As writers, we're often nudged to insert a descriptor before our trade. And, most of the time, whether we want it or not, these descriptors auto-align us with a particular territory or group or tribe.
It's a bit like being in a wine shop, where they stock and display the bottles, not by grape or vintage, but by country of origin: French. Portuguese. Chilean.
Thus we have New England writers. Latina writers. African and Caribbean and Jewish, Indian and Canadian. The list goes on, and that's not even counting the list of hyphenated identities (black-LGBTQ, Caribbean-American).
I must admit, I'm not always comfortable with all this tribe and tagging business.
Sure, we write from a set of life experiences, and with a certain sensibility. But who says that sensibility must always be ethnically or nation-of-origin influenced or bound?
What about when these tags are so geographically inaccurate that they border on (or become) stereotypical? For example, we talk about "southeast Asian" or "African" authors, as if these descriptors didn't refer to gargantuan land territories that each contain diverse countries and regions and languages.
Will an Indian-born author write like someone from Sri Lanka or Pakistan? Will a Nigerian writer's novel or poetry collection have strong overtures of a work or collection from Ghana? By the way, if you hail from one of these countries, I'd love your comment (see below).
The Diaspora Writer
Now, let's talk about what happens when some of us pick up our lives and laptops to move to another country. Writing from and within that new place, how long can we lay claim to being a "Nigerian" author when, in fact, we now live in Ontario or London or Brooklyn?
Is the transplanted writer's version of the home culture now skewed and inaccurate or sharpened by distance?
An example: After the publication of one of Edna O'Brien's novels, an Irish critic wrote that O'Brien (who lives in London) had been too long departed to actually "get" or depict modern Ireland.
I read that review with a certain sense of personal umbrage, because, frankly, Irish-resident writers don't always do a very good job at depicting modern Ireland, either. Or some of the younger scribes are so busy buttonholing the reader ("See? We're all really modern here? Get it?") that they forget to tell a deeper story.
Temporal or Existential Territories?
Speaking of Irish writers, years ago, I went to a literary reading by the late John McGahern. After the formal event, a local American journalist prefaced his first reporter's question with, "Now, as an Irish writer, do you ... ?"
The writer from County Leitrim stalled that reporter. "No such thing as an Irish writer," said McGahern. "A writer is a writer is a writer (I'm paraphrasing here)."
In the years since, I've often remembered those words. I've often wondered--and still to--if it isn't really about the place or space or identity, but about the telling rights? Who can give voice, who can lay claim to a set of shared experiences or the personal or family story?
Who gets to speak for her tribe? Who gets to wear that identity? Who gets to brand herself (and sell books or movie rights) under that brand?
In the opening pages of Jeannette Walls' memoir, "The Glass Castle," there is that moment when the author's mother tells her daughter to "just tell the truth" about their family.
Voila. The artist mother grants the family telling rights to her writer daughter. Now, if only it were always that generous and clear-cut. If only there were just one version of the truth to be told.
How do you see yourself or get tagged as a writer? How does that tag sit with you? I've love to hear your thoughts below.