Friday, May 8, 2015

The Censor's Lament

Hawaii-based novelist and schoolteacher
Lois-Ann Yamanaka
Hawaii-based novelist Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s first book, a verse novel entitled Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, deliberately courted controversy when it debuted in 1993. Yamanaka wrote about girls living outside Hawaii’s tourist spotlight, struggling with abuse, drugs, and sexual violence. Her approach was stark and frank, dealing with, arguably, America’s most marginalized populations. And she did it in the regional dialect working-class people speak in Hawaii.

Yamanaka certainly received controversy, but not what she anticipated. Anybody who has lived in Hawaii, away from the spit-shined tourist environs, knows that Hawaii suffers deep racial stratification. As a Japanese-American, Yamanaka resides in the state’s second-highest economic stratum, after whites. Spokespeople for lesser communities, including Koreans, Filipinos, and especially Polynesians, excoriated Yamanaka for her use of frank racial language and characters poorer than herself.

This criticism did little to deter Yamanaka, who remains both a prolific author and a dedicated schoolteacher. Yet if taken literally, this criticism, that authors should limit themselves to only those depictions of disfranchised populations which the populations would approve, would deeply circumscribe writers’ abilities to confrong racial issues. Considering how segregated Hawaiian culture is, this criticism would declare residents’ most important issues off limits for anybody not poor.

Two recent circumstances brought this controversy back to me. In one, a writer I know refused to read a chapter from her novel in progress because a character drops an N-bomb. She feared local university students would misconstrue her intent, thinking such language expressed her own prejudices. Never mind that the chapter features an obviously unpleasant character saying awful things; she feared the word would redound negatively on her.

In the second, an up-and-coming writer I respect posted this tweet:

What does this mean? For her to write this suggests that she isn’t “done” in the sense of abandoning the fight. And knowing her, I doubt she’ll stop participating in poetry when white authors get involved. Besides this, how much appropriation of indigeneity must happen before it becomes co-optation? Can white authors write about native issues, or must we reserve such issues as unique prerogative of natives—like, coincidentally, herself?

Recent incidents of white-on-black violence, many perpetrated under cover of police authority, have raised Americans’ interest in racial issues. This interest hasn’t translated into clear courses of action; some insist that current circumstances, while imperfect, are acceptable, or anyhow trending acceptably. Others insist that this sudden racial awareness makes today perfect for redressing generations-old wounds still bleeding profusely in public.

Personally, I have great sympathy for oppressed peoples anywhere. Past circumstances have forced me to acknowledge how my choices have contributed to inequality; I’ve invested effort since in attempting to undo some fraction of the damage I once inflicted on society. Simply denying that racism really exists, in the classic Greg Gutfield style, doesn’t cut it. Viewed without the blinders of privilege, racism, sexism, and other discrimination remains painfully prevalent.

Fox News anchor and noted bomb-
thrower Greg Gutfield


When one author demands white poets pussyfoot around indigenous issues, while another self-censors the very category of painful disclosures that makes literary fiction so valuable, I fear we’ve lost something important. We’ve divided who can address society’s issues from who cannot. This kind of counter-elitism has, potentially, the same deleterious consequences we attempt to undo by calling racism out publicly. And this painfully narrows the discourse.

Whether white, well-heeled male authors can touch issues of oppression matters. Because much research has demonstrated that racism, sexism, and entrenched poverty don’t only damage the oppressed; they also squelch the oppressors’ ability to see others as completely human. In grinding “lesser” peoples into the mud, the powerful diminish their own souls consummately. Only they themselves can address this damage, and its possible solutions, adequately.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t an invitation to consider all topics acceptable for everybody. We’ve seen protests, violence, and social upheaval recently because American society has tragically lost sight of basic mutual decency. Recent surveys have indicated that race relations are as bad today as America has seen since the 1970s, and we see the consequences in dead youth, burning cities, and inability to speak with one another.

The answer, however, isn’t priggish self-censorship. Refusing anyone permission to discuss other peoples for their race, wealth, or gender inevitably narrows the discourse. Sure, the well-heeled often wear their privileged blinders so long, they forget the limits of their vision. When that happens, others will call them to account, as they should. But silencing anybody’s permission to address society’s firebrand issues has an inevitably chilling effect on everybody’s speech.

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