homosexual?" or "Can you portray an authentic African-American woman as a white man?" Instead, it was, "Can you portray an authentic human being?" Not because those parts of identity aren't complicated and important. But because if you portray a human being first, then everything else is fine. An African-American woman who portrays an unusual African-American woman is not insulting anyone by doing so; in the same way, if I as a white male portray an unusual African-American woman that's not inherently insulting, either. Sure, the African-American woman character I created isn't based on direct observation over many years of African-American women, but there are plenty of African-American women who don't act like a lot of other African-American women. What would be more insulting would be to try to cleave to some concept of what an African-American woman should be, and force the character to fit that mode.
An African-American woman is much, much better equipped with experience and context to explore the question of what it means to be an African-American woman, but just as her experience of being an African-American woman can't be entirely universalized, so my exploration of humanity doesn't have to be limited to people whose identities I own or am intimately familiar with. But any exploration of humanity has to be from the standpoint of exploring real humans, not romanticized, objectified, or demonized others. It's that othering that is the real problem--if you're taking an identity you don't normally occupy and trying to use it in fiction, you can do it so long as you're trying to occupy that space in a respectful, specific way.
In other words, no, I can't write a book with an African-American woman as a character. Neither can Toni Morrison. But she can write a book about specific people who are African-American women, and so can I. The quality is entirely up to what we do--neither of our projects are predetermined to be successes or failures.
Now, if you're writing in a space where you understand that identity intimately, then I think you're more likely to be vulnerable in your work. And vulnerability is at the heart of literary quality, so certainly there's something to be said for it.
Identity is tricky, though. Identity is a language structure, and language is more about what it's not saying than what it is saying. If I say I saw a blue box, you don't really know exactly what shade of blue it is. There's a lot of range there. But you know it's not any shade of red. You don't know how big the box is, or whether it's round or a cube. But you know it's not a solid--it must have a space inside. How big is that space? How solid is it? What's inside of it? You don't know any specifics. When it comes down to it, if you were offered a bunch of objects to match the description, you could firmly and confidently rule out many things that were not blue and not boxes, but deciding for sure which blue box I saw would be hard.
So as soon as I say I'm a heterosexual, I'm not identifying as a heterosexual so much as I'm identifying as not-homosexual. I can't tell you who I am, but I can tell you who I'm not.
The other Naropa connection to the article is my experience of "faking it." That when I pretended to be a writer, I gradually came to find I that believed my own lie. This research shows that this is a normal process--the act of imagination can have real impact on who and what you are. And all of culture is a big, collaborative, imaginative project.
What we imagine can be what we become. The space of identity we occupy can be ambiguous and that's OK... more than OK, it's normal. When we imagine our identities we're imagining a negative image--our identities are not portraits but silhouettes. This dark area, full of hazy mystery and confusion: that's us. The white space around it blinding us with its bright solidity: that's not us.
We don't just live with uncertainty. We live as uncertainty.
Now I'm venturing even further into speculation, but no apologies as I feel confident the research will eventually back me up: imagined identities affect our real-world behavior not like putting on a costume, but rather trimming off pieces of ourselves. It's a limitation of who we are. When I pretend to be a writer, I cut away the pieces of me that might act like an engineer, or a stay-at-home-dad, or a farmer.
The imagined identity is like a cookie cutter that is applied to me, and little bits of hidden darkness flake away from its edges to become white certainty. I'm a little less unknown... and so I'm a little less. I'm a boy which means I don't play with dolls, and I do play sports.
As life continues that uncertainty grows back like a rogue cowlick. We either have to prune it back to maintain the shape we want, or we can pick a new shape to apply, or we can just let ourselves become even larger, more ambiguous and unknown.
Identities are not problems. They're useful... if the white were gone from the silhouette we'd be left with nothing but a canvas for an airbrushed Elvis. But identities can become limiting, especially when someone else is deciding which cookie cutter to use and how often to apply it. And that's why words and language are so powerful and dangerous: identity is constructed from words, and the words that others use enter our imagination just as readily as our own. They can be offered to others as tools or they can be used as weapons.
The last concept I wanted to consider was the idea of imagining identities through games. A lot of video games or "let's pretend" games involve pretending to be someone else. So then a video game that encourages me to be a soldier is pushing my personality to become more warlike.
I've long felt that there's a difference between holding a video game controller and a gun. There's no way a video game prepares physically for the reality of war, nor psychologically for the reality of facing people with real emotions who want to hurt you.
But there must be some change to me. When I play Mafia II am I becoming more like a thug? It seems likely that in some small way, I am.
Last night I played D&D with my kids for the first time, using a module I am writing. Z-man is 6 and Ada is 3. They enjoyed it immensely... of course I simplified it quite a bit.
Their first real combat encounter was with a ghost. It rose up from a pile of rocks and moaned at them. Z-man was truly terrified by my portrayal of the moan and asked me not to do it again. From this you can surmise that their disbelief had been appropriately suspended. The ghost brushed its hand malevolently through Ada which gave her character a chill.
I asked him if he wanted to attack the ghost. He got confused. "What? That would be mean! No, I'm going to talk to it," he said. He asked the ghost what was going on, found out what it wanted, and left the area quickly to go off and do it. Even after it attacked them he refused to hit it.
The thing is, this was exactly the right thing to do in the situation. The ghost was quite powerful, and they couldn't hit it with anything. I was expecting a standard group of D&D players to attempt the combat and when it didn't work to think of this plan B. And they probably would do something like that, if they were a standard group.
But here's the interesting bit: in a vivid (but entirely imaginary) world, I put a mace and sword in my kids' hands and had something jump out at them, frightening them and hitting them. Rather than hitting at it, he talks to it, and when that doesn't stop the confrontation he leaves and tries to figure out some way to make it better.
Which is exactly the kid we're trying to teach him to be.
Here's my takeaway from that. I offered the kids a template of an identity to imagine themselves in. The identity included magic, weapons, and adventure. I spent quite a while explaining it to them and reinforcing it.
But when you're really good at imagining an identity, you don't just take it off the shelf and put it on. You tailor it to you. Folks who balance things well are able to do this all the time. Folks who get overwhelmed... the identity doesn't fit and they don't know how to change it.
So my final thought about imagining identities is that it's not just that the identity changes you. Through the act of accepting and adopting that identity, you change the identity too.
If people were more in control of that, I think the world would be a happier place.