(Presented at a BACUS symposium on the Literary Arts in the Bahamas, July 17, 2008)
They want me to talk about the role of the writer in Bahamian society. I want to tell them straight up, the writer is a trickster. You know what I’m talking about. You set things up this way in the first place. Eve, holding in her right hand, or perhaps her left, a living metaphor: a red thing and fleshy, in its belly tiny black seeds of resurrection.
I want to tell them straight up, being a writer is about making people uncomfortable, beginning with your self. The writer is always in the middle of things and on the fringes, always wanting connection and simultaneously in perpetual exile from the center. It is our job to live these contradictions so we can make them useful. We're here to make ‘friction’ (David Bain). Anything else is pure decoration, and I don’t have time for that.
What’s that you say? Tell them about how being a writer is about being a witness? How being a witness is redemptive, even if there is no happy ending? It’s true, and without witnesses, we have no stories, and without stories, there is a way in which we don’t exist. Writers put on other people’s skins and walk around in them. Writers bear witness to the enemy as well as to the lover; they wine up inside the body of God and come back in time to write poems about it.
Of course, Eve, and all the Eve’s before and after, female and male, have all met with less than love and appreciation from their beloveds: She/he who holds in his/her hand, yes, the left hand, a red thing, an idea made flesh, in its center, seeds for a new society, is not always welcome. But this is what tricksters do, they meet the world with new ideas in their hands, hold them out to their beloveds, and with soft voice and trembling say, “This is good, eat!”
Nan Peacocke wrote “poems are rebels … they can bring down governments starting with the ones in our heads…” Audre Lorde wrote “…poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.” Leslie Marmon Silko wrote “Don’t be fooled. Stories are not just entertainment. They are all we have …to fight off illness and death.” Lynn Sweeting says, “A poem makes me visible: …I exist, I’m here, contrary to what patriarchy and popular culture have to say….”
This is what Eves do: we expose our thoughts, our truths, our selves to the eye/I and there is always a struggle. We run through the streets naked, our hands snatching tufts of knowing from the air and wave them like they’re something to see, and people on their porches stare and the generous ones say, “That’s just Eve, you know how she goes” and the ones not so generous say “Lock her up.” And Eve suddenly becomes acutely aware of her nakedness and the omniscient eye/I says, “Who told you you were naked?” and Eve, out of breath, falls back onto her sofa, or bed or floor, and says, “My God, what have I done?” Because exposing yourself is one thing, and giving people a new idea to swallow is quite another, and what if we’re wrong, and what if the old ways are good and better, and how dare we…?
How dare we, indeed. Listen, in any society, creation is an act of struggle. But in a postcolonial, patriarchal, fundamentalist society, creation is not simply struggle it is also fraught with shame. Particularly for women writers. And the queer and the differently-abled. Those whom I call ‘The Invisibles’. And whereas struggle is necessary, the creative tension that precedes birth, shame is counter-productive; shame warps the creative process and disables the imagination, silencing the possibility of new ideas. The apple in Eve’s hand frozen in a too literal rendering against a landscape that does not bleed, its tiny black seeds of resurrection holed up, dormant, unacknowledged, and powerless.
And against this landscape, it is the writer’s job to steal the apple, dream it into a scarlet plum, or better yet, a mango; to tear at the skin with her teeth, and watch how, as she sucks on its sweetness, her lips and cheeks yellowed and slick, God himself changes shape into a thick breasted woman who sings, ooh, child things are gonna get easier…
The job of the writer is to say that sometimes 6 times 11 is 68 and mean it (Charles Baxter); the job of the writer is to fall asleep and dream that she grows wings and claws and swoops down on rapist boys who have morphed into fish, swallowing them whole and flying off into the blue-blue yonder (Lelawatee Manoo Rahming); the job of the writer is to make possible what does not yet exist (Julia Kristeva), to transliterate what she knows in her body into language on the page (Olga Broumas), forming a bridge between the unknown and the knowable, from silence into language and action (Audre Lorde): this is the power of the writer.
And, knowing this, the writer’s job is therefore to embody unmitigated courage to tell the stories no one wants to hear; to see the parts of us no one wants to look at. The writer’s job is to imagine, by any means necessary, and to tell new stories, the stories we need to live by. The writer’s job is to run through the streets naked announcing her visions, and back home again at day’s end, to say, “God, what have I done?” and to get up the next day and do it again. Because it is not our job to preserve culture; it is not our job to placate, or to maintain the status quo; it is not our job to replicate what already exists. Our job is to create new culture out of our everyday lives, out of the blood and guts of our bodies, as well as the blood and guts of our dreams. We are not here to make peace, but to witness to the daily wars and to point to a way forward through them all. Our job is to create new language for the worlds we can imagine and hope years from now, maybe two or two hundred, that language will prove useful to the ones we leave behind.
Yes, I believe this is what I will tell them,
Your faithful Trickster,