Why “Giving Voice to the Voiceless” Is Bullshit, and Writers Need To Do Better

I cleared this blog a few weeks ago, when I realized I needed to reflect long and hard on who I am and who I want to be.

The 2016 US Presidential Election has answered some of those questions in ways that do not invite further hesitation or doubt.

When I was in undergrad, I came across Margaret Atwood’s “The Writer’s Responsibility.” It was the first time I saw an acknowledgment of Canadian literature’s awkward position in the world. I got chills reading that

[w]e live in a society in which the main consensus seems to be that the artist’s duty is to entertain and divert, nothing more. Occasionally our critics get a little heavy and start talking about the human condition, but on the whole the audience prefers art not to be a mirror held up to life but a Disneyland of the soul, containing Romanceland, Spyland, Pornoland, and all the other Escapelands which are so much more agreeable than the complex truth. … We are good at measuring an author’s production in terms of his craft. We are not good at analyzing it in terms of his politics, and by and larger we do not do so.

And later, that

Oppression involves a failure of the imagination: the failure to imagine the full humanity of other human beings. If the imagination were a negligible thing and the act of writing a mere frill, as many in this society would like to believe, regimes all over the world would not be at such pains to exterminate them.

These words gave license to my preference for European literature over North American literature. My favourite writers were people who treated fiction as just one piece of a broader, more urgent social conversation, carried out in equal part by works of philosophy, political discourse, contemporary journalism, and dialogue within the streets. I wanted to write like these seemingly effortless internationalists, but how?

It would be years before I realized that Atwood’s essay closed doors even as it opened them. For all that her words ennoble the writer’s profession, they do so in a fashion that simultaneously limits our understanding of fellow human beings. Thus she writes that

[w]e in this country should use our privileged position not as a shelter from the world’s realities but as a platform from which to speak. Many are denied their voices; we are not. A voice is a gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech if possible.

Now, Atwood is certainly not to the first to express such sentiments; the concept is right out of Proverbs 31:8, “Open thy mouth for the dumb.” But damned if this presumption of voicelessness doesn’t construct a universe in which some are “gifted” with voice and some are “silent.” How easy it then becomes to speak over the voices that absolutely do exist in even the most oppressive global circumstances–and further, to assume that just because we haven’t heard X’s story before, it must be because of X’s silence, which thankfully we’re now here to rectify.

During the 2016 US Presidential Election, many voices arose within marginalized groups. Whole discourses about the state of North America’s social contract rose and fell within communities of (among others) Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, persons with disabilities, queer persons, female/feminized persons, Muslim Americans, recent and X-generational immigrants, the working poor, and trauma survivors.

On November 8, these voices were not silenced. They were simply (and devastatingly) not reflected by the power structure voted into office. These voices continue–even now–to march in the streets; to mobilize on social media and in local communities; to speak out.

So what do we really mean when we think about “giving voice” as writers?

Atwood’s “platform” analogy poses an answer by inferring–but only inferring–the existence of an audience. And yet, this is really the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Whose ear are we desperately hoping to reach? To whom do Canadian writers speak?

If it is to the world, then we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of speaking other people’s experiences at them, and from a place of greater security. If it is to ourselves, though–to awaken ourselves to the world and its needs–then the question becomes: Why aren’t we all in the audience, listening and learning? And are there options, as Canadian storytellers, above and beyond taking turns listening to each other narrate the world?

Of course there are.

And the onus lies on writers and educators alike to employ them.

Simply put: It does not suffice to write characters who are “fully human” unto themselves. This is a basic condition of writing competently–whether the characters in question come from communities down the street from the author, or halfway across the globe.

What we need are stories that bring whole other discourses along with our “fully human” characters from other contexts, other worlds, other already vocal communities.

We need to write characters who are plainly products of and ongoing participants in their own literatures–and we need to be aware of, and include, those other literatures, those other dialogues, when we attempt to assemble other people’s worlds whole-cloth.

We need to convey that our role is not to write other people’s stories, not to use the platform of the written word to aggrandize ourselves through the invention of other voices, but to create higher vantage points from which to identify other platforms, other audiences already engaged in their own, immense narrative streams.

It is not enough to awaken the reader to the existence of other human beings and their struggles. It is also a necessary condition of the work–now, as always–to foreground that other human beings had voices of their own long before we came around, and that good literature is a matter of truly listening to, not speaking for, the world on whole.

Our job is to leave readers with a greater awareness of the existence of other platforms, and with our own writing to direct these readers more fearlessly towards them.

And that may take some time. Other ways of thinking, and being, and persevering, will not come easily. We will try–whether we mean to or not, in keeping with the natural cadence of our work–to synthesize, compartmentalize, and otherwise “resolve” dissonant voices within the confines of our own traditions, our native vocal preferences.

Nevertheless, we must write in ways that open doors to whole other ongoing and longstanding conversations, and we must speak about our writing process in these ways, too: with explicit reference to others doing similar work already. Our inspirations. Our ongoing reading list. Our well-springs of vital information about the world.

We cannot signal-boost enough in the coming days, and weeks, and years. There are too many people, at home and abroad, for whom the maintenance of a full and equal humanity under the law relies on people in positions of greater social power paying attention to the many voices who’ve been speaking out all along.

But oh, can we try.

And we will.