"Let me tell you some more about myself ..."
-- Pete Townshend,
"The Sea Refuses No River"
"I was born a poor Black child ..."
-- Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin)
in "The Jerk" (1979)
The last time I heard the n-word in conversation was a couple of years ago when talking to an academic about a dead poet I admire and he had known. He got a little annoyed when I suggested the poet in question was pretty good; he said no one would care about him had he not died young.
"He was just a lazy white boy who tried to speak [n-word]," the academic told me.
I was only mildly shocked, because I understood the spirit in which the man had used the word: his disdain was not directed at Black people but mostly at the poet, who in his judgment was indulging in what some might call cultural misappropriation, and a little bit at me for falling for the ventriloquism act.
It was rhetorically effective, and he trusted me not to misunderstand his intentions. He is not a racist; he sensed a kind of paternalistic racism and exploitation in the poet's work. He did what teachers are supposed to do, and though his opinions might have been colored by jealousy or simple dislike of the poet, I accorded his thoughts some gravity. I think a little differently about the poet now.
Still, I would have expressed the idea differently and wish that the academic had not used the word. Yet there is a part of me that strongly believes in zero-tolerance policies and bright line rules. There is an even larger part that abhors euphemism and believes we empower ugly words through our fear of them. People shouldn't go around writing and saying "the n-word"; it seems tittering and silly and in some ways worse than the obliterating obscenity for which it substitutes.
I steer clear of the word and its socially accepted stand-in. I do not feel deprived.
And one of the (probably) unintended consequences of the academic's use of the word is that it distracted me from his argument. It was only later that I began to wonder: What was wrong with the poet attempting to write in the way the academic had accused him of writing? What is wrong with imagining the interior lives of others?
The short answer is nothing. I would not proscribe an artist from trying to write in the voice of a character who looks and lives very differently from the way the artist looks and lives; I would encourage it.
"Write what you know" is dangerous advice to give an introvert prone to journaling--it's better to write to find out things. Some of us use writing to discover what and how we think; if you set out to write a novel from the perspective of a 3-year-old Chinese child in the Shanxi Province you should probably do some research.
I'll withhold judgment on the merits of your work until you submit it to the marketplace. Maybe your novel gives people cause to look at the world in a different way, maybe your protagonist will enlist our empathy. Maybe your work will in some way add to our understanding of the common ways of the human heart.
Sure, it's dangerous--most novels don't amount to much, and most artists aren't as artful as they think. Ambition excuses nothing. You are responsible for your own clumsiness, your failure to convince your audience you are what you are pretending to be. I am not judging your decision to attempt to take up the psychological baggage of people very much unlike yourself; I am judging your execution.
It goes without saying that atrocities are often committed in the name of art. Decent, well-
intentioned people can be very bad artists, and there are enough monsters making great art that we might be tempted to believe that jerkiness is prerequisite to genius.
And there are the valor-thieving Duke Tullys of the world and people who obnoxiously pretend to experience what they haven't earned. People who like to play dress-up with the robes of the indigenous. Being a jerk does not make you an artist, but it doesn't disqualify you either.
I am not a novelist, but I have often, in songs and poems and stories and sometimes in these columns, attempted to put myself in the place of others. How successful these attempts at empathy are is not my place to judge, but I'd like to reserve the right to try to speak another's language or tell somebody else's story.
I understand the problems that some may have with novels like Jeanine Cummins' "American Dirt," which some assume are written by people very much like the characters whose stories they tell. While the right to remain silent certainly exists and should probably be exercised more often than it is (I perceive a problem when the artist is more interesting than the work), authors oughtn't hold themselves out as something they are not.
On the other hand, show business requires creators to sell their personal stories as well, so there is pressure on authors to at least allow readers to believe they are more fascinating and exotic than they in fact are. It is better (for sales and marketing) that authors be young and beautiful and exotic than dull old white guys (who still have a lot going for them in terms of socio-cultural capital). But the pen doesn't know who's pulling it, the screen doesn't know whose fingers are bouncing on the keys.
When John Prine wrote, "I am an old woman named after my mother," not even the contradicting image of the man standing behind the guitar could dissuade belief. Shakespeare imagined Othello, Charles Dickens made the orphan Sloppy "a beautiful reader of a newspaper" who could "do the police in different voices."
In "The Waste Land," T.S. Eliot followed Sloppy's lead, doing a multitude of voices, all of which were contained in him.
I'm not saying we should feel free to say anything about anything at any time or that we should run drunk and naked through minefields, only that plenty of artists have demonstrated it is not only possible to imagine the lives and minds of others but absolutely essential that we practice this sort of empathy.
The fact that some cultural misappropriation occurs shouldn't foreclose the possibility of genuine connection, of our breaking through to the universe.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.