Finding Voice in the Wastelands of Academic Silence
Kimberly M. Blaeser | October/November 1995
Forming my contribution to this panel, I revived every graduate-student anxiety about whether or not my words would meet the expectations of some authority figure. Knowing my participation had been solicited partly because I was Native American and would bring that particular "multicultural" perspective to the discussion, I suddenly found myself stricken nearly dumb. I found it ironic that the longer title of the panel should claim "No Longer Marginalized/Colonized/Sanforized/Silenced," for, even in the midst of having a forum in which to speak, I felt silenced—just as many students of varying cultural backgrounds, having worked to earn a place in a creative writing program, suddenly find themselves afraid to write, worried they have nothing of value to say.
The source of our mutual paralysis, I believe, is too strong an awareness of the pre-established boundaries of our discourse. I should bring an Indian perspective to this discussion about writing. The students should frame their writing in one or another recognizable and accepted form, employ time-honored stylistic techniques, invoke an appropriate subject.
When an Anishinaabe friend of mine was in a fiction-writing class, he wrote a stark and beautiful piece called "Sleeping in the Rain." I read section XI:
As the old woman touches me it is like air holding smoke. I am something else. Vestiges of prayer, gathered in a hollow church. Another kind of reflection. A reflection on the outsides of her black glasses. A reflection that cries when eyes leave it.
As the old woman touches me it is like air holding smoke. I am something else. Fleet anguish, like flying shadows. A moment vanishing. A moment taken, as I am being.
As the old woman touches me it is like air holding smoke. It spins it. It grasps it. It shapes it in a wish. After that there is a mist too fine to see.
Perhaps the beauty of this piece is like the mist, too fine for some eyes to see. He was spoken to, kindly and politely. It was explained to him that this was not really fiction, that perhaps he belonged in another class. Later, Simon Ortiz would include Gordon Henry's "Sleeping in the Rain" in Earth Power Coming: Short Fiction in Native American Literature.
Is "Sleeping in the Rain" classic short fiction? Perhaps not. Indeed, at least half of the fiction written by American Indian writers today would probably not fare well in programs across the country. Louise Erdrich's application for admission was rejected at the renowned Iowa Writing Program. N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, was portrayed in some reviews as having received that award because of "its social conscience" or as "a pet instead of a work of art."
But the point is not that Native Peoples may write differently—it is that all people write differently from one another. The rich difference of history and voice is celebrated in these excerpts from student Theresa Delgadillo's poem "My Face":
Guatemalan? Nicaraguan? Salvadoran? Ecuadorian?
People who have history in their faces,
whose blood is mixed
What country are your parents from?
trying to figure out the puzzle
of an Asian-looking, Spanish-speaking
garment worker who spoke
What country produces such people?
Now, I know my face
And the faces of many others
Now I wish
that I could be
As mentors to students, we must decide if and when it is wise to ask for changes in their writing, their form, subject, style, voice. Is our goal to teach our students to write in specified forms and specified forms only? Or should we try to allow them the freedom to give voice to whatever story visits them? I currently work with a master's student, an Oneida woman, who has worried for months over the selection of her committee, wondering who will allow her to draw her readings from and write her project in the traditions of Native literatures. It may not be really wrong to ask students to follow us down a proven and established path of learning, but mightn't it be better to challenge ourselves to run along beside them, offering advice on the path they are traveling?
I serve as faculty advisor for a multicultural writers' group, a non-credit student-run organization. About that group, one student, Karen Howland, writes:
In the "Word Warriors," we get beyond the student exterior to something more honest, raw, and organic, something that has to do with the circle where everything is valued that is offered. In this space, we get beyond the academic hierarchical structure to a more cooperative, connecting space of respect for the word and for the individual. From this circle I carry a perspective or vision of both writing and life. I get past the academic "doing" to be with people and words. Being in this process, you feel you are the poem, and what you write ceases being product.
In the best scenario, our classes and programs should create guidelines for student writing that are flexible and serve their needs without squelching their creativity, without requiring they alter their voice, their experience, or their very language to fit the master template. "I am Mestizo," my student Guadalupe Solis writes. "As a child of two cultures, my identity lies in the words given to me by society's pronunciation of peoples." Feeling his own voice taken from him, he writes of his frustration, his struggle to find a place, and a way to express his mixed-blood experience.
My self is buried in obscure metaphors and shadows of words, words that can only be defined by the discursive nature of the dominant culture. I can hold a hand to my face, as I watch myself in the mirror, and touch what no words can describe.... Because of a dominant cultural discourse, I cannot translate myself onto the page.
Mixed-bloods must create out of the void that our specific civilization has left for them. To define an entity that is not a part of the dominant culture in history and acceptance, the reader must become an earthdiver and search for implied history in metaphors and myths. These are the histories... created by a history-less culture.
Only in the bending and breaking of language can words carry the weight of meaning to transcend dominant cultural understanding. In the timeless, the circular, the reverse, the mixed-blood is dancing between the cultural bars of discourse to create a sense of self and history.
Given the freedom to explore through writing, this student discovers power in what he calls "the bending and breaking of language."
Another student, Native American Pamela LaBarge, writes back to T.S. Eliot, substituting an image of Spiderwoman and the tribal view of the world as an intricate web of relationships for Eliot's vision of "The Waste Land." Her poem, "The Web and the Waste Land," becomes a force of balance, offsetting the stories of the literary canon with the stories of Native America. This excerpt opens the poem:
Thomas Stearns Eliot
Because if he did
He'd have known
His Waste Land
Was a state of mind.
He'd have known
Was feeding him
threads of thought
Within her shadows.
If we give students the freedom to spin the web of their own cultural stories, they, too, may find their way out of the wastelands of silence.
In the midst of teaching the rules and forms of good writing, what if we also create a space for the "bending and breaking of language," for the liberation multicultural students—indeed, all students—may find in "dancing between the cultural bars of discourse"? Life speaks many languages; writing takes many forms. As writers and teachers, we must find a way to invite it in all its manifestations.
Kimberly M. Blaeser, poet and essayist, teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her books are Gerald Vizenor: Writing in the Oral Tradition, forthcoming from the University of Oklahoma Press, and a collection of poetry, Trailing You, from Greenfield Review Press.