Acts of Empathy: On Coconspiring

Here is a thought experiment for you. (For too many folks, it’s actually more of a memory than a thought experiment—I hope, for you, this is an entirely theoretical exercise.)

Imagine you are houseless and squatting in an abandoned building. List everything you are without.

You might start by listing utilities like electricity, gas, running water.

Go on: what might lacking these things mean you must live without? Heat. Showers. Clean clothing. Cooking on a stove. Refrigeration. A toilet.

Now, do more. What else might this way of living mean doing without? Mail. A driver’s license. Furniture. A locking door. Safety. Quiet. Privacy.

What about a phone and address that give people the ability to reach you easily? (I’m assuming you won’t have a cell phone if you don’t have a stable place to live, though this is not always the case.) This means you have no point of contact for friends and family, but also job prospects and medical clinics. Now what does missing that important contact mean you also miss?

Even more: what about the free mental space and energy it takes to write, paint, create, teach, raise children, think? If you spend your energy worrying about finding food, keeping clean and warm and dry, you don’t have much left for those other things. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Though Virginia Woolf was an elitist, A Room of One’s Own had a great point: without money and a safe, private space, you cannot do much at all beyond working to survive.

You can probably make a much longer list if you keep going. I did so when I sat down to write a novel starring houseless squatters. The novel is done now, edited, published and out in the world, but I’m still nervous that I overlooked something, took some convenience of stable housing for granted, forgot all the ways in which I am lucky.

It’s easy to do. I wake up, jump in the shower, eat and pee when I want, work and think and relax in peace. I listen to music when I feel like it. I feel pretty safe in my house. I sleep without fear in a comfortable bed, and when I wake up, I don’t think about whether I’ll be able to return to the place I call home at the end of the day. I have a key, and I have a piece of paper that says I can; nobody can board up my home or take it over while I’m out.

The enormous difficulty of thinking about houseless characters in this way—thinking of all the ways in which the experiences of the day are different for those folks than for me—strikes at the heart of what’s so tough and so scary about writing fiction. Unless everything you write stars characters exactly like you, you must write about people who are unlike you and about experiences you may never have. In my case, I do not want to write novel after novel filled with only fat, Greek, disabled, 50-year-old queer women who love green olives and diet root beer. Writing fiction is work precisely because one must write outside one’s own box.

This comes with a caveat, of course. The problem, historically, in America (and probably many other places) is that most published writing has been done by those of the dominant culture–here, it’s white, upper/middle class cis men. When they needed a feminine character, they invented her. When they needed a character of color, they imagined someone to fit the bill. When they wanted to show a disabled person—well, aside from Tiny Tim, I’m hard pressed to even imagine that happening. It all goes back to the Imaginary (I’m pulling a little from Lacan here and a lot from Luce Irigaray, for those who care): we can say that the Imaginary is that mental space you hold which contains all things that are possible to think of. If something is not contained in your Imaginary, you cannot conceive of it. For instance, imagine a sixth human sense. Got it? You very likely said ESP. There are TV shows, books and movies about that one. Now imagine a seventh way of sensing the world, and an eighth, a ninth… What would a tenth human sense be? There are, of course, more than five human senses (lots of folks have detailed them; proprioception is my favorite), but few of us have even an inkling of the existence of them. That tenth way of sensing the world is not in most peoples’ Imaginary; if the possibility is not contained in your Imaginary, you quite simply cannot imagine it. For the most part, in the history of mainstream American literature, non-male people, queer folks, trans folks, disabled people and BIPOC folks did not reside in the Imaginaries of many writers, nor did those writers even realize that lack, nor would they have even believed that lack was a problem. (I’m looking at you, Norman Mailer.)

Also for most of our writing history, such people were barred from publishing their writing or being recognized for it (glancing sidelong at Mailer again, and at PEN). Many of those people were barred from writing at all (for Black people held as slaves in America, for example, it was often a punishable offense). Or, if such folks did publish, they had to pretend to be of a more acceptable identity. George Sand was actually a woman named Amantine Dupin, for instance. Jean Toomer reportedly passed as white in early career. There are infinite examples.

Writing only about characters exactly like you is problematic because it narrows the field of vision and just continues the long history of leaving out so many of us. Writing a character not like you when you do not see that character as fully human is equally problematic—you get a strawman, a pawn, a thing you can move about and dangle into your story to suit its purpose.

And opportunity is limited for the writers themselves—it’s gross to think of an empowered person speaking in the voice of—and in place of—the person whom they purport to represent, but even grosser when you recognize that money and the power to be heard are at stake. Imagine a women’s rights rally at which only men were permitted to speak. Or a conference on disability empowerment to which only able-bodied people were invited. Representation matters. And self-representation matters immensely.

But many of us are still underrepresented in literature: queers, trans folks, women, BIPOC, disabled folks, houseless folks, the list is long. And it’s also dissatisfying to think that only books written by women may contain women, or that the only time a disabled character may be represented is by a disabled author. The trend now is toward “sensitivity readers,” people who act not as native informants but highly attuned readers, reading a text for its representations of an identity they share and experiences they may understand more readily than others (a disabled person reading for accuracy and authenticity a manuscript featuring a disabled character, for example, or an immigrant reading a manuscript featuring an immigrant character). This can be a good move if those readers are compensated and credited properly—too often, those of marginalized identities are expected to do the free labor of educating more privileged folks about those identities.

Forgive me. This essay began by speaking about imagining the experience of houselessness, and ended here, in the question of representation, native informants, access, privilege and authorship. You may think I’ve let it meander, but I haven’t. While houselessness is not an identity but an experience, much of the problem with representations of an identity by someone to whom that identity is not endemic is that there is a failure to conceive of the experience of that identity. It is, in both cases, a failure of empathy and a withered Imaginary.

I don’t have a great solution, one that sits well with me. Stories should represent the range of people who live in the world, but author opportunities should also do so, and they currently do not. My solution for now, with Luckmonkey and other books I’ve written, is to do my best at representation (of those like me and those not), to find out what I don’t know, to consult and compensate with money and with full credit those who know better and more deeply than I do, to do my research (both cultural and historical), and to try to support and promote writers who do speak as “Own Voices” authors when I cannot.

I’m learning from the new phrase the kids today are using: coconspirator. It’s now replacing that old, very problematic term “ally.” (As someone who’s been a member of numerous LGBTQ groups, I cringe at the memory of straight kids claiming allyship, attending the meetings, and then speaking over queer members of the group.) While an ally feels some sort of connection with a marginalized group, a coconspirator acts in solidarity with that group. The term puts the emphasis on action instead of on feeling. It puts the emphasis on the group (I act with and in support of that group), rather than on the person herself (I feel kindship).

I like the word coconspirator. A writer, I think, must be a coconspirator always. A character, a story, a novel will never and should never succeed at speaking for anyone. But perhaps, when one is not helping to build the platform on which someone else may stand to speak, it is possible to try speaking with them.