Part 2: Appropriation of Voice and POV

POV is the frame through which a tale is conveyed; it is also about the vantage point of narration. I’m not going to go into a long technical discussion about the difference between third person (often limited omniscient) POV and first person POV– there’s so much there, in terms of craft and uses, etc. it would require an entire chapter of a book, or, in fact, an entire book!

I want to talk about intimacy.

The third person POV automatically implicates a  narrator between the reader and the character– so the tale is filtered as once removed from the actions/behaviours/thoughts of the character. The contruction of the character’s experiences are mediated by the narrator.

Third person construction: writer –> narrator–> character

This is experienced by the reader thus: reader–> narrator–> character

In the first person POV, the writer places the experience of the story directly from inside the character– there is no degree of separation or mediation. We are getting the story from the horse’s mouth, we are inside the horse’s mouth!

First person POV: writer–> character

The reader experiences the tale from inside the character, seeing through her eyes, her experiences as our own. We are not external to the character, as a construction, as viewing of someone else’s story; the reader is placed into the subjectivity of a constructed individual, to be experienced as if she were her. The intimacy here is twofold; the reader as character, and, the writer placing the reader there. The writer positioned us to experience the story this way.

What is meant by “authenticity”? Who decides if a voice is authentic? The idea of “authenticity” in writing worries me, because a close cousin would be essentialism. At the same time, I do perceive inaccuracies and/or misrepresentations in texts as a reader. I heard writers claim that they write from the first person POV because it makes the tale more immediate, more vital, when experienced through the “I”.

I think that there is a difference between “more immediate, more vital” and intimacy. The writer who is selecting the first person POV is positioning herself into a place of having either the authority and/or the imagination to place words inside a character who is constructed, but who will also be read as a representation of a particular culture/history/ideologies/gender/etc.

This is where I would go back to my list of questions re: Appropriation of Voice Part 1 (blog entry Jan. 10, 2011).

The first person POV is an extremely intimate point of view. All writers are imaginative in some way or shape, otherwise, she wouldn’t be a writer. So, let’s set the imagination rationale aside (i.e. I want to write from the POV of a character not of my race, sex, body, etc. as an expression and exercise of my imagination.). Our understanding and decoding of our world and our experiences has been shaped and contextualized by our culture and our lives. Even when there are aspects within our cultures we would reject or dismantle, we do so in response to having experienced it. We carry this knowledge and umwelt into our creative projects as well– we are incapable of leaving it out of the page. What we think is important and interesting has been constructed by our socialized cultural experiences.

Not too long ago I read an article that questioned the veracity of the animal self-awareness test. The test involves something like dabbing a spot of bright paint onto the back of an animal, and then showing the animal its reflection. The idea was, that if an animal was self-aware, it would understand that the mirror image was itself, and that something was on its body. The animal would try to touch the spot or remove it, etc. Certain greater apes “got it”, and scientists thought this proved that they were self-aware, but other creatures, such as dogs, were not. But the catch was this– more recently they tried this test on non-European/Western cultures children and the childen “failed”. The point being, it wasn’t that the children weren’t self-aware– they didn’t respond in the way that the way that the researchers imagined would be the behaviour signifying self-awareness. The researcher’s cultural background and subjectivity is a filter from where they begin to imagine and create a world view. The same holds for a writer. She is saturated with her cultural experiences and she cannot remove this although she can expand it. I mention this story because it’s a perfect example of the limitations of our imagination when it comes to cultural objectivity.

Writers can and will approach subject matter and subjectivites that are not from her own lived experiences, but we need to recognize the limits of our own imagination; the limitations that we will not be able to perceive ourselves, because the way we see is part of that which blinds us…. That is why we do research, writers will say. Of course. But take one more step back, away from the material, to cast a wider net. How did we choose the character? How did we come to select her representation? Even in the ideas-stage, of, hmmm, I’m going to write about ______, have you considered what has governed your interest? (Why are there so many N. American narratives of “Japanese geisha”, instead of, say, daikon farmers? Why not a story of a seaweed harvester? Or a maker of dango?)

To my mind, the first person POV, especially in the case of first person of a culture and peoples not your own, does, in that fictional instance, speak as a kind of authority, even if the writer does not intend to speak as an authority on that culture/representation.

Still– I have no easy answers for myself, nor for other writers. Just numerous questions, followed by more questions, and the back and forth wash of reflection and reconsideration.

Returning to my mention of authenticity and essentialism, this is a bit of sideways step, but I want to point folks to one of the best discussions of race I’ve read in a long time in Wayde Comptom’s essay, “Pheneticizing Vs. Passing” in his new nonfiction book, After Canaan. In concise and clear language, Comptom deconstructs the social structure of the idea of “passing” (one race for another) and destabilizes the power dynamics of the term, flipping the resposibility of the reading (of the mixed race person ((or not)) who “passes”) onto the viewer who perceived him as such. Pointing out that the person who had no desire to pass, is read as having done something, when he had only been himself…. I’m soooo not doing the essay justice! But please go read this essay. Buy this book. It’s an important one for anyone interested in race, writing and everything between.