One of the weights I carry from my academic days is a fear that in telling my story of living and working in Nepal, I’ll be appropriating The Other. As weights go, it could be a lot worse; I’m not complaining. But I’m always delighted and relieved to find others grappling with the same question in creative ways. In Storytellers of Empire (Guernica Magazine), Pakistani writer, Kamila Shamsie, resonated this week. She asks:
Where is the American writer who looks on his or her country with two eyes, one shaped by the experience of living here, the other filled with the sad knowledge of what this country looks like when it’s not at home.
Shamsie is wondering about fiction in particular, though I think we need more memoir and narrative nonfiction to do the same. And I hang on her answer to the appropriation question:
The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.
She echoes what I’ve been saying to comfort myself all along: Not telling the stories is the wrong approach. I tried that for awhile. Now, over the last four years, I’ve been dredging up the stories again, learning how to write better, working really hard to bring in multiple voices and nuance – the kind of nuance that makes my story complicated and maybe too long. I fear failure. I wake up at 3 am and fret over all that I’m getting wrong. The story should be more political, less political, more personal, less personal, more informative, less pedantic. So, I strive for more balance, knowing I’ll probably never get it quite right. But I have to tell the stories, reveal my own vulnerabilities, and to paraphrase Shamsie, tell about a place – Nepal – that my nation and we visitors from it have manipulated, bring us into those stories and lets us “draw breath with its characters?”
Of course, as one commenter pointed out, it’s not clear whether there’s a market for such work. I wonder too: will audiences continue to crave shallow travel accounts or simplistic heroic tales of Others, like Three Cups of Tea?
I have no idea yet but will continue to push my work out there. In any case, I’m glad to have discovered Kamila Shamsie and have put her novels of my “to-read” list.