I’ve been writing about it all month…may as well finish out the month with it. Silence and silencing.
The idea of silencing is nothing new. One of the first times I recognized it at play in my own work, I was a college student wannabe writer enrolled in an autobiography class in which we read and wrote autobiographies. One of the first lessons we had was about “gaps” in the texts—silences—and how they told as much of a story as what was actually on the page. The discussion stayed with me. I became determined to never leave intentional gaps in my writing, but it turns out that’s something that can hardly be avoided.
Writers and readers typically recognize what is between the lines as readily as they do that which actually appears on the page.
So then what’s the problem?
Well, silencing—whether self imposed or as is often the case, imposed externally, can limit the creative process and thus the experience of the work.
One of the works we read in that class was Audre Lorde’s “biomythography” Zami: a New Spelling of My Name which was my introduction to the woman as more than a name I heard tossed around in the discussion of Black women writers.
Lorde writes and is quoted a lot in regards to silences. “Your silence will not protect you,” she writes in a paper delivered at the 1977 MLA Conference “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” She encourages black women writers in particular to speak up; reminds us that silence will not serve.
I contend that silences might be self imposed but are more frequently the result of a silencing. It’s a specific act even if it’s not wholly intentional. And it is a balancing act that informs not just my biographical work but the creative work that is as much about me as the characters I write.
My characters, lately, happen to be the residents of Jonestown Guyana. They are typically thought of as a historical moment. If you know them, you might even call them The Event: the 900-plus Americans who emigrated to Guyana in the late 70’s and committed suicide by consuming poisoned kool aid at the coaxing of their diabolical leader, Rev. Jim Jones.
Of course that definition reveals a huge gap—what led them to that event and moreover who they were outside of that event.
They were mothers and husbands, sons, lovers, brassy or bookish teenagers, dreamers, and realists too, but that is the silence into which they have been forced. Suicide is rarely regarded without some social scorn. Therein is the silencing I’m talking about.
I’d further argue that the silence into which they, in essence, have been essentially shamed, is not much different from the recent public shaming campaigns that have led or are effectively leading to what are, in effect, silences. And they function like the silences in the creative process too.
So lately, like a lot of you, I’ve had my eye on the Steubenville rape trial. I’d say that the victim of two now convicted football players was silenced via shame thanks to a social construct that says drunk girls have no say over the handling of their bodies and in the same way writes the residents of Jonestown Guyana off as a bunch of crazies. See? Not really self-imposed silence though one would typically choose to shut up in the face of such overwhelming contempt.
I mean, she testified at the trial and “admitted” “culpability” in her attack—her drunkenness that is. But I recognize in the media’s naming of the young men as “good boys” who’d made a “bad decision” and even in the identification of her friends as “former” friends: a silencing soon come.
She will be remembered by many as the drunk girl who got those boys in trouble rather than the girl who was violated. And likely to avoid such identification she will effectively silence herself or in the words of her mother after the trial, “move on.”
Then there’s New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s recent campaign against teen pregnancy. It effectively silences young fathers, focusing instead on shaming the young women by suggesting the terrible social cost of their “irresponsibility.” In the ads, babies look sad and cranky and speech bubbles proclaim how miserable their lives will be if they are born to the young women. The discussion of the fathers is mostly mute except to say on one ad that they will not be around for long. Silence.
The Process = consciousness (w/closed ears). If I don’t say it then what?
So I bring that kind of knowledge to bear when I elect to “write Jonestown.” Or when I create anything for that matter. Confronting the silence is part of this process of creating with this project particularly. I don’t think early on in the writing I realized the origin of so much silence is not as much a choice as it is an action that is done to the silenced by others.
Particularly from the stance that silences are the result of shame. Shaming or identifying it was never my intent though it is clear in reading and talking with survivors or “sympathizers” that the people have indeed been silenced by shame. Many do not want the “label,” that often comes with The Event. So much so that at the time, 1978, the mayor of Dover, Delaware where the bodies were flown to the national morgue on the Dover Air Force Base, refused to bury them in his city lest it become a mecca known for “crazies.”
The balancing act of moving through such silences seems particularly suited to the creative. Instinctively and necessarily, she is both an emotive and attentive being so it follows that she would approach with precision and care. Critically, of course, this can lead to a new silence—the box. You know the box that black women write about certain things in certain ways. Herein the balance becomes an exercise of what I’ve been calling the conscious creative. The conscious creative is conscious of the silences—both topical and technical. And when she writes with an awareness of both, the balance begins to realize itself.
She’s also conscious that she will be; is likely silenced on some front/in some aspect. She decides if she’s choosing silence or being silenced and she decides how she will balance those. In other words, she is hyper aware as she creates, a necessary though awkward balancing act.
I’d like to think that work I’m doing with Jonestown is beginning to find its balance. That topically, the characters are not composites of history and media interpretation; is not apologist nor sensational either. And in regards to technique, I hope not to serve form and function so intently with that elusive goal of publishing—the proving grounds all creatives tread toward at some point in some way—and thus effectively silence the voices of those 900 American men, women, and children again.
Finally as a Black woman writer I am necessarily this conscious creative, well knowing the trip wire on which I balance when I choose to write and what I choose to write. I’m part of the margins where silence lives. I was never, to borrow Lorde again, expected to speak. And the characters I’ve chosen to write about, the residents of Jonestown, are not expected to speak. So with that full weight I write fearfully maybe, dangerously maybe, unprotected even. But no more unprotected that I would be if I choose silence.
Some of the harder poems I write, particularly for this project, are those wherein I worried over getting it “wrong,” over offending or disrespecting. Initial drafts came from looking over photos and essentially “make up” corresponding stories. I realize that is how the conscious creative allows herself to hear the stories she tells and to be spoken to.
* Summary of discussion delivered at Northeast Modern Language Association’s “Contrary Instincts for Black Women Poets: Creative and Critical Processes” panel with me, Sheree Mack, Destiny O. Birdsong, Donika Ross, and Tiffany Austin. Boston, MA. 22 March 2013.
Lorde, Audre. “The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider, 1984. New York: Cross Press, 44-45.