Some fat to chew on . . .
Victoria Chang wrote a response to the managing editor of Fence regarding a poem by Alicia Ostricker. I'm not going to summarize the statements, since I've kindly posted a link with both Victoria's and Eduardo's thorough discussion of the drama.
Anyway, this brings up a very interesting discussion about writers/artists of color and the use of stereotypical images. Ultimately the trouble with language is that there is so much history invested in a particular position's ability to speak. Representations of "Otherness" no matter how artistically or aesthetically accurate are inevitably problematic when generated by a person/group who is gazing.
I do want to add one tidbit to this discussion, though, and that is the idea that this is not only a debate about ethnicity, but we must add that it's also a generational issue. Ostriker's valuable book, Stealing the Language, might be considered, by some, to be dated in its feminist position. But of course, depending on who you are, the issues in that book are still very contemporary.
I'm going to refer back to what Eduardo said, because that's the crux of my position as well. Eduardo elegantly stated that " . . . this poem doesn't problematize the body of colonial literature: creative work written by a member of the dominant culture about a subaltern culture. The images of Mexican field workers or studious Asians in Ostriker's poem are dangerous because these images are yoked with specific intellectual & emotional abilities. Mexican immigrants=field workers=coarse intelligence=base morals=primitive culture." He also said that "if the Ostriker poem would've been written by a writer of color [he] probably wouldn't be objecting to its stereotypical images. This troubles [him]".
So what are we to do as artists, knowing that there is so much force behind the images we create? Knowing this, wouldn't it offer us a wider canvas when we are more judicious with the language we use? Or is this a limitation of an artist's range of possible subject matter? Does this create self-censorship?
Inevitably, the value of Ostriker's poem for my community is that it gets us talking about ourselves as artists. It's problematic to me, but it really makes me think about what I'm doing as a writer. I'm still troubled, but it's good to know that I'm not the only one.