Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Play's The Thing

I took Theories and Methods of Cultural Studies in grad school, so I have read Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak on the theoretical complications of first world writers "representing" colonial and postcolonial groups; these problems range from stereotypes and race/class-based assumptions and paternalism to simply projecting Western cultural emotions and motivations onto Others, just to name a few. My feeling on the subject back then was that it would be better for a writer not to try to speak for the Other at all, rather than to try but get it horribly wrong and come out looking like an elitist or racist.

"Little did she know," a narrator might say, since several years later I am an expat and legal resident in Malaysia, and I'm really starved for the company of other people interested in writing. I was excited then when I saw that the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Center is inviting submissions for a short play festival. I have written several short plays, so I looked through my DRAMA file and found that my plays are all based on assumptions and cultural norms for the U.S. and particularly Louisiana where they were performed. I believe that good drama has the potential to speak beyond its own space and time, but I never claimed to be Shakespeare or even David Mamet. Besides, I think an event like this is a good impetus to write something new.

For the past two months I've been drafting a play in dialogue with Malaysian life and culture. Enter the concerns I listed in the above paragraph. Is it culturally sensitive? Are the characters authentic in terms of avoiding stereotype while presenting immediately recognizable personalities? Am I being so politically correct as to water down the aesthetics? I had a couple of Malaysian friends to read it for me, although even with them I wonder what the difference might be between how they represent themselves to expats, versus to each other. I get the feeling there's an entire other world I live in the middle of but am insulated from, and I am sure that's what causes some of the problems with representation listed in paragraph 1.

I'll have to wait a while to find out if my play is going to be performed, but it's been fascinating to write far, far outside my comfort zone. The hardest part has been considering my audience, mostly Malaysian with a few expats judging by the crowd at KLPAC events I have attended. What do you think about such a writerly cultural situation as mine?

1 comment:

Kyley said...

I think it's really interesting how life forces us to constantly reevaluate our perceptions.

Also, to get all theoretical, I think it is impossible as a privileged writer to write without making an error or assumption, without committing some act of "colonial violence." I also think that can be okay, as long as you have an awareness of your limitation. Being an expat has, I'm sure, given you some insight that others (i.e. me, a privileged white girl living in new england) don't have.

Anyway, this comment is long, but I really appreciate you sharing your thought process with us!