The Idealized Portrait and the Task of the Writer
Every social unit—whether a family or a community, an organization or a nation, a religion or an ethnic group—constructs an idealized portrait of itself.
This portrait is created through the official histories and the accepted monuments and works of that group, through public proclamations and pleasant pictures of the past and the present. Those who help create this portrait are deeply invested both in the portrait and in the social approval it provides. The portrait gives the people in the group the accepted view of things and helps create a desire for this view.
What do writers do? They challenge the accepted; they break the rules; they create new pleasures, new knowledge, new discourse. In the process, they attack and dismantle repression; they take things out from under the table and from the closet, throw them in front of people, and say, “Here are the things left out of your idealized portrait, here is the reality you have failed to acknowledge. Here are the lies, the secrets, the crimes, the blemishes, the wounds, the aberrations, the blasphemies and idiosyncrasies, the complications you want to keep silenced, the erasures no one talks about.”
Rather than accepting the received simplified portrait, the writer hungers for reality, for its contradictions and complexities. Often there cannot help but be political implications to this hunger.
On a large social level, this struggle over the portrait of reality often involves the struggles of a repressed group to assert itself. In my lifetime, I have seen these breaks and breakthroughs in terms of sexual roles and sexual orientation, in racial and ethnic identities, in the struggles of colonial and postcolonial cultures. In “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich speaks of “a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.” Rich implies that her task is to create new myths, cultural artifacts that will reflect her experiences as a woman and a lesbian, experiences that the society has historically silenced.
Similarly, James Baldwin has argued that black writers must create a new vocabulary, a new language to reveal their experience:
You see whites want black writers to mostly deliver something as if it were the official version of the black experience. But the vocabulary won’t hold it, simply. No true account really of black life can be held, can be contained in the American vocabulary. As it is, the only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which the vocabulary is based. But they won’t let you do that. And when you go along, you find yourself very quickly painted into a corner; you’ve written yourself into a corner.
Baldwin observes that a difference in language cuts deeper than many realize; our American vocabulary was in part created and designed to deny and repress black experience and reality, to suppress the self-articulation of black identity. To understand the implications of this is to look beyond the way mainstream American culture understands itself.
At times, as in the history of colonialism, this attempt at self-description and assertion takes place both within a society and in opposition to a force outside that society. For instance, Edward Said characterizes the writings of anti-imperialist resistance as a “search for authenticity, for a more congenial national origin than that provided by colonial history, for a new pantheon of heroes, myths, and religions.” In order to accomplish this goal, however, writers from the colonies had to write against the grain of the work they had studied in colonial schools, the precepts and masterpieces of their colonial rulers. These anti- or postcolonial writers needed to claim and find a new language for their own realities, the culture and history of their colonized nation. In doing so, they also struggled with the colonist inside their own psyches. In the works of writers such as Aimé Césaire, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ama Ata Aidoo, Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul, Michelle Cliff, and Jamaica Kincaid, one finds evidence of this process, a process still continuing in the present. These writers also contextualize and provide the precedent for later generations of writers like Chris Abani, Marlon James, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Arhundati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Teju Cole, and Viet Thanh Nguyen.
A quality found in writers that sometimes seems odd or aberrant to nonwriters is the willingness to say things that others would be threatened by or afraid of saying. Doing so sometimes requires the writer to possess a certain political courage, an ability to stand up to the powers that be.
But a writer’s attack on idealized portraits doesn’t take place only at a large societal level. It can also occur in a community or, more commonly, a family. As Czesław Miłosz sardonically commented: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
When a writer breeches the family rules, certainly fear is involved, though obviously not the same fear as when a writer strikes out against societal forces. Still the threat of reprisal, of being banished from the group for exposing secrets and revealing misdeeds is always present.
Loyalty is a hard nugget to give up, and some never quite manage to do so (perhaps they just weren’t meant to be writers). But often what the writer must also confront is her own embarrassment and sense of shame. John Updike remarked that it isn’t that writers don’t possess a sense of shame; they aren’t that unlike other people. It’s just that writers don’t let their sense of shame stop them from revealing what they know. For this reason, writers are often accused of being shameless.
