There is a powerful scene in Toni Morrison’s Beloved where Baby Suggs invites children, men, and women to laugh, to dance, and to cry. It is a visceral scene and is particularly moving as I am reminded of the steps a people goes through in the movement towards healing.
Baby Suggs offers no platitudes. Instead, what she offers the women, men, and children in this scene is the space to simply express what has been suppressed.
I think of this scene as I think about the process of decolonization. We talk about colonization and oppression, about dehumanization, about being disenfranchised, about having been forcibly uprooted, about living in a society where we are continually viewed as other. We talk about decolonizing, about shedding imposed culture, about healing the rift in our psyches, and we understand that the move towards recovery is a long and arduous process.
In this process of recovery, there are no easy words to offer—it is inevitable that the narratives we bring to the page are far from comforting. To the disenfranchised, the act of telling stories is also an act of taking back. That we now have this space where we can freely express what has been suppressed for so long—that we no longer need to conform to expected narratives—that we can embrace the full range of being human on the page as well as in life. That this kind of storytelling may come across as alienating and even aggressive is an expected thing.
It is also to be expected that this kind of storytelling will be met with opposition.
In Beloved, Baby Suggs doesn’t give comforting or comfortable words to her listeners. Instead, she tells them the truth of the struggle that lies ahead. Just because they are now in this space, it doesn’t mean that they will be loved or embraced or accepted. The truth is that what they are and who they are will continue to be met with resistance. Baby Suggs also tells them to love themselves and to love their hearts.
More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your hearts. For this is the prize.
I think of how in our struggle to be heard, our words and our stories will continue to be met with resistance because the context of what we write is lost to the reader who cannot imagine what it’s like to live inside our skin.
I think of people who tell me that if they don’t know the culture which a story comes from there is no way that they’ll be able to grasp what that story means.
I think of writers who tell me that they are afraid to write because what they write will be perceived as being racialized. And I think of how there are still many who live in the shadow of “What if the things I write will offend those who have the power to make or break my career as a writer?”
Does this mean that we have to conform in order to be heard? Do we need to make our stories more palatable? Do we really need to deny our hearts if we want to be read, published, and heard? Must we keep our mouths shut, our thoughts tame, our opinions neutral in order to achieve the dream of being published?
All those men and women who we look up to as giants in this field, did they ever say—"Oh, I won’t write that story because it’s too racialized or it’s too nonconformist or it’s non-establishment"?
When I look at the history of genre and at the histories of these men and women whose works we admire, I see men and women who have made their choice regarding these questions. I see men and women who don’t flinch from writing what they believe they must write.
In the movement towards fully expressing ourselves, it is an accepted fact that we will step on people’s toes. We will offend people with what we write and with what we have to say. There will be those who will try to put us in our place. Our stories are unacceptable. Our stories are not pure science fiction. Our stories don’t do what science fiction is meant to do. Our voices are too strident and the tone in which we say or write things is alienating.
And yet, when we look at the men and women who have forged roads in this genre, we will see that these were men and women who were not concerned about conforming or not conforming. The writers whose works we love and admire forged onwards by telling the stories they needed to tell and no matter how problematic some of these stories may be, the spirit of fearlessness in those stories continues to speak to present-day readers.
During the Mothership presentation in Amsterdam, we talked about sitting down at tables. Bill Campbell said: “We don’t need to sit down at their table because we got our own.”
I think of Filipino writer and poet Luisa Igloria, who also says, “We don’t need permission to sit down at the table.”
And I think of how we are forging and creating these spaces where we can be free to express ourselves, to exercise our imaginations and to write our imagined futures.
I remember women of color talking about Audre Lorde and how she said to them that the stories they wrote were important not just to these women but to Audre Lorde herself.
Considering these things, I can’t help but tell my fellow writers to write fearlessly. Our stories were never meant to speak to everyone. There are those who will read and who will embrace what we write and there are those who will read and hate us for what we write.
But write what you have to write. Write being true to what’s in your heart. Play on the page. Dance on the page. Imagine possible futures on the page. Your stories are important, not just to you. They are important to me. They are important to the generation that is yet to come.
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