Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Whose Story is it to Tell?

In class a few weeks ago, we discussed the Grapes of Wrath Revisited project. So, is the Plight of Native Americans Chris McGreal's story to tell? Some might argue that the Grapes of Wrath Revisited is another form of colonialism: a British man coming to America and trampling over indigenous agency with his project; this would give an ironic twist to his inclusion of Petruuche Gilbert's quote,“We are prisoners living in occupied America”.

Long after the class discussion, I found myself thinking about the ethics of portraying other cultures in writing. McGreal includes interviews of Diné (Navajo) people as part of the project. McGreal is a journalist, and his subjects are real individuals who happen to be part of a culture, not as stereotypes of a culture. The article is only part of this interactive project; one can also click to see video footage of the interview. Whether in text or video, the subjects' own words are quoted because this is journalism. What if it weren't journalism? The original Grapes of Wrath, despite being based on real events, is a work of fiction; what if McGreal had retraced the Grapes of Wrath journey and been inspired to create a fictional film about characters in somebody else's culture struggling with poverty and loss of culture as young people moved away to cities? In journalism, the subjects can speak for themselves, but fiction comes directly from the writer's head.

There has clearly been a problem with members of a privileged culture recklessly portraying members of oppressed cultures in fiction, especially film. Hollywood's “Cowboy and Indian” movies come to mind as examples of film being used to perpetuate stereotypes; people in the cultures represented were not only not telling their own stories; they were also objectified and caricatured by mainstream Hollywood producers, directors, and screenwriters who invested little energy into portraying characters with integrity, dignity, or even realism.

In contrast, talented filmmakers from the Diné Nation are exploring issues of their cultural identity through films: 

The Rainbow Boy is an allegorical tale about the consequences of loss of culture and human devastation of planet earth. The story tells about an ancient Navajo warrior, Eagle Catcher, who enters a sacred cave despite an ancient prophecy that warns against entering the cave. Eagle Catcher is transported to the future, which is our own present, where he sees and lives the prophetic devastation of modern humans. His arrival profoundly affects young Ozzie Yazzie, a modern Navajo punk kid struggling to understand his own identity and culture. Almost dying, Eagle Catcher is assisted by his Navajo people, who take him back to the holy cave. Upon returning to his own time, he is given four prophecies about the dire consequences of human choices and actions for the future of planet earth.
  (This is also an example of a successful Kickstarter campaign, another thing we discussed in class).

There are three things in life that Opal Shorty loves: her bike, Grandma's mutton stew, and Charles Bronson movies. But when the sanctity of her summer is threatened by the town bully and his NO GIRLS ALLOWED restrictions, Opal is forced to rise to the occasion and take him down!

(Again, another crowdfunding success story!)

I spoke to Ryan Begay to get another perspective on telling stories of other cultures. Although active in the Diné filmmaking community, he does not believe it is a cut and dry issue where people should only tell the stories of their own culture. “It's not so much the world you create, but the characters,” he said, stressing that in narrative filmmaking the director and actors need to understand the journey a character is on, which is more important than “what they're wearing.” Begay stepped out of his culture with Carpio, a film with Hispanic characters and a mostly Hispanic cast. He believes that collaboration is the best way to ensure accurate representation.

I faced my own ambivalence about whose story it is to tell when Barbara Ehrenreich, a successful journalist, pretended to be a poor woman in order to document the experiences of minimum wage earners in various parts of the country. The book describing this adventure, Nickel and Dimed, became a bestseller. As a poor woman living in Minneapolis (one of the locations she lived in for the book) I felt a bit offended, as though she were slumming and profiting of a lifestyle that was not a chosen role for so many of us. I felt that we legitimately poor people could have told our authentic stories if the daily struggle of living in poverty didn't steal our time. On the other hand, Ehrenreich approached the project with good intentions to expose the struggles of the working poor, and to bring about social change. As somebody who currently plays tourist for a local column, I certainly have no business demanding that writers only write from their authentic life situations!

While attending the University of Minnesota, I had the honor of meeting Anna Deavere Smith. According to the Voices From the Gaps website,
In Fires in the Mirror, Smith attempts to portray the real people and motivations behind the eruption of racial tensions, triggered by a fatal accident, between the borough’s Hasidic Jewish residents and the largely immigrant black population. Although the play never depicts the actual accident and the murders and attacks that followed, the implications and aftermath are visible within the characters’ recollections. John Leonard of New York Metro says that Smith’s juxtaposition of different interview subjects allows the viewer to see “around corners, into recesses” where the social constructs of race, gender, and class identity has kept people from realizing their many commonalities (Leonard). The extremely diverse and seemingly disparate voices extend from the Reverend Al Sharpton to an orthodox Jewish female graphic designer to the father of the child killed in the accident. The dialogue chosen by Smith cuts through the media exaggeration and misrepresentation of both groups with unflinchingly honest and vivid depictions of neighborhood residents with varying stances and statuses. While Smith’s dialogue emphasizes the characters’ individual differences, she also focuses on the common threads of humor, hope, and despair evident in their words. The book’s themes live within the narratives; forgiveness, empathy and personal and community identity are embodied in the memories and opinions that Smith’s characters express.

By telling the stories of others, in cultures unfamiliar to herself, Smith was able to help bring peace to an area divided by racial and cultural mistrust. Her presentation and my brief chance to talk with her, reaffirmed my belief that if we artists and writers don't feel the freedom to reach out to other cultures in our work, we will miss chances to contribute to society's healing.

I want my work to celebrate diversity and help people break out of compartmentalized lives so they can get to know people in other cultures and lifestyles. Whether in fiction, filmmaking, and journalism, the story is more important than the storyteller and I believe whose story it is to tell depends on who is passionate to tell the story in a culturally sensitive, accurate, non-stereotyping way. I don't feel that I pick stories as much as they pick me. I agree with Ryan Begay's assessment on the importance of individual characters and I consider Anna Deavere Smith a role model for character development. As for Barbara Ehrenreich, she showed courage, passion, and perhaps a bit of insanity to willingly live as a poor person, simply to write about the experience; she may be the “other” when it comes to economic class, but she is a fellow writer and I identify with other writers before I identify with members of my economic class or ethnic culture. I grudgingly admit enjoying Nickel and Dimed. There is room enough in the world for both of us (and many more) to tell our stories.

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