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.


Grab Your Drink

The Luckmonkey book party is tomorrow (Sunday) at 7:30 PM EST on Zoom. If you haven’t yet, sign up to get your link and passcode. The invitation is below, and you can RSVP here.

MEANWHILE, my fabulous partner B, being a whiskey snob and real mixed drink pro, has devised a drink in honor of the book party. It’s called the Fussmonkey, and it’s B’s spin on Pittsburgh’s Fussfungle, which is a spin on an Old Fashioned. There’s flaming cinnamon. You need to make yourself one to enjoy during the party, so go to liquorsherpa’s video to see how. (And stay tuned: B is making an alcohol-free cocktail recipe and another surprise boozy one, too!)

Breaking and Entering

From the Femme Maison series of paintings by Louise Bourgeois; reproduced from Femme Maison – Wikipedia

Decades ago, when I was young and living on the first floor of a cheap Pittsburgh 2-story rental house, I met Ryan. He was a good kid, if a little weird.

Ryan lived in the 2nd-floor apartment of the house, and we shared a basement and yard. I saw the kid a lot, as he gobbled up any scrap of attention I or my partner could spare—he was lonely, living with a mom who had to work all the time to support them, with no friends that I ever saw and a really intense stutter when he spoke. I invited him in often just to hang out, play a game, talk a little, have some company. He’d often come over when I got home from work in the evenings and stay until him mom would get home.

Problem was, Ryan was a sponge for attention—my partner and I were, as far as I could see, the only people who listened quietly and patiently when Ryan talked. Sometimes it took him several minutes to get a single sentence out with all the stutters, which set my innards jangling with impatience. I tried not to let it show outside, because I figured that would probably make the stuttering worse, and it was just plain mean. It was probably pretty painful for him, too. I hoped that being allowed to speak at his own pace would, if not help his stutter, at least make him feel more supported.

Like a starving cat, Ryan haunted my doorstep, and I fed him every time he came by. Which was every day. I didn’t want to hurt him by shooing him off, but man alive, he was hungry for attention all the time. He even seemed to want to fit in with my partner and me—when I first met him, Ryan made “chinky eyes” and other anti-Asian racist jokes he’d probably thought were harmless fun, but after a while he seemed to make the connection that my partner was one of the people he was mocking, and he taught himself to stop.

Ryan was, as I said, a good kid, essentially.

We lived in a molding old house at the very top of a very steep hill. Our front yard was comprised of ivy and a practically vertical set of stairs. The house was on a busy street right across from a bar. The bar crowd was rowdy, drunk, sometimes violent and dangerous-sounding. Our front door did not have a working lock and the landlord wasn’t inclined, on our meager rent, to fix it. On those nights, I thanked my lucky stars that the screaming men on the street would probably not attempt to scale the steep stairs to our house. Probably not, I always thought. Security was a privilege of rich people.

The place had not one locking door or window—it might as well have been a tent. The door from our apartment to the shared basement was in our kitchen and was fastened only by one of those hook-and-eye catches, with a big gap between the door and the jamb. This meant that Ryan could go into the basement, grab his hockey stick and easily open the latch to our kitchen door while my partner and I were both at work. Which he did on a near-daily basis.

I think Ryan just wanted to be in our space—he didn’t seem to be stealing anything or doing any harm. He was probably playing with our cats, breathing our air, maybe hiding. Once I came home and found one of our indoor-only cats (she was brain damaged and we were nervous about letting her roam around cars and other animals) in our postage stamp back yard. I figured that Ryan had broken into our house, left through the back door and allowed the cat to escape without realizing it. Other than that, the B & E was a pretty harmless habit he had, and he was never there when I got home from work, though there would be signs of his presence everywhere (the toilet seat left up, or crumpled gum wrappers on a table, the smell of sweaty kid, the cat on the lawn).

I barely remember what Ryan looked like, or what his voice sounded like, or even exactly how old he was. I think he was somewhere around nine. What has stuck with me for 25 years, though, is that feeling of someone breaking into my space.

When I wrote Luckmonkey, Ryan was on my mind. In the book, the characters are houseless, but concoct a politically-motivated social project in which they break into other houses and businesses to steal one thing and replace it with something else (they might take the coffee maker but leave an exercise bike, for instance) as an anti-private-property act of disruption.

When I told someone about the idea for the book, they asked me, “Have you ever been robbed?” It was a challenge, a way to suggest I wasn’t going to be writing from a place of understanding. I thought of all the ways I’d been robbed, all the ways my safety had been unambiguously challenged. As a queer, fat woman who went to a predominantly male college in the late 1980s, I could compose quite the list of violations on my body, my sexuality, my privacy. But what has stuck with me are not the big soul-crushing violations of that time, but Ryan and his little, harmless break-ins.

That time just after college, when I was living in Pittsburgh, was full of un-safety. I was renting an unlockable house across the street from screaming drunk men, working a series of low-paying crappy jobs at which my hard-earned college degree was not useful, jobs at which I had to put up with all manner of treatment (deliberately locked in a walk-in freezer once, called “that big fat girl” by a colleague on the phone another time, bombarded by a profanity-laced screaming fit by a temp boss for…I’m not exactly sure what reason…so badly that I quit in tears, and him mystified when I did. You get it. I’m sure you’ve probably been there). Suffice it to say, I did not feel an abiding sense of security about anything—my privacy least of all.

So when I lived in that unlockable house on the hill in Pittsburgh, when Ryan used his hockey stick to sneak into my private space, it felt terrifying and awful and familiar. A sinking, slipping feeling. Someone had been in the place I went to be alone, to be unwatched and unevaluated and safe. The world was an awful place, but I had that cruddy little apartment with my partner, and I thought I could depend on that safety. The disturbing thing about Ryan’s break-ins wasn’t that he did anything bad or took anything. It was that I knew he could, and therefore I knew anyone could. As much as a home should make you feel safe, it’s an illusion.

That was the feeling on my mind as I wrote Luckmonkey—and that is precisely the feeling at the heart of the characters’ political break-in project, the Uproots. It’s not to take away property, which can be replaced. It’s to disrupt that sense of safety and power that comes with property. A home should be a place where you can speak, breathe, decide what comes into it (or stays out of it), what happens to it. Your home is like your body. (And here my former film scholar self says, femme-maison, and she is right and you should Google it.)

I realize now that Ryan is all over the pages of Luckmonkey, in the houselessness and displacement, in the Uproots break-ins, in the stories of alienated folks (the first-gen kids, the queer kids, the gender non-conforming kid). All of those elements are versions of Ryan’s break-ins in that they are about rootlessness, the privilege of ownership, how to speak so that people will hear you.

I wonder where Ryan is now. If he’s okay. If he’s found someone to listen as he stutters.

LUCKMONKEY parties down

Friends, you’re all invited to the online party for the release of my latest novel, Luckmonkey! The invitation is below. Don’t forget to sign up at this link ahead of time so I can send you a link to the party and a password. It’s very speakeasy, plus a monkey.

In honor of the book, my partner B has devised a special cocktail you can make at home. Be sure to watch the video and read the recipe ahead of time so you can make it to enjoy during the party.

See you all there!

Bookstagram tour!

Friends, LUCKMONKEY is going on tour over on Bookstagram. Check out the great book bloggers who are a part of it:

March 7- @mybibliophilia

March 8- @morrighanrose 

March 9- @lifeinlit

March 10- @pirouettes.and.pages

March 11- @featherboundbooks

March 12- @l.m.durand

March 13- @slowliving_lila

The ‘MONKEY and I will see you there!