The Independent vs. The Representative Voice
The notion of "representative voice" is a loaded and complex one; loaded because it begs the question … who gives us the authority, as writers, to represent anyone? … and complex, because it forces us to think about … who and what we represent or might represent. To plot the degree to which we are representative, the fundamental question becomes one of intent, as reflected by audience and craft.
Certainly, as writers, we bring to the page all that we are: our sex, race or ethnic heritage, sexual proclivities, and socioeconomic status, among others. Do I, as a middle-aged, middle-class, black heterosexual female, also married and a mother, living in Hayward, California bring all of this to the page when I write? At some level, yes, as they all shape the knowledge and life experience I bring to my work. But, how do I weight them? Do I place Hayward, California (or even the Bay area for that matter) at the center of my narrative? Probably … well … definitely not.
In my opinion, the question of representative voice is best characterized by two continuums. One speaks to the demographic and socioeconomic constructs by which society defines us. But equally important is our intent, or the emphasis we give to these elements as writers. Do we speak of an isolated experience within this framework? Or do we speak about collective experiences (individual or community) within these societal classifications?
This discussion is captured on the grid shown in Figure 1 in which one continuum represents the degree of individual voice vs. representative voice; the other addresses the individual narrative, an isolated experience or particular snapshot in time (e.g., a specific day in October at the pumpkin patch, a unique love affair, etc.), vs. a collective or comprehensive narrative that characterizes something intangible like a theme or premise, often a political or moral statement, e.g., the effects of colonialism.
To assess intent, we must first look at how the author crafts the narrative-primarily through setting, plot, character-and examine recurring themes. Essentially, is the narrative primarily plot- or character-driven? Or is the plot and/or character crafted to serve some greater purpose? Second, we also need to be conscious of the audience to whom the author is directing his or her narrative.
Generally, the individual-voice, isolated-experience occurs in shorter narratives, for example, the essay or short story, like Michael Chabon's "Along the Frontage Road". (Of course, there are many exceptions. In an essay of a particularly political nature like Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark, this wouldn't hold true.)
In contrast, the representative-voice, collective- experience is more likely to intrude on longer narratives, like those characterized by Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea and the collective short stories found in Drown, by Junot Diaz. (For our purposes here, I exclude contemporary, popular fiction)
Specifically, in "Along the Frontage Road", Chabon's Jewish heritage is not critical to the story. More important is his life experience as a middle-class white male. Even then, it represents a minute part of the narrator's intention, which is to sketch the chance encounter of two families from radically different backgrounds who cross paths in a pumpkin patch. This is not a routine occurrence for the narrator and Chabon does not choose to write an entire book about blacks and Jews. Nor does this incident impact the rest of his life or the lives of any of the other characters, to any degree. Historical and political phenomena serve as the story's status quo, but the narrative itself is simply a scene that shows the difficulty of establishing a dialogue between two fathers from radically different backgrounds. Thus, the story represents an isolated experience in this particular author's life. In summary, Chabon does not rely on his heritage to carry the story.
While John Yau has no problem identifying himself as a Chinese-American when warranted, he does not feel compelled to write from the vantage point of a Chinese-American, especially given that he often makes no reference to his heritage and, in fact, writes from other points of view, e.g, female, etc. His essays and short stories reflect universal themes, e.g., dating and love affairs, family relationships, etc. His Chinese-American heritage is not at the center of his stories or essays.
When Clarice Lispector writes a newspaper column for an educated, upscale audience, she writes in the first person and selects isolated events in her life (thus Selected Cronicas), e.g., a ride with a taxi driver, her maids, the mean girl who refuses to lend a book, her manipulation of a teacher. There is no need to highlight her Latin-American heritage, because she shares this in common with her audience. The column is about Lispector, alone, and her life experience. Her essays represent, in a sense, ruminations on her private experiences, a kind of public diary.
With Jean Rhys, however, the notion of representation becomes more interesting. As an ex-Dominican who lived most of her life in England, what does she select for her narrative? It seems that, at least in this particular novel, even though she plays primarily to a British audience, the importance of her years in England is virtually nil. What she wants to communicate to this audience is the effect of colonialism, particularly for a woman. Nonetheless, she offers different points-of-view, employed through the perspectives of Antoinette, Rochester, and Christophine. It is her consciousness of the whole, the collective experiences of at least three communities (the English, Creoles, and native Dominicans), that gives rise to the story. Colonialism and its aftermath are both at the root of this story and key to shaping the plot. Her intent is to illustrate the destructive impact of Colonialism; the setting, characters, and plot are subservient.
Diaz, in Drown, speaks from the first person, but he speaks to his collective experience and those of the Dominican community (e.g., his mother's recognition of the smell of tear gas). He writes to an English-speaking audience. As he makes no attempt to represent any other perspective, his work is more likely to be classified as representative-voice, collective-experience.
My point on the grid lies somewhere between the individual-collective and representative-collective experience. Certainly, I have no desire to represent - nor could I - all the black women living in America. However, I typically choose to write from the perspective of a black female (one probably closely aligned with my own) set in a racially-sensitive environment to explore how that shapes the way a particular woman thinks, feels, and behaves. Depending on the genre, the narrative could be quite isolated, e.g., snapshot of a mother driving her daughter to school best portrayed in an essay or short story form; or collective, e.g., an exploration of the impact of interracial relationships (specifically white women and black men) on black women, or white women, or black men (the subject of my novel-in-progress).
As an individual in the United States, where one's intrinsic value and societal worth are to a large degree predicated on race, I would, in fact, find it difficult not to incorporate racial themes within my work as they are key to my own self-awareness and world perspective.
At a very basic level, my intent as a writer is to simply share a unique narrative; at its most lofty, it might be to jar perception, create awareness, raise consciousness … do I dare say be a catalyst for change? In writing to what I hope is a discriminating audience (literate people of any color), however, my writing is likely to be categorized as representative voice-collective experience. Regardless of my intent, by choosing to explore racial themes of the kind I examine in my novel, I inherently run the risk of being labeled as just another angry, black sistah.