Monday, December 6, 2010

Neither Here Nor There: Writing about a Culture That Is Not Your Own

I have tried not to be one of those white, overly educated people who misguidedly attempt to "speak for the natives." Therefore, after a few years of living in Ecuador, when I wrote my first short story taking place there, I felt uneasy in my role as an outsider attempting to represent the culture intimately. The story, which will appear in the next issue of Gargoyle, is based on a real-life incident concerning a young woman who bound her stomach to hide a pregnancy, and then died giving birth unassisted. Ultimately, the fact that this situation reflects not only the condition of women in Ecuador, but in many countries where they are shamed for having a baby out of wedlock and where even minimal health care can be a luxury, eased my discomfort somewhat in writing the story. I told myself that I was not "speaking for" Ecuadorian women, but rather speaking to the global issue of reproductive rights and women's health care. 


My latest project is a novel, which tackles issues of misogyny and race. My protagonist is victimized by what I call "the cult of whiteness," a kind of fetishizing of women with light skin and Caucasian features as an expression of internalized racism. The character fetches a high price for her flesh and her actual racial and cultural makeup is of no consequence to those who profit from her, rendering irrelevant at the same time the personal and historical narrative constructing her existence.


The trafficking of women all over the globe is the slavery of our time. However, writing about this manifestation of racism and sexism puts me in a difficult position, as delving into it inevitably leads to a kind of cultural critique that could easily be viewed as an outsider's condescension. (And, in the end, how can I be sure it is not?)


The fact remains that to most American readers, Ecuador is a mere concept, a tiny blur somewhere on the map that has little meaning for them. It could be argued, therefore, that any writer who takes on the location as subject matter has the responsibility to represent accurately and to educate the reading public. Yet, this is an impossible task. The story I tell will always represent reality as I see it. My intentions could also be misunderstood and the book condemned for promoting the cult of whiteness, rather than deconstructing it.


In the end, my novel is not an anthropologic text or a socio-economic study. It is, like all writing, an exploration of unknown territory, full of inherent dangers and booby traps, along with the potential for revelation. I will have to accept the awkward position I occupy and the possibility of fallout, or else leave the story untold. 


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