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Should Writing Try to Humanize Particular Groups of People?

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"One can very well imagine a pure cruelty, without bodily laceration. And philosophically speaking what indeed is cruelty? From the point of view of the mind, cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination." -- Antonin Artaud, First Letter on Cruelty, Sept. 13, 1932, from The Theater and Its Double.

I have no audience of actual contemporary readers in mind when I write anything, fiction, poetry, or criticism. I suppose if there is an abstract audience in mind it is an audience of the future, distant in time but not too distant, perhaps a hundred years away, when there might still be enough similarity with the present that they would be able to understand what I'm saying but not so distant that they can't comprehend what it's all about.

I'm not saying that this specific audience is what I always have in mind, but if pressed for an answer about audience, perhaps something like this would be my guess. I write inspired by writers I hold in high regard, primarily the high modernists, so you could say that they are my demanding audience: Am I keeping faith with the tradition? Can I hold my head high against the effort they've already made? I think if I wrote with any actual present audience in mind, whether one person or a larger number, I would be instantly lost, my writing would lose all value.

Writing for an audience really means writing for approval, and that is fine, everyone has that need, except the sources one is seeking approval from better be the highest authorities, who can also be contemporary writers. What if, say, Franz Wright, a poet I much admire, were reading my poetry, would he think it legitimate? Or if I write fiction, would it pass muster with Orhan Pamuk or J. M. Coetzee? If not, it's probably false.

Just as I reach forward in time a little, I also reach across geographical lines, so that I'm not writing specifically for an American audience, not necessarily the people whose habitat and behavior I'm most familiar with, but rather for a diffuse global audience that doesn't quite exist yet, but will probably come into existence within my lifetime, given rising levels of prosperity around the world.

So I'm always trying to carry forward news of the world, or at least the way my mind perceives it, to those who either don't need it (the great writers of the past or present) or are not quite in possession of capabilities to receive it (the audience of the future, or potential readers across the world). By projecting news of the world I mean subjective states of mind, not any kind of proselytizing interpretation of the state of politics, even when it comes to the condition of minorities or the poor or oppressed.

The question of audience has to do with assignation of responsibility, and the favor or disfavor that comes with it. In the end, no one is blameless, at the same time as everyone is blameless. I distribute the weight of responsibility equally. The oppressed are at least as culpable as the oppressors. I don't hold neoliberal beliefs about the responsibility of the poor for their own condition, but one wonders why poor people throughout history haven't rebelled and seized what rightfully belongs to them -- to that extent they are culpable in their own misery.

I don't "empathize" with any particular point of view, or any group of people, which is the only way to be really empathetic and not get lost in the muck of narrow political agendas.

If anything, I go out of my way to empathize with the oppressors, to understand how they're thinking. I always have a soft spot for tyrants, not because I like what they're doing, but because they give the writer an entry point into the darkness in society, making it transparent and visible. At least we owe the tyrants that much gratitude.

Recently someone asked me how I thought of myself as a minority poet, but until this question was posed it had never once occurred to me to place myself in such a category. I've never thought of myself as a South Asian writer or xxx (pick any identity category) writer so the idea of "unpacking the South Asian perspective," as some might have it, has never crossed my mind.

There are different levels to this obsession with defending one's community. The basest level is the journalistic approach: This is my community, the mainstream has this or that wrong-headed idea about it, so let me go ahead and try to fix it by presenting them (South Asians, Muslims, Arabs, Hispanics, women, gay people, WASPs, whatever) as completely normal, "just like you and me," after which you'll think twice about being unfair to them in media representations. I have no business with this primitive level of writing.

A greater order of complexity is to throw everything into question, especially one's own community. There is no singular South Asian perspective anyway. Some are progressive, some are fundamentalist, some are practical, some are idealist, some want to be assimilated, some prefer their rich ghettos, some are well-off, some are poor, there are too many doctors and engineers, they often speak English well, but what does any of this matter? One only cares about defending the perspective of a particular community if one holds them to be more important than others, or needing special treatment.

The idea of using writing to "humanize" discrete communities and write from their point of view is antithetical to art. If one is not beholden to any community then one is more likely to give a true picture of reality, which in the end is good for all communities. As a writer I'm better off being most skeptical toward my own affiliations, questioning them most rigorously. So if anything I would be interested in deconstructing the South Asian perspective to point out the self-contradictions and hypocrisies.

South Asians have indeed become the target of racial mistrust after 9/11, as I discuss in some stories in The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, but how could I not also notice their own general insolence, their devotion to self-help and "responsibility" which conforms with neoliberal faith, their rampant practicality (which always bothers me as an "impractical" person), and most disturbing of all, their marked sense of racial superiority with regard to certain groups--particularly African Americans.

I've noted in fiction the persecution that has undoubtedly come the way of Muslims and Arabs after 9/11, but here again many of the observations about South Asians apply: the sense of insularity, superiority, detachment from civic responsibility, devotion to atavistic beliefs. (Let me note that these are already unfair generalizations, as soon as I start thinking about a community's perspective or its essence.)

