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Posts Tagged ‘Sidney Morrison’

There’s a powerful piece on the Bahá’í Teachings website this month by the novelist, Sidney Morrison. Advocating, as it eloquently does, the power of art – and literature in particular – to connect us, it shed light into one of the places I most love to examine. It includes a moving story, not quoted below, of how Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina helped a prisoner find some hope and understanding in his darkness. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

As a recently published novelist, I wondered before publication if a photograph of my black face should be reproduced on the book’s inside cover.

Why? Well, I wrote a historical novel called City of Desire about a young white woman who, because of the severely limited options before her, chose to become a prostitute in 1830’s New York. Based on a true story, her rise and fall fascinated me, and I wanted to understand her character, her choices, and the culture that molded her. As a man, too, I wanted to understand the struggle of women to be free.

But I feared a possible challenge coming from self-appointed members of the identity police, the people who think they have the right to determine group membership and excoriate those who dare to penetrate barriers imposed for outsiders, “those people” who don’t belong, “the other” who can’t possibly understand what it is to be black, white, female, male, Muslim, or Christian, or any other difference. Take your pick; the list is endless.

I heard those “identity police” voices in my head: “How dare you? Who do think you are? How can you possibly know what it is to be a white woman? Stay in your place. Write about what you know, and only what you know. If you do otherwise, you are appropriating our space and taking from us what is legitimately and exclusively ours.”

Writers are usually told one tired nostrum in classes and workshops: Write about What You Know. The familiar makes your work easier and more authentic, advisors and teachers say. If you write what you know, you’re less open to criticism. After all, this is your experience.

But think about it. If all writers followed this admonition, then we would write only memoirs or autobiographies. Painters would paint only self-portraits. Actors would only play themselves. Instead, artists do much more, and have done so since the beginning of storytelling and artistry itself. Artists extend themselves into uncharted territory so they can imagine and empathize with others—so they can make a human connection unmitigated by the artificial barriers we erect to keep us apart.

Ultimately, I decided against removing my photograph. I refused to capitulate to a rising culture of tribalism, where people live in their own bubbles, hearing only what comforts them, reaffirming their assumptions and prejudices, reinforcing the righteousness of their cause and the status of their group.

These separatist impulses have exponentially intensified as we all have become more aware of a diverse and complex world. The world is uniting, as Baha’u’llah promised it would in the middle of the 19th century:

The purging of such deeply-rooted and overwhelming corruptions cannot be effected unless the peoples of the world unite in pursuit of one common aim and embrace one universal faith. – Baha’u’llahTablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 68.

Some people fear this fact of increasing unity, globalization and human connection, hating those who are different from themselves and trying to wall themselves off from others.

But literature, since the beginning of art itself, has demonstrated the exact opposite, focusing on our common humanity despite our differences. Literature tears down walls, and shows us we are all human and all one. We all feel love, anger, resentment, and hope; we all strive; we all want connection:

… the true worth of artists and craftsmen should be appreciated, for they advance the affairs of mankind …. True learning is that which is conducive to the well-being of the world, not to pride and self-conceit, or to tyranny, violence and pillage. – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet to an individual Baha’i.

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