Academic journal article MELUS

"Entering the Silence": Voice, Ethnicity, and the Pedagogy of Creative Writing

Academic journal article MELUS

"Entering the Silence": Voice, Ethnicity, and the Pedagogy of Creative Writing

Article excerpt

The paradoxical nature of silence and its relation to ethnicity is starkly portrayed in a disturbing scene late in Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir The Woman Warrior (1975), a mixed-genre work that blends myth, folklore, family history, ghost story, bildungsroman and immigrant saga into a postmodern portrait of the artist as a young woman. Taking up five percent of the book's length, the scene presents two Chinese-American girls in the basement washroom of their elementary school. The narrator, Maxine, is the twelve-year-old, partly Americanized daughter of Chinese immigrants living in Oakland, California in the 1950s. The second girl, also the daughter of Chinese immigrants, is a year older, but smaller and more fragile. She reads aloud in class, yet seldom speaks. Maxine taunts and brutalizes the girl, pinching her cheeks, pulling her hair, and demanding repeatedly that she speak. "Talk," she commands, "You have a tongue," "Why don't you scream `Help?'", "I'll let you go if you say just one word," and "You'd better say something" (176-80). But the second child refuses to utter a sound. And Maxine soon pleads, "Why won't you talk?", "I'm doing this for your own good.... Please talk" (180-81). She stops only when her own sister enters the washroom. The reader is, inevitably, left to ask why Maxine tries to bully her classmate out of silence, and why the girl keeps silent?

This is a paradigmatic scene in the literature of the immigrant experience because it deals with the relation of language to identity and voice. Beyond the particularities of Kingston's cultural and historical situation, there are problematic issues at stake here. This scene will be discussed later, but first it is important to look at its cultural and literary contexts. To illuminate the pattern of transformation that silence signals, the following comments will range over a variety of texts.

The title of this essay," "Entering the Silence," comes from the second volume of journals by the American poet and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-68). However, the word "silence" is not used here exactly as Merton does, nor is the essay concerned with the theological import of the idea of silence for monastic life. But a cue is taken from the subtitle of this volume of journals, Becoming a Monk & Writer, because Merton links the growth of his religious and writerly vocations to silence. The verb "entering" not only suggests motion but marks the noun "silence" as a place or site. Merton, of course, is not alone in recognizing the importance of silence to writing.

In 1934, when the Russian writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940) spoke at the first Congress of the Soviet Writers' Union, he claimed, cryptically, that he was becoming a "master of the genre of silence" (Pirozhkova, xx). Exactly what he meant by that phrase has teased generations of critics, although it may represent a response to Stalin's accelerating purges. In any case, Babel's "genre of silence" has echoes in the words of the American poet Muriel Rukeyser (1913-80), who wrote in "The Speed of Darkness": "I am working out the vocabulary of my silence" (112). Rukeyser, who acknowledged her lesbianism only late in a long, distinguished career, perhaps had her sexual identity in mind in this poem. Certainly the idea of silence has been a crucial part of feminist literary criticism by creative writers, such as Tillie Olsen's classic Silences (1965) and Adrienne Rich's On Lies, Secrets and Silence (1960). And silence continues to be emphasized in writing about women writers, for example, in Kennedy Fraser's latest book, Ornament and Silence: Essays on Women's Lives.

Recently, however, a number of women writers with immigrant backgrounds have applied the idea of silence not only to gender issues but also to concerns about race and ethnicity. The fiction writer Makeda Silvera and the poet

Marlene Nourbese Philip, who share a Caribbean background and currently live, and write, in Canada, have made this connection in, respectively, Silenced and She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. …

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