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socially conscious story-telling: helping ourselves, helping each other

ebock's picture

I want to learn about other people. Let me hear your stories.
I just had a great conversation with a woman that I work with about how people in Philadelphia decorate cemeteries for different holidays; I told her that my mother takes different colored wreaths and flowers to the cemetery that most of my family is buried in at home. It is amazing the things that we can find to connect to one another, the stories we can tell each other.
I think that the rest of semester should be about story telling, fair story-telling. It needs to be fair story-telling because it’s time that we found a way to be fair when we are representing others (those different than us, or, everyone around us), meaning that we need to find ways to speak to each other through language and literature that respect difference and don’t reify stereotypes. We also need to learn a way to use language that is fair to ourselves. For example, I am tired of having to be identified as a “woman” at Haverford because that does not describe my experience at Haverford, or for most of the rest of my life. As scholar and activist Riki Wilchins says in her text, Queer Theory, Gender Theory: “A political category called Woman may sound like a good idea in theory, but it hides immense racial, economic, gender, and cultural differences within it” (Wilchins 124). If we can spend some time learning how to represent our experiences and others’ experiences in a new language or form of representation, maybe we can start something, something that might spread and eventually chip away at some of the stereotypes that live in the language we use now.
My story so far has been about learning from traveling between cultures and places, and making sense of how I fit into all of the different roles that I play in my life: daughter, sister, granddaughter, student, activist, employee, friend, etc. Self-work has been an important part of my life so far, and I have taken a lot of time to try and learn about “what makes me tick.” It’s been a matter of surviving though; sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me if I didn’t take that time to figure out my story.
My academic history has concentrated in gender and sexuality probably since my junior year of high school when I took an English elective called “Essays of Gay and Lesbian Liberation.” Since then, I have been involved in the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies in the bi-co since my freshman year when I took “Introduction to Feminist Theory.” Recently, I have been very interested in the intersections between gender, sexuality, race, and class, and have done a lot of work with queer theory. The most exciting part about my major (English) and my work in gender and sexuality studies is that these two fields give me plenty of tools to choose from for telling my story, and for learning to understand others’ stories.
This semester has been, for me, a great overview of the many disciplines that prepare us to comprehend stories about the multiplicity of human life. We have learned the biological stories that provide scientific evidence for the diversity of human life. We have seen from an anthropological perspective that people exist with ethnicities, sexes, etc., that are beyond and in-between a rigid binary. It is unquestionable that a myriad of cultures exist on this planet and that they consist of constellations of human characteristics that cannot be replicated in experience.
So why, if we know that human life is so biologically and culturally diverse,
do we still enforce and police such strict dichotomies in our social realm:
black and white, man and woman, gay and straight, etc.?
How do we still enforce them?
Do we know we are enforcing them?
There are people that don’t fit in these categories neatly; there are people that don’t understand why “their” categories don’t fit them. Such rigid social binaries limit the richness of human life. That doesn’t mean we need to get rid of categories because that strips people of their own histories. It does mean that people who don’t fit into the dominant, acceptable categories are left out: sometimes persecuted, sometimes harassed, and usually lonely.  This all probably sounds strange and obscure, but it seems like a good place to start.
So, the question now is: where do we go, and why do we want to go there?
Part of my history in gender and sexuality studies includes looking intentionally at “women’s studies” and the political implications of the naming of a program as such. Women’s studies are where gender and sexuality studies began, but programs have been evolving in curriculum and naming since the 1970’s (in the United States). Part of the significance of the impact of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies is that it changes. It has been changing since it began, and as Derrida reinforces in his quintessential essay, “Women in the Beehive: A Seminar with Jacques Derrida,” we need to keep changing in order to avoid becoming idle and ineffective, or as he puts it replicating the “phallogocentric” law of traditional academic institutions (Derrida 142).
Feminist scholars like Wendy Brown, Robyn Wiegman, and Biddy Martin support Derrida’s claim, and warn about becoming institutionalized. The more work that gets done exclusively in universities, and the less that that work changes, the more neutral it becomes. Women’s studies programs began because of the momentum that came from a real-life political movement: the women’s liberation movement. These scholars are invested in keeping work done in gender and sexuality studies, queer studies, etc., tied to political work, work that inspires social change. We have got to avoid entrenched positions (Martin 173), and keep ourselves connected to the world outside of the class room (Wiegman 63).
            Riki Wilchins, a phenomenal activist and queer/gender theorist, writes in her book Queer Theory, Gender Theory, that “…gender is a language, a system of meanings and symbols, along with the rules, privileges, and punishments pertaining to their use – for power and sexuality (masculinity and femininity, strength and vulnerability, action and passivity, dominance and weakness)”(Wilchins 35).
So if gender in itself is “a language” as Wilchins asserts,
then what’s the connection between gender and the language that we speak,
that we use to communicate with each other?
What’s the connection between gender, language, and stories?
Wilchins goes on to demonstrate that usually in philosophical studies, we seek the “True,” or what is singular, easy to understand, repeat: “It eliminates messiness and complications” (Wilchins 43). Wilchins, the founder of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (Wilchins 141), sees gender as a rights issue because it, “…gives people permission to own how each of us is punished for not conforming to gender roles and stereotypes” (Wilchins 19). The way we speak to other people, the stories we tell about ourselves, and the language we read: these are all places to start changing gender stereotypes.
            In class on Thursday, we talked about mimesis: representing experience (or “reality”) with language. This is what we need to talk about for the rest of the semester: how we represent “reality” (whatever the hell that is, anyway). Studies of mimesis are going to be important for what Wilchins proposes, giving people the agency and the vocabulary to own their experiences, their dreams, their losses. We can learn in the rest of the semester how to understand how our and others languages are so significant in reinforcing rigid categories of difference in race, gender, nationality, class, etc.
How else do we relate our experiences to others?
Or ask them about theirs?
To tell stories, and understand stories that aren’t our own,
we have got to fully wrap our minds around the tools that we’re using.
Proposed Content
            There are several interesting texts that I think we could use to deal with issues of representing difference in language and other media. Gertrude Stein’s poem, “Lifting Belly,” does very interesting things with language. For all intensive purposes, the words in Stein’s poem are incoherent. The words that she uses are not organized in a sequence that forms what we might perceive as an intelligible “image.” In other words, Stein makes use of non-mimetic language; the words that she chooses are not meant to represent a traditional version of “reality.” I think it would be interesting to work with this poem or some of her other work because it would introduce us to a use of language that most of us have probably never had any experience with before. I also found a useful accompanying text that was very helpful to me when I was trying to work with “Lifting Belly” in another course.