Writing comes out of the rift between what we have experienced and know about the world and the language we’ve been given to express it. We write to bridge this divide, to find words adequate to our sense of reality. We also write to find the language for what we know unconsciously. Only by unearthing that language can we make such knowledge conscious. This leads me to the following definition: Creative writing is the search for and creation of a language that will express what the writer unconsciously knows but does not yet have a language to express.
In this process, writers may at times upset any number of people and groups; idealized portraits abound. And since writers may also be intimately connected with those people, groups, and portraits, their greatest struggle is often with personal fears, personal internal silencings. Their job is to hold fast to their sense of truth and, at the same time, to challenge not just others but also themselves.
This challenge then involves two fronts: Not only do we possess a desire for an idealized portrait of the groups to which we belong; we also possess an idealized portrait of ourselves. Ironically, it is often in investigating ourselves and challenges to our own self-image that we begin to move toward a deeper investigation of the world around us.
On a practical level, I’ve often been asked, as a writer of memoir, how did I reconcile the constrictions of my family against what I’ve revealed in my writing? Of course, what the questioner is really asking is “How can I myself deal with this question?” But my answer cannot be the questioner’s answer. Each writer must wrestle with the question for herself.
That said, I tell people that when I first entered therapy in my twenties, my therapist asked if I thought therapy would hinder my writing. I told him that I assumed we were to be engaged in questions seeking the truth. If I avoided the truth, I’d be running away from my task as a writer.
As time passed, I began to suspect that I had a higher tolerance than most people for revealing things about me or my life that might seem embarrassing or reflect negatively on me. At the same time, I decided that I was not only writing for myself but for certain readers, particularly other Asian Americans, who saw the same things I did and wanted reassurance that they were not crazy.
As for my family, I could not write according to their wishes and silences. I could only write from my own sense of reality. How they reacted to my writings was their choice. As it turns out, my parents did disagree with things in my memoirs, but both acknowledged that it was my story and I could write it the way I wanted.
Miłosz’s observation quoted earlier implies that sometimes a writer must choose between the task of a writer and her family. He also implies that making this choice is part of the job.
I tell students who are reluctant to explore family secrets and problems that if their family history has emerged in their writing, it is something they should not ignore. In such cases, the writer’s own psyche is calling him to move in this direction; thus his writing has led him to the point of crossing certain family taboos, challenging the family’s idealized portrait, or violating community taboos or idealized portraits. If a person doesn’t follow where the writing is leading, he will have a difficult time progressing as a writer.
Because of its creative nature, the writing process should ultimately follow the dictates of the writer’s unconscious and not her conscious wishes. Inevitably, the unconscious leads us to those knots in our psyches that we need to untie, those areas we need to explore. Failure to do so will keep an aspiring writer from developing not only as a writer but as a person.
Therefore, I tell my students, push yourself, write what you need to write. But you can also tell yourself that you don’t have to publish what you write. You can keep it in a drawer and publish it later. Or even not at all. But at least then you will have allowed your writing to take you where you need to go and will be able to move on.
In my own way, I did something similar when I wrote my memoirs. I told myself that in the end I didn’t have to publish them. Or I could decide not to publish certain portions. Perhaps part of me knew this probably wasn’t going to happen, but it allowed me to go forward with the project; it allowed me to complete the books.
My final word on this fear of family reprisal is related to how we view those reprisals. Seen in a certain light, the challenges I faced as a memoirist in regard to my family were relatively minor. If I compared them to those faced by writers who work under repressive regimes where their writing may land them in jail or even lead to torture or death, I had relatively little to fear. Indeed, I should be thankful that my dilemmas as a writer were so unthreatening.
My writing did lead to other difficulties, particularly in my relationships with white friends and colleagues because of the racial issues in my work. And that has even affected other aspects of my life, such as possibilities of employment or publication in some places. But again, such consequences seem minor when compared to the difficulties many writers face daily around the globe.
In the end, I find the process of writing fascinating, and I am probably most energized when my writing leads into places where difficulties abound and I feel threatened in some way. Sometimes this threat seems to come from without, from how I know I’m supposed to regard the world outside me. Sometimes the threat comes from within, from how I wish to regard myself. Sometimes it comes from the possibility of upsetting the various communities I belong to. But it is the presence of that threat that I look for. It helps me know that I am on the right track, that I am engaged with the exigencies of my profession.