I am begining to write a new play about a Malaysian woman living in London (who navigates her identity through food), which has made me think about narrative...
These are thoughts that have been roaming around my head about narrative. Not particularly articulate, but I wanted to get them down, as a way to process them. There is a connection, but at the moment they may seem disconnected. These are probably more questions than answers.
As part of this thought process around narrative this discussion, between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry, has be prevalent. They discuss, amongst other things, the film Beasts of the Southern Wild and disagreed on it. That was really interesting. And so I thought a lot about how narratives speak to people in different ways - it is important to address, and acknowledge that.
12 years of Slavery
I watched 12 Year a Slave recently, on a plane back from Malaysia.
Stillness and movement. Beauty and pain.
The emphasis on the body, not the just the visceral, but the body in space, the body occupying, moving through and taking up space. I was aware of the colours of skin, no matter the shade, being integral to the colour palette of each shot. It was so clearly a film borne from the artist Steve McQueen. His ability to express the body, I feel, is a feature throughout his work.
This brings me to think about the narratives of people of colour within ‘mainstream’ ‘Oscar nominated/winning’ media. These are the narratives that enter the lexicon of popular culture. I can imagine that it must be painful to see in contemporary stories and narratives, representations of yourself connected to an identity of slavery.
History is important as a way to understand who we are today – but I think we need to think about ‘who’ as a concept of society and not as a ‘who’ the subject, which I think is difficult when looking at films such as Django and 12 years. This is because non-black - particularly white - audiences are able to distance themselves from slavery because there are multiple identities/ representations of themselves in contemporary media. If thinking historically, they can even be part of, re-envisage themselves, as the ‘ally’ identity, and be part the anti-slavery movement. Where as historical black figures are seen predominantly through the lens of the slave identity. Plus it must be painful to constantly see representations of your body harmed, abused, harassed and demeaned.
But I also see how these are important stories to tell. It may be that these stories are part of someone’s history that they feel needs to be told and therefore is a voice that needs/wants to be heard, and we should listen. Which is why 12 year a Slave is/became a better film. I thought 12 Years a Slave was an amazing film. Shot so beautifully, and told so well. The performances were phenomenal too.
I guess I am saying, there just needs to be more diverse narratives.
I like catharsis. I like to read a book and cry. I like to watch a film and feel complete by the end of it. But, catharsis is not productive. It does not add to a dialogue.
And when I think of cathartic narratives, for some reason I think of guilt. I'm not sure why, still thinking that through. I think it's beacuse narratives with guilt often have a beginning, middle and end, which make a story feel cathartic - a narrative with guilt ends with someone being absolved, redeemed.
I have no interest in guilt, assigning responsibility. I have no interest of postcolonial guilt. Of white guilt. Of privilege guilt. Of guilt from this western world of want.
Cathartic stories that deal with race (history) can be part of, can add to, this assigning of responsibility.
This creates a discourse that can reiterate concepts of power, seen through a Western gaze – it re-states the We vs You. The othering. It ultimately says:
We were bad to you (I feel guilt) We need to be good to you (forgive me so I can expunge my guilt).
It re-casts the 3rd world person’s victimhood.
But she, the 3rd person, is not a victim.
She can be good to herself, she doesn’t need you to be good to her.
You being good to her is all about you and your guilt.
The Bechdel test
The film Interstellar has narratives of women were their gender is not essential to their role. In fact you could change them to men and the story wouldn’t be effected. This means the characters were rounded, complex - they become people who have identities beyond meeting a romantic and gendered need. This was fantastic. It was refreshing and made the film as a whole, believable.
But, it still failed the Bechdel test. Why? Because essentially these two women (and there were really only two women in the whole film) were occupying two different time zones, and therefore had no conversation between the two of them. (I’m not counting when Jessica Chastain’s character was a child, mainly because they didn't speak much, and there is possibility to look at that brief encounter as gendered/mothering)
Why does having those conversations between female characters matter? Especially if the film represented a narrative showing complex female identities. What this film’s narrative is portraying about women, is not that women cant be complex individuals, but that, that is an anomaly. It portrays the idea that a woman can only exist in that realm of ‘person’, singularly; one at a time.
Lastly - I dislike the phrase “walk a mile in [my] shoes”
Don’t walk in my shoes. They are mine. They are moulded to my feet. And I like them. If you like them too, go buy your own.
To walk in my shoes is to presume you can. It is to presume that you know me, or that you can know me. It is saying that my identity, my subjectivity is easy, knowable, uncomplicated.
It is saying that you can be me. You can’t. Only I am me.
You can know some of me. We can have the same language, for some things. We can have the same aspects of personality and use space in similar ways.
But you cant be me.
To be me means that you want to colonise me. It means that you want to take me over.
Then what is left of me? Then where am I? What shoes am I in? If you take my shoes, what am I wearing?
I am nowhere.
But by all means walk, in your own shoes, beside me. Shoulder to shoulder. Walk the path I walk, see the things I see.
Lovingly walk beside me and lets share what we see.
And anyway, I have really small feet – the likelihood of you fitting my shoes is minimal.