The National Book Festival is held every year in Washington, D.C. and yesterday I saw some of my favorite writers speak about their art, the world, and where they stand in it. It is one thing to consume their words on the page, to step into a world of their own creation, written and bound by its own formulated logic that perhaps challenges your own. But it is especially moving to see the artist in the flesh, in this world, a world you share, and to embrace them as a fellow human sharing their thoughts. We have given them a stage, a platform, a moderator with a list of conversational questions, and a microphone for hundreds to listen in.
I appreciate art that doesn’t demand to be separated from the artist, but rather seen as an extension of their essence. To say that we need to distinguish the art as a standalone, disconnected limb from the artist as a person, is a shy way of asking to overlook character flaws, moral infractions, or ill-behavior. How many men have asked us to do this for them? How many women should we be embracing full body, whole-heartedly instead; women whose art we have perhaps overlooked entirely in this distraction?
“Excuse me.” :::taps microphone::: “Is this thing on?”
There is a feminine ideology worth listening to, and the female writers I saw yesterday were beyond wonderful. Nearly all of them, at least once during their talks, admitted to the shortcomings of their understandings with a self-awareness that did not detract from their self-worth; expressed in one similar way or the other as, “I have complicated feelings about that.” They eliminated a yes/no binary that implies a correctness, a politicking that might win over minds asking for an answer, any answer, so a simple answer it is. These women resisted the simple answer. Women who are deliberate in their work treated their words with the same persistent purpose in real-time dialogue. In short, there was no bullshitting, what Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt defines as “this lack of connection to a concern with truth — the indifference to how things really are.” The truth, for these women, was complicated and therefore, should be of great concern especially when words can hardly be crafted to describe it.
It is what Elizabeth Acevedo, spoken word poet and novelist of the YA novel The Poet X, referred to as “a mirror to see yourself, and a window to experience something other than what you already know.” It is impossible to know truth. Its complexities and nuances are both you and not you, and you need other people to show new angles, interpretations, visions, and dimensions. Stories have more than two sides. I resist the ones that ask to us to see just one of those — “the other side” — often said by men explaining things to you. Not only is it in direct conflict with what is already established, it is negating what also exists but is never acknowledged.
Men need to read women, listen to women, and learn that having complicated feelings is a worthy pursuit of truth, especially if that truth is not their own. It still exists. And art that is intricately woven with the artist is one way women are being seen in high-defintion, full color force. But we need more representation.
“I fight very hard to resist the notion of being the ‘Chosen One,’ the representative for Asian-American writing,” said Celeste Ng, author of Litter Fires Everywhere. She spoke how American culture has reserved little space for women and minorities, recalling a moment when she was asked the question if she is the next Amy Tan of the literary world. “I like Amy Tan very much. Why would I want to see her go? Why not pull up another chair? Why not pull up a lot of other chairs?” She noted that the limited space is designed to keep certain cultural narratives narrow, singular and one-dimensional. The burden of one person to represent all of a cultural experience is an incredible burden, she said, and not one that she wants. Which is why the multiple, the many, the multi-faceted is not only needed, but urgently warranted in collectively framing a shared truth.
This ideology is dramatically different from what I have heard men say time and again, that they are, in fact, Chosen Ones. LeBron James has it tattooed on his back. ESPN produced a documentary on Tim Tebow called “The Chosen One” and Sports Illustrated’s cover story of then 16-year-old Bryce Harper was titled “Baseball’s Chosen One.” How many men idolize athletes? How many men do not play sports but still adopt this mindset? For men who are married, they were chosen, right?
“The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this: excretement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped…the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion” (Frankfurt).
There is significant danger in believing that a “high level of candor” is rigorous enough to objectively believe that only one (of anything) is enough to settle it for all. If this man was chosen, it is assumed that he received a freedom from bias, an impartiality, and a fairness that majority has ruled, the people have spoken. But we all know they haven’t. It’s a fixed representation, these “cultural” icons who, though “experimental and adventuresome” have no concern whatsoever for a connection to truth.
A speaker at the festival said there were two types of writers: oxen and lions. The oxen work hard, plough through everyday no matter what. The lions lay around for weeks and then one day they pounce. I’d like to think the men are oxen, stubborn in their convictions, working harder than anyone else to maintain their narratives, to ready the fields for their harvest. Women, on the other hand, are the lions you never see coming.