Thursday, December 8, 2016

What Are the Important Stories? | How We Fight (Part 2)

There is an endless discussion within many progressive communities regarding how to define the movement. Does the term "diverse" effectively ghettoize authors and stories by otherizing their writing? Should we specifically refer to "people of color", or does that hearken to outdated and offensive terms? Should "queer" romance be labeled as such, or does the use of the label effectively mark it as different from "regular" romances? What demands notice? Is discussing one marginalized group effectively a means to ignore another marginalized group?

These are arguments I usually find to be pointless. Not because they don't highlight important movements, but because there are no simple answers. If we only focus on the label question for a moment, different people just have different personal preferences. To use a fairly common example, the term "queer" is slur for some, while a reclaimed and proud label for others. Neither is wrong, of course. The same can be applied to questions of diversity or marginalized groups. Some writers might feel that being labeled as "diverse" is highly offensive, and places them within a box that explicitly separates them from the "normal" straight, white male standard. Others feel that this is an important way to highlight their works and help guide readers to read more broadly. There is no simple answer.

This ties into the question at the heart of today's post: What are the important stories? What does it even mean to seek out "diverse" works, or books by "marginalized" writers? Is it a simple question of authorship, or is there meaning to the content of the work? How do we identify those stories which will broaden our horizons?

This question is further complicated by the fact that "importance" is relative. As I mentioned in the previous post (Why Stories Are Important), there are two factors to the power stories might have. They can either serve as a form of representation - either for a person who wishes to see themselves belonging in a certain role or for someone outside that group in recognizing the legitimacy of belonging - or as a form of normalization. Each of these factors is inherently dependent on the context of the person engaging with the story.

It's important to recognize that context changes. Chinese literature, for example, is not "diverse" by Chinese standards. However, Chinese literature in translation is extremely rare in English (and rarer still in other languages!), giving it a different cultural context for non-Chinese readers. Though the stories themselves may range in subject matter and culture-specific representation, they both normalize Chinese culture for foreign readers and represent one slice of life. (The problem, I should note, begins with the fact that single stories can never be representative. See Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk about "The Danger of a Single Story".)

Even within Anglo-American stories, the range may change according to where you come from. Small town readers can encounter the swell of different people they may never meet in their day-to-day lives. City readers can encounter the intimacy and individualism bound up in rural communities. Wealthy readers can learn about the struggles of working class life. Majority readers can learn about the difficulties in growing up in a minority or otherwise oppressed group. Everyone can learn about other cultures from around the world.

Important stories are not necessarily created equal, however. Privilege is a tricky Venn diagram to navigate, in which you may belong to a marginalized group in one circle, but be privileged in another. As previously discussed on this blog, intersectionality is critical and must be kept in mind when seeking true diversity/representation of the world as it is. It is also important to remember that belonging to one marginalized group does not automatically make the artist/the art immune from criticism in other fields. (This too is a common argument within the field; do we perhaps judge works by marginalized artists more harshly than those by culturally dominant voices?)

I think it ultimately comes down to a much simpler question: Does this story have the power to introduce you to new ideas, new cultures, or new perspectives?

Not all new ideas are inherently good. Many of the "new" ideas being raised today are far from it. However, almost all new ideas will force you to critically examine their position and unravel their implications. And while that doesn't automatically translate into good, it's at least a step in the right direction and an excellent tool in our fight.