Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Sara Paretsky on finding a voice and writing in an age of silence

In the last few weeks I've been reading essays and memoirs by three wonderful writers: Sara Paretsky (Writing in an Age of Silence, 2007),  Marilynne Robinson (When I was a Child I Read Books, 2012) and Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005).
 Over the years I've read and re-read all of Paretsky's novels featuring the Chicago south-side detective V I Warshawski; more recently I've read Houskeeping, Gilead and Home by Robinson and marvelled at the precision and beauty of her language as well as her extraordinary characters; and while it's been some time since I've read Gidion's The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem copies of them still sit on my bookshelves and I remember them with affection.

In later posts I'll try and explore my reaction to Robinson's amazing collection of essays and to Didion's very personal account of her husband's death and the year that followed it  - each deserves extended space and reflection - but in this one I want to acknowledge how much it has meant to me to read Sara Paretsky talking about her struggle to find a voice. In the introduction to the book she says:

"Perhaps it doesn't seem surprising that I became a writer, but it was, in fact, a difficult journey. This memoir traces the long path I followed from silence to speech, and the ways in which my speech has been shaped by what I've witnessed along the way. The book deals with the dominant question of my own life, the effort to find a voice, the effort to help others on the margins to find a voice, the effort to understand and come to terms with questions of power and powerlessness."(pX111)

One of the wonderful things about books is they seem to arrive just when you need them most. I picked Writing in an Age of Silence off the shelf at the central library on a day when I was feeling upset and depressed about a number of past and current instances in my life when I have felt silenced in important and damaging ways.
Trying to find the courage to speak (and write) about what matters most is never easy and the links between silence, marginalisation and powerlessness are intricate and complex, not just in politics and artistic endeavour, but also, and perhaps especially, in employment and personal and family life. A recent example  comes to mind. At a union meeting a colleague expressed how silenced she now felt in her job, how few spaces there were now where she felt safe to speak, to ask questions, to offer a professional opinion or to discuss important issues. Anything other than total agreement was seen as being 'negative'. The saddest thing was that those running the meeting failed to ask her where and when she wanted to speak and what she wanted to say (surely all important things to ask if you want active and effective membership) - they simply said that being in the union was having a voice. In other words, even though they were good people and 'on her side' they too shut her up by not giving her the space, time and attention her - and our - increasing sense of powerlessness deserved. I wonder if she will go to another meeting.

Paretsky goes on to say: "It took many years of different kinds of support - from the man I later married, from psychotherapy, but above all from the women's movement of the seventies - before I gained an independent voice... it was feminism that triggered my wish to write a private eye novel, and it shaped the character of my detective, V I Warshawski."

Years ago, when I was still studying history at University I researched the differences and connections between oral and written accounts. One of the things I remember most from exploring oral traditions was the importance of, and need for orientation, that is, in order to speak to others you need (to be given or to find) a place/space to stand and speak from, one that allows enough grounding or solidity or legitimacy to orient yourself, to give direction and shape to what you are saying.

I think that is what Sara Paretsky is talking about so eloquently in this book: how hard it is for so many of us to find that place; how much support from each other we need to do it; how frightening and dangerous it can be, especially for those who are, or who feel, marginalised and powerless; yet how essential it is.

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