  • ·      Exercise: Attempt to construct a representation of some experience of our own in which we use a method like Stein’s.

            Also, considering we are students at colleges in the first world, I think it would be a significant experience to look at how characters from third-world cultures are represented in texts, and how we as being currently located in the first world, read and interact with these characters. Michelle Cliff [] is a Jamaican-American writer that has received critical acclaim as a contemporary fiction writer, and Jamaica Kincaid [] is another writer with Carribbean roots(from St. John’s, Antigua) that are manifested in her work. They both have many published works that we could choose from as a class, and I’ve also found a good secondary reading to accompany our work on reading representations of third-world stories, specifically those of Kincaid and Cliff.
Some questions to consider:

  • How can we understand ourselves as readers in the first world?
  • What do we need to know about ourselves to approach these texts?
  • How can we read texts that include third-world characters fairly?
  • How can we translate these techniques for reading to our every day lives?
  • Why is this important for us as students at HC & BMC?

Film will be an important aspect of our understanding of representing experience. Live Nude Girls Unite! [] is a documentary film by Vicky Funari about the first (and only?) unionized strip club in the country (and maybe the world?). The film follows their fight to unionize, and Funari does a great job of introducing the viewer to the workers on a very personal level. The film deals with several relevant issues for our course: sex, gender, class, labor, and representation. We can also accompany our viewing with a classic feminist text, Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex.”
Some questions to consider:

  • How do we deal with sex work/pornography?
  • What role does class play in the way we interpret the film? The labor?
  • Why do we feel the way we do about it?
  • What’s different about using film? What can it do for this kind of work (sex work) that a text can’t do?

