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published: 2009-05-12

I was invited to read from my novel and answer questions during a university class on Literature of the Dutch West Indies. I was early and so I sat in on the class. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more observed. Not that I could blame the students, my novel was sitting on each of their desks (for those of you who are new to this blog: I was born in the Caribbean/Dutch West Indies and my first novel was set there). 
Third year students are educated and very mature. When it was their turn to fire questions at me, for a brief moment it felt like I was the student taking an exam. Quite an uncool situation. I considered this and realized a male author would never experience the same mechanism. When male writers waltz into a room, people very readily enter into a state of awe. It’s a simple reality we female (writers) have to deal with. You’re too friendly and they’ll not take you seriously – ‘they’ meaning the world. But if you furrow your brow and lean towards intellectualism, they’ll dislike you for being arrogant. A fine balance and a very thin line. Take, for example, the issue of sex in a novel: you write one sex scene and make a few more references to sex, and I guarantee you quite a few people will be saying: “your main character engages in a lot of sex.” That is to say, if you and your main character are both female. I doubt anyone would ever say that to a male author.
The most challenging part of Q&A is the comment that hits close to home, the one you have no rational explanation for. Such as: “your main character tries really hard to be accepted within that society, but she fails.” We all know wanting something too much is a recipe for disaster.
“What should she have done to succeed?” I asked.
“Just… be herself,” was the answer.

26 Responses to “Class”

  1. T says:

    I wonder if “Just… be herself,” applies to being a female writer?
    The pretence of being friendly with a furrowed brow as well as being intellectual seems like quit an unnecessary tight rope act.
    I have been known to be naïve and wrong ….. a lot! I mean lets face it, I have no idea what it’s like to be a woman.

  2. alief says:

    @T Bingo – exactly my point.

  3. jur says:

    to be yourself surpasses even gender and identity.
    do you really know who you really are?

  4. alief says:

    @jur See my next posting on identity.

  5. T says:

    @ Jur Being yourself is not that hard. Knowing who you are, well that brings a cave in the Himalayas and ten years spent alone in them to mind. Being yourself to me means knowing who you are NOT and doing what feels natural and comfortable to you in any given situation. I.e. whatever allows you to feel comfortable in your own skin even if it jars the opinion of the people you are trying to impress. Admitting to a group of people that you are feeling vulnerable takes courage but has very high rewards. We have an uncanny way of recognising the truth when we see it and we always respect it regardless of personal opinion. That’s my belief.
    @Alief Looking forward to next post. Love this blog.

  6. alief says:

    @T Thank you! And I enjoy your comments.

  7. jur says:

    what i was trying to say is that one cannot be oneself and than find oneself being “a female writer”. because what is that? it is an abstraction, whereas “being” is never abstract but an immediate experience.
    and on the post on identity: how can you put happiness and identity on the same foot?
    identity is an abstraction.
    happiness is an experience.
    they cannot be “alike”, nor can they be problems. the one questioning them is (creating) the problem.

  8. alief says:

    @jur Identity is as much an experience as happiness. Clearly, you have never questioned yours, otherwise you’d understand what I mean. As for your comment on “being” I agree, it was exactly the point of this blog entry.

  9. jur says:

    you say that i’ve never questioned my identity as if it’s a problem.
    whereas in your blogpost you say the problem is when you question identity?
    so are you saying i don’t have a problem?
    or that i have a problem because i dont have a problem?
    or are you saying you have a problem with me not having a problem?
    to me the problem is that you don’t explain what you mean with identity. do you mean the collection of concepts with which society wants you to associate with (race, gender, nationality, working carreer etc)?
    or do you mean the religious “who am i” question?
    if it is the latter i agree and it could be like happiness.
    if it is the first, it can never be like happiness. just like, for example, a curtain can never be like happiness.
    somehow i assumed you meant the first.

  10. alief says:

    @jur I didn’t mean to present it as a problem. Simply stating the facts. It’s like I said: identity is like happiness. It’s never a problem until you question it. Your above reaction actually proves my point.

  11. jur says:

    “eating shit is not a problem, until you question it.”
    “killing a person is not a problem, until you question it.”
    “raping a kid is not a problem, until you question it.”
    “geert mak is not a problem, until you question it.”
    if you deny this, you actually prove my point. 🙂

  12. alief says:

    @jur there’s more truth to that than you’d like me to admit. As: nothing is ever a problem, until you question it.

  13. Tony says:

    “What is mind ? It doesn’t matter. What is matter ? Never mind.” (H.J.Simpson)
    If I examine your postings for a sense of your “self”, what I perceive is a sixth-form intellectual that has read a smattering of Niche and Jung and now considers regurgitating the partially understood philosophy of others to be the height of cerebral superiority. You are fixated on wining points in an argument of your own creation … your post today illustrates this perfectly: to equate consumption of excrement (which effects only self) with murder or rape (which not only effects others but has the strongest possible influences of society) is not only puerile but strays from the points you seem to have been trying to make. This is not a cohesive debate. To follow this with “if you deny this, you actually prove my point. :)” demonstrates again the childishness of your rhetoric. It would hardly have seemed MORE childlike if you had added “So there ! :P” to the end. Spend some time to form persuasive arguments, and also some time to understand the points of others rather than the textual equivalent of “the sound of your own voice”.

  14. alief says:

    @jur I have never read Jung. And never even heard of Niche, and I’m not trying to be cocky by saying that. I am not interested in winning, simply in writing whatever comes to mind. I am also not interested in looking smart or intellectual. If you’re looking for discussion or debate, you won’t be getting it from me, at least not here. For now: let’s just agree to disagree and leave it at that, all right?

  15. alief says:

    @jur @Tony My apologies!! I had mistakenly seen Tony’s reaction as being one of yours addressed at me and was telling me I loved the sound of my own voice (I do too by the way, I’m thinking most humans do ;)).

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