She said, "Write a poem about buffalo."
I told her I didn't know much about buffalo; save for those I watched grazing a high school football field near Yellowstone. And those may have been bison.
"But your people..."
"My people raised shorthorns on a ranch in Hall, Montana," I told her. "Later my people took jobs as engineers at Hewlett-Packard, joined the PTA, and enrolled me in cello lessons. We celebrated Serbian Christmas."
What had this teacher expected of me? What expectations are had of other diverse writers? Isn't it another form of silencing when we are not encouraged to write our stories and poems in the voice of our experience, even when that experience fails expectation and assumption or challenges the readers' comfort?
A student of mine gave me a book for Christmas. He tapped the cover twice, said, "This is real." The book was Pimp: The Story of My Life, by Iceberg Slim. The first words were "A pimp is happiest when his whores giggle." I put the book down. Picked it back up again. Then I stayed awake late reading it. I found I wanted to understand the life of a pimp in the early '40s, and I came to appreciate Slim for giving it to me straight.
Drew, the student who gifted me Pimp, is writing a memoir of his time in Vegas as a carder, someone who runs credit card scams. One of the first essays he turned in used "bitch" to refer to his female companion. It made me uncomfortable for the same reasons it just made you uncomfortable.
I took it out. Asked him to change it. "Find another word or they won't publish it."
"But that would be their word, not mine." He reminded me of a lecture I repeatedly gave about the most important aspect of memoir: honesty.
Drew knew the street. His closest friends were prostitutes. He did his share of drugs and scamming, then his share of time in prison. I would reference Shawshank, and he would laugh and say, "Not quite." I would ask about prostitutes. Like Pretty Woman? "Hollywood whores are just that," he'd say. "Something made up in Hollywood."
When we began working together, I searched for memoirs by cons and dopers. Examples he could glean from. I came back with fiction from white-collar criminals, reform stories, and a few poems. I wanted him to see himself in literature. Something to point to and ask, like this?
I remembered my own time as a student. I craved memoirs of mixed-race children and biracial adoptees. I wanted to read experiences of women who went into the mountains to experience wildness; not to overcome tragedy or find themselves. I needed stories about women who had to show up at their job the day after terrible heartbreak, not about those who flew first-class to Italy and drank wine. What about girls who struggle with weight but never lose it? Native kids who grow up off-reservation and never experience their presumed culture? What about women who write about rape and cannot retaliate against their abuser?
"This is not a hopeful tale," her agent said of a novel my friend wrote about a woman and her stalker. "But this is real," my friend replied. "I have experienced it."
"No one will believe that."
"I need an agent willing to take risks," my friend told me.
Why is truth risky?
Is it because truth doesn't sell? Because honesty makes us uncomfortable? Has the publishing industry cultivated an audience who only believe writers who are performing their presumed culture? Or gender? Who will only read a hopeful tale? Readers who seek shelter from the truth with political correctness and acceptable speech? Why are students surprised when they hear that "Those Winter Sundays" is written by a Black man? Are you surprised to know Drew is white?
A popular journal recently rejected a poem I wrote about a friend who committed suicide, "This doesn't sound like your other poems." Can't I, like Whitman, contain multitudes? Or are multitudes only allowed to white men?
My friend won't write a strong-girl fairy tale. I don't write about buffalo. Drew left "bitch" in his essay. ♦
CMarie Fuhrman is the author of Camped Beneath the Dam: Poems (Floodgate 2020) and co-editor of Native Voices (Tupelo 2019). She has published poetry and nonfiction in multiple journals as well as several anthologies.