Narrative 10

We caught up with Paisley Rekdal as she marks the publication of her new book, Appropriation: A Provocation.

1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?

I don’t have a single favorite character in fiction, but I have a favorite type of character, which is the fish-out-of-water traveler or the outright mendacious narrator. For this reason, I loved reading both Pale Fire and Le Divorce. In real life, my favorite character is the person who never takes herself too seriously.

2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?

It’s not inspiring, but this past year I’ve found myself turning to a line from the end of Candide, when Candide says to Pangloss, “We must cultivate our garden.” After all the awful things that happen in that novel, the understated hilarity, resignation, and philosophical shade stuffed into that line I find deeply appealing—especially at a time when not a lot is going right for, well, anybody on earth.

3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?

I keep cheating on these answers by not quite answering the question, but I wish I could return to my early twenties when I was suffering from insomnia and, to while away the nights, turned to nineteenth-century novels. The Eustace Diamonds, Moby-Dick, Portrait of a Lady, The Moonstone, Daniel Deronda, David Copperfield, and all of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels—I devoured everything! I still vividly remember getting to the midway point in Bleak House when Esther, who’s been suffering from smallpox, turns to Charley and says that she’s gone blind. It was two in the morning and I knew I was never going to sleep because I had to finish the novel. Reading these novels taught me how to enjoy my solitude, and I loved being so emotionally overtaken by them. I wish I could read all of them again.

4. What’s a writing day like for you?

Mostly trying to get out from under email so I can have a few hours to myself. Then it’s about trying to reread my drafts to get the rhythm of the language in me again.

5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?


6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?

On the page, I use adverbs far too often. So perhaps over and over, repeatedly, and just are the most-used words I have to cull. In life, it’s the phrase in all honesty or frankly. That and I’m not here to make friends, which is a joke my friends and I have after too many years of watching The Bachelor together.

7. What’s your current obsession?

My guitar. I’m taking classical guitar lessons, and I am—frankly—terrible, but I love the fact that I can see myself improving. I’m trying to get to a point where I can justify buying myself a New World Performance Series guitar, which costs around two grand and makes even a novice occasionally sound like Segovia, and which would send me into little ecstasies of joy.

8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?

“Your writing thinks too much.” It’s correct, and it’s also impossible for me to stop.

9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

This is dark, but at age twelve I knew that bullies were everywhere, but I had also been taught to believe that bullies lost steam after childhood; for some reason, adulthood had no patience for bullies. That is resolutely untrue, as the past four years have proven to the world.

10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.

I still don’t know the truth about love. I’m all ears too.

Finally, is there a passage from Appropriate that you’d like to share with our readers?

I believe that empathy activates and preserves communal memory, X; it extends the historical record by asking people to carry the narratives of others not like them in their own mind, and that is no small thing. Empathy allows us to transcend the damaging effects of historical institutions such as slavery or genocide by paying witness to them, by intimately imagining and understanding their construction and effects. And yet readers should be mindful of the artifice and racial hierarchies built into the creation of any empathetic performance. Empathy may be a profound, exciting, and beneficial emotion, but it cannot be used to justify or critically frame any work engaged in appropriation. As the writer Namwali Serpell suggests in her article “The Banality of Empathy,” perhaps you and I might employ Hannah Arendt’s theory of “representative thinking” instead of empathy in our writing, which means that rather than trying to imaginatively become another person in our work, you and I imagine our own thoughts and feelings but from another person’s position. “Representative thinking” is akin to what Loffreda and Rankine argue for in The Racial Imaginary, when our imagination encourages us to visit but not encompass or homogenize the other’s perspective. By doing this, you and I maintain our own detachment while also respecting the independence of the other person’s experience.

There’s one final note I’d like to add about empathy as a possible definition of desire. I find it bemusing that when we talk about empathetic forms of appropriation, we often speculate about how to write about the trauma of a marginalized community. However, one obvious but little practiced way to write about the trauma of racism, say, would be for a white writer to imagine the position of the racist. Why not write about slavery from the slaver’s perspective? Remarkably few writers have done this, perhaps because it is more appealing to imagine yourself as the victim rather than the perpetrator of violence, perhaps because the white writer fears that the audience would do to her what it tends to do to the writer of color, which is to collapse the identity of the narrator with that of the author. Regardless, the story of racism does not simply happen to people of color. In a White-centered society, racism necessitates the presence of White people, and so the White writer could easily empathize with a multitude of historical traumas by locating her Whiteness as the subject to be examined.

For me, as a writer, one of the most dangerous side effects of empathetic desire when it appropriates another culture’s trauma is that it elides the minoritized community with its marginalization and pain. These in turn risk becoming the community’s authenticating narratives, both for readers outside and within the community. Because if writers outside a marginalized community imagine its trauma poorly, writers from within the community will be spurred to respond, to correct the record. Their artistic resistance becomes, over time, a feedback loop. If the literary marketplace publishes stories appropriated on the basis of their empathetic reception, we risk letting the narrative of racism and trauma for writers of color prevail, because that’s what the literary system recognizes as authentic based on its publishing record, and that’s also what the writer of color can ensure is distinctly within her autobiographical control. Over time, the literary marketplace and the writer of color unconsciously but complicitly work to elide the raced identity with pain, with suffering, with racism, with psychic damage. This system of literary power requires that writers, in trying to dismantle the system, are implicitly put in a position of performing their own disempowerment for an audience eager to understand it, thus this disenfranchisement becomes the primary trope that both the publishing world and the writer of color can agree frames the writer of color’s experience as different from the white writer’s.

And I think this, again, is why it’s offensive to many writers to see the experience of racism appropriated. Not only is this an experience we suspect the White writer hasn’t experienced, it also reifies something few of us want to imagine: I am the body that is wounded, othered, stigmatized. It makes racial difference a continuing trauma that must only be endured, never celebrated. And I don’t think that’s how most people of color experience their bodies, or the world.

Read on . . .

Quiver and Other Poems” by Paisley Rekdal