Finally, I think using Lynda Barry’s What It Is [] as a final exercise would be a great way to translate what we talk about with the preceding three materials into a story-telling of our own. Lynda Barry is a wonderful graphic novelist who also does great writing workshops (she’s doing one at Haverford this semester!). Barry uses insightful questions accompanied with bright, eccentric images to help readers to tap into their ability to tell their own stories. She uses questions like, “What is an image?,” “What is an experience?,” “How do we recognize something?,” “Can images exist without thinking?,” and “What is intention?” to prepare her audience to create their tales of themselves (Barry 8 - 110). In addition, graphic novels are another form of representation that we could use to compare to non-traditional textual representation (Cliff & Kincaid), non-mimetic language (Stein), and film (Funari).
            Possible Writing Exercises:
o       Exercise: Changing the way we speak; act. Record a week of consciously acting, speaking, behaving in ways that avoid reinforcing the gender binary. Did people accept it? Question it? Ridicule it?
o       Exercise: Talk to your family/friends. Ask them why they use the language they use. If you talk with your family, can you see how you adopted their language? Does their cultural context add to the way you/they use gendered language/behavior?
o       Exercise: Think of stories you’ve heard. List the first 10 you can think of… Follow in the style of Barry (see the end of What It Is for further instruction…).
If we can really understand our own context, we can change the way we act. It has to be intentional and honest. The most effective way we can make change is through is ourselves. Changing consciousness starts with really changing our own. I am a firm believer in writing letters to our senators, protest marching, and wearing political t-shirts, but the only way we are going to be able to make change effectively is talking to other people and having challenging conversations with ourselves.
 Only using theory, literature, film, case studies, etc., gives us the comfort of not having to look critically at ourselves. It is important, though, to make use of texts, film, and the experts that produce them. They give us a framework for understanding ourselves, others, and socio-cultural contexts. There is a risk, however, in losing touch with the world around us if we work exclusively with academic resources. Working primarily with our own stories, while using text, film, graphic novels, etc., keeps us grounded in the why of gender and sexuality studies. Using academic works though also give us the opportunity to take a step away from ourselves, the classroom, the world around us, and provides us with a third-person lens to observe our stories with.
I want to learn how to learn from the people around me. I want to be able to take our discussions about stories and language and apply these techniques to how I learn from people outside of Haverford and Bryn Mawr. I want to do with the people in our class, I want to hear their stories, and I am not afraid to ask.
Tell me your story, and I will tell you mine.

still reading
Some Potential Readings
Engelbrecht, Penelope J. "'Lifting Belly Is a Language': The Postmodern Lesbian Subject." Feminist Studies 16, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 85-114.

Holbrook, Susan. "Lifting Bellies, Filling Petunias, and Making Meanings through the Trans-Poetic." American Literature, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp. 751-771

Trautner, Mary Nell. "Doing Gender, Doing Class: The Performance of Sexuality in Exotic Dance Clubs."Gender and Society, Vol. 19, No. 6 (Dec., 2005), pp. 771-788. Glick, Elisa. "Sex Positive: Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Politics of Transgression." Feminist Review, No. 64, Feminism 2000: One Step beyond? (Spring, 2000), pp. 19-45. Emery, Mary Lou. Refiguring the Postcolonial Imagination: Tropes of Visuality in Writing by Rhys, Kincaid, and Cliff."  Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 259-280.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. "Beyond" Gynocriticism and Gynesis: The Geographics of Identity and the Future of Feminist Criticism.Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 13-40.Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism."Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 1, "Race," Writing, and Difference (Autumn, 1985), pp. 243-261.

Works Cited/Consulted
Barry, Lynda. What It Is. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Brown, Wendy. “The Impossibility of Women’s Studies.” Women’s Studies on the Edge. Ed. Joan Wallach Scott. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 17-38. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. “Women in the Beehive: A Seminar with Jacques Derrida.” Differences 16.3 (2005): 138-157. Web. 4 Oct. 2009. <‌cgi/‌reprint/‌16/‌3/‌139?rss=1>.
Martin, Biddy. “Success and Its Failure.” Women’s Studies on the Edge. Ed. Joan Wallach Scott. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 169-197. Print.
Wiegman, Robyn. “Feminism, Institutionalism, and the Idiom of Failure.” Women’s Studies on the Edge. Ed. Joan Wallach Scott. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 39-68. Print.
Wilchins, Riki. Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2004. Print.