I have a deep problem with Muslim women wearing hijab, which to me is a highly symbolic gesture with regard to Western democracy and gender roles. Hijab is not merely another benign cultural symbol, but an extremely loaded one. If you go out of your way to thumb your nose at Western cultural mores -- which is what hijab can mean when it is voluntarily adopted as a cultural signifier -- then how can you be surprised if people look at you as the other?

So for me there is never any favored perspective to be unpacked. I would be a horrible writer if I thought that way. I'm only interested in our common fate as humans destined for too short a life on this sweet earth, and I'm generally more interested in the perspective of antagonists than allies.

I think if the writer focuses on telling the truth, then all the people one is writing about get humanized anyway. But if one sits down with the intention of humanizing particular communities or individuals, then it's likely to result in bad art. Humanization happens despite the writer's intention, not because of it. And it's likelier to happen when some don't get more sympathy than others.

One of the poems from My Tranquil War and Other Poems that audiences always respond well to is "Dear President Bush." Bush comes across as more intelligent and "human" than he actually is, but that wasn't my intention when I wrote the poem.

Similarly, in the title story of The Fifth Lash the dictator Zia-ul-Haq and all the Bhuttos come across as humanized. Had I started with the scheme of humanizing these characters, the work would have missed the mark. This is where a lot of writing from "traditionally silenced" people goes wrong today.

There are yet other levels to this question. Should everyone be humanized? The presumption that writing is primarily about characters one can "relate to" or "empathize with" is tragically flawed, an outcome of a publishing industry bent on appealing to the lowest common denominator, the least thoughtful among readers.

One should go after certain people mercilessly when the occasion calls for it. There should be writing in various registers--satirical, brutal, cruel, inhuman, intolerant, misanthropic, as well as romantic, idealist, merciful, tolerant, forgiving, benevolent--not just a single flat tone that ends up being false because it keeps out the stuff that can't or shouldn't be humanized.

And if I end up humanizing Bush or Zia-ul-Haq, or certain bureaucracies, or certain groups of people during fascistic waves in the present or in the past, their monster sides will still come through. It's just that in the end you see them connected to the larger monstrosity, which is us, since we are the ones who give them power. I have to be detached enough from my personal sorrows to pursue my own dehumanization--as subject with or without agency in a pervasive world order--most brutally.

Writing is not politically correct journalism. Writing that intentionally humanizes discrete groups often ends up trafficking in false sentimentalism, which excuses those abusing power from ultimate responsibility. In the U.S., we've had a rapacious class pushing back against the hard-won rights of the poor and minorities for a number of years. Should we humanize this class? On the other hand, if we humanize the victims, then that seems false too because the victims empower their own oppressors.

This humanization business seems to me the wrong territory for art to work over, because it results in incompleteness, which is to say falsehood. To the extent that a writer isn't free of ideology, the sense of connection between elements of society remains incomplete. So good writing requires the writer freeing himself of all ideology, whereas humanization always seems to involve belief in some form of ideology.

The baseline ideology for most American writers today -- particularly those based in the academy -- is a bland, neoliberal, multicultural, Democratic Party value system which is not transcendent enough to reach ultimate human goals, but is only the stuff of indoctrination.

It makes sense for creative writing coming out of the academy to address itself to audiences here and now, specific and concrete, each a limited constituency with its history of grievances -- often legitimate, though that's beside the point--whose authenticity of testimony is the major criterion of success, not necessarily any transcendent artistic quality. It makes sense because this is how the academy has been balkanized in the wake of the thoroughgoing skepticism ensuing from poststructuralism's total victory.

But I would posit that cruelty, in the sense that Artaud uses the term, leads to much truer writing than this sort of humanization. We cannot have a cosmic battle of mythic forces if we stoop to so low an ambition as to "humanize" people -- people who are, after all, minor myths themselves, with all their false needs and expectations.

The mythic agony that interests me is the doomed struggle of the human to buy time from mortality, the falseness of all constructions of the human, the illusions of history and the made-up history of individualism. What interests me is the impossible nature of time and space, man warring against nature and against the cruelty of civilization, and the gods humanity needs to wrestle down to size as we struggle against self-created deficits.

Strict realism seems to me a dead-end today in denuding the myths we live by. The obsession with the particular can be carried so far as an aesthetic principle that it becomes a tyranny. Cautious, calculating, surreptitious humanization of marginalized groups -- whose suffering is beyond dispute of course -- is an extreme instance of the obsession with the particular at the cost of the universal. Art is not the same as propaganda, even when it happens to be well-meaning liberal propaganda.

Anis Shivani's recent books include The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012) and My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012). A novel, Karachi Raj, is forthcoming in 2014. Another novel called Abruzzi, 1936 is in progress, as is a new book of criticism called Plastic Realism: Neoliberal Discourse in New American Fiction.