Sabado, Abril 24, 2010

The Universal Concern of the Writer

In the blog Bibliophile Stalker, a nerve has been hit because of the post entitled No Foriegners Allowed, which earned a response from deepad. Although the failings of the essay "No Foriegners Allowed" has been discussed by deepad, the real and true problem of the essay is that fails to ask the right questions. In his Response to Deepad's Open Letter, Charles restated the question that started the whole discussion, "So what's your opinion on what was supposed to be my main theme, which is whether it's permissible for someone to write about a culture that's not their own? Is it bullshit, or if the answer is yes, what are your qualifications before one does so?" As I have said in the comments section, this is an utterly superficial question. And as what all the other responses, it really would not matter for a writer and nothing could really stop him/her from doing so.

Again, I would like to point out the politics of representation. Charles's essays treat culture like it is made up of empirical data (or at least that how I got the impression) that can be portrayed transparently. (Lets side step, for now, the issue whether langauge can actually portray anything transparently.) No amount of research or immersion can give a writer everything that he/she needs because there will always be a gap with the culture that one was born into to the one that is being studied/portrayed. Culture is not made up of facts and data but is made up of signs. The signs of culture has many unsaid meanings that cannot be easily explained. Portraying these signs without fully understanding the meanings behind these signs could lead to many shortcomings like exoticism, Orientalism, even racism and neocolonialism. These problems doesn't just appear in writings of a writer from a majority culture writing about a minority culture, it can happen with the minority culture writing about a majority one. Again, either way, the politics of representation still come into play. The difference of cultures, each having different signs that embody a different understanding of the world, will always lead to misrepresentation.

The question then should be: can a writer go beyond this politics of representation? I would like to give the example of David Mitchell as a possible example of how one can go beyond the issues of misrepresentation. I've read Mitchell's "Ghostwritten" and "Cloud Atlas". I'll focus more on "Ghostwritten" because in this novel Mitchell writes about nine interconnected stories and each is set in a different country with characters from different nationalities. In summary of the novel, there is a Japanese cultist trying to escapes to Okinawa after he takes part in a gas attack in Tokyo's subways, a young Japanese boy working in a record store finds love with a half-Japanese, half-Chinese girl from Hong Kong, an Englishman who is caught up in a money laundering scandal lives in an apartment haunted by a ghost, a Chinese woman recounts her life living on a mountain in mainland China from her youth during the time of the warlords through the Cultural revolution until her old age during China's economic boom, a "non-corporeal entity" that can possess living creatures tries to find the mystery of his existence through inner and outer Mongolia, a group of Russian art thieves try to steal valuable paintings at a St. Petersburg museum, a day in a life a ghostwriter in London, an Irish scientist tries to run from the government so that they could not use her research for world domination, and finally, a Latino DJ in New York gets calls from what seems to be a sentient supercomputer. Especially with the narratives dealing with East Asian countries, one can always ask how faithful and true Mitchell's portrayal is of those other cultures. But reading through the novel, one really doesn't even care. You could easily understand that Mitchell is interested in themes that surpasses culture. He uses ALL his narratives to portray and examine the human existence. The recurring motif of "ghost" through out the novel become the jumping point for Mitchell to pose philosophical questions. What makes us human? Is the soul the only thing that makes us human? What is the soul? Is the soul inherently moral and ethical?

With the example of Ghostwritten, the issue of misrepresentation is side stepped because Mitchell's concerns himself with themes beyond race and culture. Again, it is Mitchell's particular world view that drives the novel and one can easily suspect it. But Mitchell is such a powerful writer that one can easily trust his voice. That though he uses postmodern techniques, one can trust him because of his deep concern for humanity.

One can now ask if there are things beyond culture and race. And I would like to believe that there is. Primal emotions like fear, hate, anger, greed and even the positive ones like love, kindness and joy. Again, each culture represents and portray these emotions differently because each culture signifies the world differently. But no matter what the differences may be, a writer's duty is for the truth, universal, cultural or class specific these may be. In the end, a writer is pulled and pushed by the specificity of one's cultural and personal experiences to the universal and primal concerns and emotions. In the end, we read to understand others and we write to understand ourselves.

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