I am obsessed with definitions, with the gray areas of identity and self, with the contradictory terms, figurative language, metaphors, and shifting cultural thesaurus that dominates my art and my livelihood.
There is never simply one meaning; there is never one definition.
We are dualists at heart – walking contradictions, defined as we are un-defined, dominated by the literal and confused by the figurative. We live in reality and remember in fictions, endless possibilities as real as they are impossible, imagined what ifs.
Governing these “what ifs” are scales, rules, guidelines. Structural foundations, a Rosetta stone to translate modern culture and align it within the language of our past. We create boxes and categories, cardboard cut outs of our world to contain it, understand it, simplify it.
My work as a writer, as a story teller, forces me to face these guidelines, to question them, the hypocrisy of our culture ingrained within the very fabric of our language, our cultural universe.
I can confront it, but I must work within it, use it, love it. There is no escape from it. I only have these words to work with and these words depend upon our culture for their meaning. I can play, I can re-imagine, but I cannot destroy, I cannot start over, I cannot begin again.
A word is defined and its definition depends upon what it is not, its opposite. I know what tall is because I am short. I know what it means to be large because I am small. My life is a process, a system of sliding scales by which I know “I” by what “I” am not.
I know that I am a woman because I am not a man; my husband knows that he is a man because he is not a woman.
Contradictions, holes, misunderstandings, a gap, an ocean of possibilities, lost in translation.
As a writer, my job is to navigate those oceans, gray areas, places where the holes grow too large, the wells to deep, and the structures guiding our translation collapse into a wet abyss. Drowning – that’s how it feels to study these things, to write about them, to contemplate them. Flailing in a sea of half truths and fictions, of possible realities and forgotten ones, sinking deeper, with nothing left to hold on to.
I noticed the other day, something curious. A conversation with my younger brother and a separate conversation with my husband, shocking for the commonalities between them. The issue? Something “liberal,” something about violence, about corruption, about injustice and the contradictions that govern our society. Something about feminism (if you want to create a powerful, unjustified and negative response, simply mention this word to a man within my family and watch the sparks fly).
First, to make a crude joke. Something about kitchens and lunch meat.
Second, to excuse the comment with a derogatory remark, a logical fallacy otherwise known as Ad Hominem, character assassination.
“Fucking feminists,” they had said.
Third, make another joke.
Forth, smile awkwardly.
Fifth, change the subject.
- Now what?
A pattern. As an editor, I am trained to find patterns to exploit and build upon for the sake of a good story and to connect these patterns to larger themes and ideas.
What is means to be a woman; what it means to be a man. Definitions, expectations, our cultural thesaurus. What happens when those definitions are challenged?
This is what it means, then. As a woman, as a writer, and as a scholar, I am drawn to controversies, to the issues and conflicts within language and narrative that arise when a culture begins to change, when a character does what it should not, when its script becomes unscripted. I explore how language defines us, how narrative, the stories we tell, influence the stories that we live – and what happens when a story challenges the language that defines it.
Our world is changing. This has created crisis, a gap, an ocean of misunderstandings, of chaos and uncertainty. And we respond to this sea with scorn and ridicule, excuse it with insults and cruel jokes, decry it with laughter and quickly, change the subject, praying that we lose sight of it or forget to see it.
Eventually, however, running blindly, we all fall in.
Clem Bastow is currently raising funds for a movie, The Mask I Live in, that explores what she terms a crisis in masculinity. Amen. As a woman, I focus a great deal on how definitions of femininity influence my narrative, the characters that I can play, the plot lines that I can develop, the ways in which my story will be read. However, it is impossible to ignore how definitions of what it means to be a woman influence the stories of my brothers, fathers, friends, and husband. What I am as a woman they, our language demands, they must not be. And vice versa.
What happens then, when my femininity invades their definition? When the rules change, when the guidelines collapse?
This conversation is not difficult; it’s impossible. Our very language inhibits it, prevents it. We cannot change our Rosetta stone. We cannot re-imagine it. We cannot create a new language, a new scale to define what is upon. But we can play, we can challenge, we can alter and “metaphor” our way to expanding definitions.
The first step is to acknowledge the contradictions within our culture, the reality within our fictions, and that the scales we live and learn by do not tell the whole story.