The 7-7-7 Challenge Does My Many Bodies

My friend and fellow writer Laura Davy called me out on twitter today -- like, a good, old-fashioned throw-down. She was all like, "somebody asked me to do this thing, but I can't, so maybe you could?" And, well, I wasn't about to hide from her challenge like a coward. Because when Laura Davy calls you out, you step up or you don't bother showing your face in this town again. And let me be clear about one thing here: I want to show my face in this town again. I like this town. I grew up here. My face and this town have a good thing going.

So apparently there's a writery thing going on called a 7-7-7 challenge, wherein you blog the seven sentences following the seventh sentence on the seventh page of your current work in progress. Laura can't do it because she doesn't blog, which is an awfully clever tactic if I do say so myself. I'm nervous about doing it because my manuscript is raw in a way that most of my works in progress aren't.

Normally, I would roll my eyes a little at a chain-style challenge like this, but in this case I was convinced to do it -- well, aside from needing to not back away from a Laura Davy throw-down -- by my nerves. I can't be afraid of testing my manuscript forever. Sometimes there's nothing for it but to just jump in the water. So here they are, seven contiguous sentences from My Many Bodies:

My body want to shake my hands apart like them girls would if they touch anything they think icky. I can feel it that girly icky feeling all up and down my arms and my spine so I know why they do it, but I tell myself that ain’t my feeling, that theirs, and it go away. I open my hands just a little just to let the light in just so I can see. And that butterfly she real real pretty. She a nice bright blue with little black, beautiful spots and she got that good butterfly shape.

“Oh Mary oh my god I wish I could catch one like you.”

“It so pretty just look at it such a pretty blue.”

Mary Hesper, the protagonist in this story, is a black woman. She grows up in Florida in the 1920s, and her community is one of those savaged by the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane and the recovery efforts that followed. Though she only has relationships with men in her life, she's bisexual, which is something she never quite accepts about herself. She's a time traveler and a body changer, too, but those parts of her identity function in service of the others.

I'm white.

This raises a lot of questions about the story that are all too easy to be dismissive in the direction of, such as: Should I be writing this?

This isn't "can I write this story?" I can. There are no restrictions on the fact of my doing it. But there's a strain of entitlement that confuses "can" with "should," that takes the suggestion that Person B should not write A Narrative as a challenge to prove that, yes, they can, and you can't tell them what they can or can't do. I like to think I take this question more seriously than that.

I've seen this year in particular a push for diverse fiction that I have not seen before. This probably means that I wasn't looking very hard before, and I want to be able to own that. But with the growth of movements like We Need Diverse Books and popular controversies over the non-white-male reading challenges, it's become much easier to see this happening without looking very hard. This is great. This is necessary. As others have said in ways more powerful and eloquent than I could: The goal isn't to enforce diversity in fiction, but to represent reality (which is full of people who don't look, act, speak, love, believe, think, or function like me), and to correct historical imbalances in representation -- which at least in the short term almost certainly requires over-representation of traditionally under-represented groups.

This is all good. I support this. I believe that it's right.

So when I write stories, I try to populate them with different kinds of people. In that respect, My Many Bodies is doing the same work.

As the push for diverse fiction has grown in popularity, though, a more fundamental piece of the puzzle has been getting attention, too: representation throughout the system that produces the work. That goes beyond creators -- who have always been there, making themselves heard, from Phyllis Wheatley to Zen Cho (and even starting with Wheatley is starting with a false premise; I mention her because of her position in American history more than art history) -- and into the systems that support creators (agents, editors, publishers, writing programs, instructors, outreach methods, etc.). I think that when people say non-white, etc. narratives are welcome, but non-white, etc. narratives by white, etc. creators are exhausting, I think that's fair. These are necessary stories to tell. They are not necessarily our stories to tell.

There is a way that I can never understand or represent Mary Hesper's life experience in a way that is not fraught with problems. Even on the simplest level, look at those seven sentences again. Now look at all of the other sentences in this post. I want to be clear about this: Mary speaks an English I am not fluent in. There are rules that govern it, or patterns anyway (I suspect the concept of "rules" in spoken language is a marker of supremacism, so I shy away from prescriptivist vocabulary as much as possible), and I am at least familiar with them because I have bothered to do my research, but I'll always speak and write with an accent, with an inauthentic sound -- even when I edit these lines to the more exacting standards they'll need to eventually meet. And that inauthenticity is dangerous. Up there, in those seven sentences, I'm making mistakes I don't even know I'm making. Mistakes that somebody who is fluent will need to take a red pen to, and then to use that red pen to mark the top of the page with a D-. Somewhere up there I am Carson Daly saying "shizzle," and I am not proud of that.

So, should I be writing this story? I don't know. Maybe not. Probably not?

What I know is that I have a story that I need to tell, and I can not tell it honestly without Mary Hesper.

So the question for me becomes how do I write this story in a way that approaches authenticity and supports not only diversity in fiction but also diversity behind the scenes of fiction? That's a question I hope to answer correctly over time, because doing it today, on my blog, in a couple of sentences is just not possible. For now, I'll continue to acknowledge that Mary Hesper doesn't exist without Their Eyes Were Watching God (by Zora Neal Hurston, which features the same catastrophe), or Phyllis Wheatley, or June Jordan, or Toni Morrison, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or more recently NK Jemison and Nalo Hopkinson and Nnedi Okorafor and Junot Diaz and Saladin Ahmed, and so many others (Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, Laura Esquivel, Leslie Marmon Silko, more!) who instruct me not in experiences that aren't my own but in ways to respect them, and who tell me stories I need to be told. My story can not be written without them, and to exist properly in the world should never be read that way, either.