What Is A Writer?

January 8, 2009

“Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys.”

-Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Let me introduce myself: I’m a writer. That’s quite a statement, considering that I’ve never published any of my creative writings. But that doesn’t change the fact of it – I’m a writer, and always have been. I didn’t always know it; I imagined myself in many different professions when I was young. I wanted to be a teacher, a painter, a graphic artist, an architect, a biologist who studies chimpanzees, an environmental chemist… I still dream of some of those things. But the truth is that writing is the only activity that I can’t live without. That only became clear to me in my twenties, even though I had written several attempts at books even before that, ever since – well, ever since I could write, which was when I was about five years old. One of my first attempts was a book about a gang of girls who build and live in huts by a river, and have marvellous adventures. This was based on true events, as me and a group of girls living in the neighbouring houses in my alley indeed decided to build huts by a river one summer. Except that they weren’t huts but more like shelters, and it wasn’t a river, so much as a small brook. The adventures weren’t all that marvellous either, but we had fun. And I still have the book, with pictures and everything.

Being a writer doesn’t seem like anything much these days. Everyone is a writer; we all write blogs, articles, essays, presentations, and it seems that new books appear on the shelves in bookstores like mushrooms. People probably write books more often than pick mushrooms these days.  Sometimes I wish that I had been born a few hundred years ago, and been one of those first women writers with a message. You know, against male-dominated society and all that. Or perhaps one of the early feminists of the 20th Century, or even the later French feminist writers, opposing phallogocentrism (what a wonderful word) and advocating the feminine jouissance, writing “through the body” and shocking audiences with imagery of female sexuality and freedom…  Just a hundred years ago, I would have been in a special position, a repressed minority; now, I’m a privileged individual with the right to speak my mind and write whatever I like. But is there a point in writing, when I know I can? Where is the challenge? To be Emily or Charlotte Brontë, or Emily Dickinson, or Kate Chopin… This is all just romantic idealisation, of course; they didn’t even have showers back then. And I would have missed all of Dawson’s Creek.

I still think writing is challenging. Even if you can’t say anything really truly new, you can always tell the story from your own perspective. Perspective is everything. I do believe that there is always an underlying scientific reason for everything, the so-called “truth”, but no human can ever figure it out. No matter how hard you look, you’ll never know why things happen the way they do. You can only speculate. Native American storytellers say that the truth is to be found somewhere “between the differing versions” of the stories. The same events can be told by different people many times, from many perspectives, but the story will never be the same.

What is a writer, anyway? Not to get too philosophical, but we are all writers, of course. Everyone has at least one story to tell, and that sort of thing. To be honest, I’m not sure I have any more than one worth telling. Perhaps the only difference is that there are those willign to tell them, and those who are not. Well, we shouldn’r ignore the difference in the telling – those who know how to tell the story, and those who don’t. Above all, I love words. All of them, in all languages. I love writers who can make sentences sound mesmerising and melodic, who can touch you with the way they use words, even if they have nothing new to say. Even better, of course, if they do have something to say. Of course words should serve some purpose; how is not enough, there should also be a story to begin with. It doesn’t have to be a new one, but one worth telling. Stories can be redundant as well; I’m not a fan of book series, especially if all the elements remain the same. Telling the same story over and over again in the same manner or dragging it on seems pointless.

To finish with, perhaps I should say a word or two about my favourite writers. There are many classics that I adore – such as Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Herman Melville, the Brontës, and of course Jane Austen – but I prefer contemporary literature. For the past five years of my graduate and post-graduate degree, I have studied post-colonial or diaspora writing, and become somewhat familiar with such minority writers as Jamaica Kincaid, Chinua Achebe, Maxine Hong Kingston, Hanif Kureishi, Jean Rhys, Kiran Desai, Zadie Smith… and many Native American authors, which is my field of specialty. Of the Native American authors I’ve read, Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko are my favourites. I am writing my doctoral thesis on the latter, for many reasons, but one of the major ones is that Silko is an incredible writer. Even though I wrote my master’s thesis on her first novel Ceremony, the novel that convinced me of her talent was her dark and violent vision of a dystopic America in her massive 1991 novel Almanac of the Dead. In this novel, Silko criticises modern-day capitalist and corrupted American society, the destroyers who turn human beings into consumables, and draws parallels between these capitalist pigs and the blood-thirsty Moctezuma and other sorcerers from the indigenous tribes in the Americas. The stories of many victims and destroyers are tied together through Native American spirituality and the power of storytelling, Mayan prophecies and Marxist revolutionaries. The novel is a dizzying compilation of stories telling us that the past must be reckoned with. One might wonder whether such a combination is not too much for one novel. Perhaps, but being convoluted and doing it well is a skill to be admired, if one asks me.