Interlude: speaking as, for, of, with

At a conference a poet–a white woman, living 18 years in the deep South but not from there–opens by sharing her sorrow about the killings this past week in Charleston.  Then she reads a series of poems she’s written in the voices of people she’s invented, composites of folks from her area.1 You find her voice speaking these other voices evocative, the sense of persons and place almost mythical.  Later your studenta Southerner, African American and Latinaobjects to the ethics of speaking for others, making up characters based not on research but on–what?  hearing how Southerners treat their dogs, for example?  Five of us in a lively exchange at dinner, you’re snagged between your own response and a strong respect for your student’s perspective, probing connections between evoking, mythologizing, colonizing.  One of us, an anthropologist with a literary bent, claims, I don’t really see poetry and novel writing as “speaking for others” in the same way that anthropologists engage in the dubious task of “giving voice.”  Poets have license to invent; that’s what they do. Your student is unconvinced: what gives them license?

Rena Fraden says,

I took time to figure out how to write in my own voice about the voices of others. There is a delicate balance between critical distance and passionate advocacy, as there is between writing of and about without wanting to write for or instead of someone else…2

Writing now, you worry about this: how to speak in your own voice and call up the voices of others–the women who are incarcerated, your college students, the COs, your colleague with whom you’ve been in this every step; know the presence of other voices reverberating in your head could paralyze you.  And if you write only as yourself, do you risk taking up too much space? (You remember Teju Cole’s description of the self-absorption of “white saviors.”3)

Edgily moving in and out of the classroom, trying to exhibit patience as you press the CO to announce your program on the loudspeaker, you reenter into the soliloquy of the sole woman in blue in class so far today, offering a message for the college students:  They should “stand on the wall,” observing everything from that position and enacting the Biblical story in which God instructs his people to defend the city: “Enemies will come with battering rams, trying to tear down the wall you’ve built.” The “enemies”–“the critics, the cautious, the committed”–will try to distract them from that work.  The students listen raptly, write furiously.  And when one of you asks where she came by this lesson, wanting to read the text, she tells you she received it as a prophecy.

  1. Ann Fisher-Wirth, “Extractive & Underground Poetics: Readings and Conversation,” plenary session at the biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, Moscow, Idaho, June 24, 2015.
  2. Fraden, Imagining Medea, 23.
  3. Teju Cole, “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” The Atlantic, March 21, 2012, accessed May 20, 2016.