Monday, February 4, 2013

Writer’s Identity

There is a clear link between the writer’s identity and his creative fiction. The authors, who spoke in the literary upcountry series, write proudly of their uniqueness; confirm their roots as Hispanic writers, or African American or Southern writers who live in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains; their unique voice punctuating their works and, thereby, achieving a certain individuality and power, enriching their prose. I missed this aspect, mixing all those creative voices in a swirl, neglecting to pay notice to the ‘identity’ of the writer. For instance, Graham Greene is the consummate Englishman; this identity gives his work a unique voice, the perspective of the erudite European. I am reading Salman Rushdie who comes out as an Englishman with his facility in the English language but one hears the voice of the sophisticated Indian from the Asian subcontinent. Similarly, echoes of the Texas outback in Cormac McCarthy or upper class New York WASP in J.D. Salinger or the Brooklyn Jew in Philip Roth. I did not realize how empowering one’s identity brings to the creative writer.

For my part, in a culture mixed by Spanish Catholic colonialism and American progressive re-engineering, one is often confused; thinking he is influenced by both European old worldliness and Yankee new world naiveté and ‘can do spirit’, neglecting the buried Malay or Chinese heritage, in a country adrift in the crossroads of oceanic travel. Perhaps Indian writers did not have this problem, strengthened by an ancient civilization albeit with a strong layer of English colonial imperialism. The question of identity is not as prevalent in India as in the Philippines, though both occupied by foreign powers but the islands plagued more by differing foreign winds; cut-off from the great Asian mainland, thereby foregoing the great influence of Buddhism, Chinese culture (but with sprinklings of Chinatown), Malay and Islamic thought (with pockets in the Muslim South) and instead transplanting the Western Christian ideal (more Catholic than Protestant) in these dispersed Pacific islands. In some ways, the country is more culturally aligned to Latin America (albeit without the Spanish language) than any country in Asia.

Therefore, the problem of writing is a problem of identity; one does not have a voice that could enrich his prose. This is the lesson one learns when reading Junot Diaz, whose prose echoes his Latin American roots or Ha Jin with his Chinese background. This is the fundamental problem, not a question of writing craft but in developing one’s voice; one cannot write without a foundation of identity. But there are writers who can transcend their identity like Kazuo Ishiguro, who foregoes his Japanese identity to write a classic of English life in his book ‘Remains of the Day,’ but he is an exception. If one does not know his identity, the resulting prose is weak and inauthentic. Jose Rizal wrote long ago that one will become like the wind, forever floating about if one does not have the anchor of his identity. Perhaps this is the root of the problem, one’s voracious curiosity, forever borrowing books or watching movies in an attempt to assimilate into a Western consciousness; perhaps ashamed to acknowledge one’s roots as one tries to assimilate in the great melting pot. In a sense, my generation grew up in American culture with the steady diet of Hollywood movies and television.

Hence, this is the final puzzle, where one finally admits his identity, focuses on developing his voice (also an inevitable consequence of public speaking in Toastmaster). It is no longer the learning of the writing craft though still important but the cultivation of one’s story. And what is the story of my generation? Living abroad, travelling for work around the world, living in different cultures, ashamed of our country’s hardship and troubles, perhaps for some, living illegally in foreign lands. Perhaps it is also a modern story, the expatriate in a global society with the English language as the passport for assimilation in distant countries, a representative of a colonized race, forcibly fed salvation via the lord Jesus Christ, or democracy via Governor Generals, the Guardia Civil and the Army of Occupation. Perhaps it’s also a story of heroism as one tries to find his identity against the colonial rule of memory, where the descendants of a conquered race rise up today and trying to forget the humiliation of the past.

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