Thursday, September 10, 2015

Pride and Prejudice and Privilege

Of all the literary scandals I've read in my day, holy heck is this a fascinating ethical exploration.

This cropped up in Janet's blog today, and for once the result was a comments section I did *not* find comfortable to read, so I am not linking it. It is only where I learned of this anyway, so go to the link above if you are curious about the deeper details. Skip over a LENGTHY intro all about rules, and most of a long series of paragraphs beginning with "I" and get to the one that begins with "I chose a strange and funny and rueful poem" and read from there.

The crux of the issue is a white male poet who submitted under an Asian (or Asian-sounding; I am not the one to verify other cultures' nomenclature) name, and whose poem was chosen for the Best American Poetry 2015 ... admittedly and partially because of this.

The examination of the man who made this choice, and both his culpability and the reasons for it, is devastatingly and honorably honest in the rarest way.

(T)here was no doubt that I would pull that fucking poem because of that deceitful pseudonym. But I realized that I would primarily be jettisoning the poem because of my own sense of embarrassment. I would have pulled it because I didn't want to hear people say, "Oh, look at the big Indian writer conned by the white guy." I would have dumped the poem because of my vanity. ...  I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise.

That last sentence had to be an incredibly difficult conclusion to reach, and the conclusion of the post itself, Sherman Alexie's examination of his own identity, is a great example of integrity, whatever else the controversy may have borne for him.


It hasn't occurred to me to blog about this, but somehow it seems relevant in a sidelong way now.

At a very different point on an identity spectrum that spans not a line, but an entire plane and perhaps three dimensions, lies one Caitlyn Jenner. I've found myself watching a good deal of "I Am Cait", the reality show she launched along with the revolution in her own identity. It's the sort of thing I wanted to resist; frankly, it was unformed but in my mind to ignore the whole show attendant upon her transition, thereby proving my lack of prejudice (and maintaining a mile-wide perimeter against anything even Kardashian-adjacent). But, thanks to its ubiquity across many channels and many weeks, I caught the Diane Sawyer interview, and ended up reluctantly intrigued.

The theme of the reality show that has struck me far more than the splashy headline of "ooh, trans person" has by far and away been its examination of privilege.

Note that I do not say HER examination of privilege; because she went into the show with expectations that she would be exploring the process of gender transition, dealing with her family and her identity and the pain and the liberty she now has in her own skin, which has finally come to resemble the sense of self she's always harbored and hidden and lived with all her life.

But the fact is, Caitlyn's role - which she seems eager to adopt and live up to - has become that of an avatar for an entire "community" of transgender people ... and yet, "community" is a foolish term, because inherently the deepest problems with transgender individuals is that of isolation and even self-denial ... and yet, Caitlyn's experience is like NOTHING any other has ever experienced, or probably ever will.

For one, Caitlyn is transitioning at a time in her life which is not, perhaps (I am no judge here) typical of the experience.

She is also essentially chairing a public discourse and her own personal experience from a position of wealth and power pretty much nobody else in her position has ever possessed.

And the show is illustrating, in pretty clear detail, just how powerful Caitlyn's privilege is. The new trans friends with whom she is surrounding herself are keeping her pretty honest at every turn ("Why do you keep saying THEY when you talk about trans people? You are a trans person!" ... "You keep saying how normal we are. This is because you are aware of the freak factor." ... "YES, many trans women turn to sex work; not a lot of us have the privilege you do, and being trans can make it harder to keep a job, or lose you one if you have it." and so on). They are begging her to look at the power she wields, having been Bruce Jenner for as long as she was - and to use it.

In a year when I've spent so much time examining my own privilege, to watch someone with this much of it trying to do the same, and doing so earnestly, if sometimes imperfectly, has been an unexpected lens through which to examine someone's transition into a physical body that aligns with their sense of self better than the one issued at birth.

Caitlyn has made a hell of an avatar. Statuesque and showing pride as well as vulnerability, gorgeously attired and constantly attended, the chrysalis has opened and someone unexpected and in some ways both spectacular and delicate seems to be emerging.

I don't essentially admire Jenner as a woman, any more than I did as a man, particularly; but I respect her stepping up, acknowledging her power in a position which for most is the opposite of powerful, and trying to do good. Even for her, it cannot be easy; just as admitting his bias has hardly been easy for Alexie, in a situation he could have avoided if he chose to.

Caitlyn Jenner could have avoided this ... and yet, could not. Not while living with the fullest integrity.

Sherman Alexie could have avoided the controversy, too ... and yet, could not. He clearly placed honesty higher than comfort, and that is never simple, never easy.

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