Saturday, December 20, 2014

12/20: Faith Adiele on the multicultural essay as multicultural performance

Arguing With My Husband, Or The Multimedia Essay as Multicultural Performance, Part 1

In Nigerian boarding school my husband’s peers nicknamed him “O.P.” after the exasperated notations his teachers jotted at the top of his papers: Off Point!  Forty years later, when he embarks upon a story, complete with rhetorical flourishes like “How do I know this? Well…” other Nigerians cry out, O.P.! O.P.! (which, if you’ve ever been subjected to the endless speechifying that is a Nigerian event, is saying something). His reasoning is fascinating, as my Facebook and blog followers will attest; however, arguing with him is a nightmare. I don’t want to hear a 10-minute account of why he didn’t do what he planned to do when he planned to do it. I fail to see how establishing if Montgomery Ward went out of business in December 2000 (or was January 2001?) bears any relevance to fixing the toilet. I recently found myself throwing up my hands and blurting: “For God’s sake, I don’t care about the narrative!”

He swiveled to stare at me, crushed. “But you’re a writer!” What’s more, in literary argument, I’m all about the cyclic progression of story and idea, the both/and worldview, ambivalence and nuance. I want the page to complicate the conversation, to inhabit the gray zone, though as a biracial person I prefer to call it brown, after Richard Rodriguez’s book-length essay, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, which employs the color “as the line separating black from white… all paradox is brown.” I like to believe my project is a function of my identity, the result of viewing the world through a multicultural lens. But, in domestic argument, apparently I want a spare, linear, either/or story, subject to a hierarchy of facts, concerned with the bottom line. With chagrin, I’m forced to admit that I choose TV cop over Montaigne-worthy digressions: Just the facts, ma’am.

Nigerians like to argue. In public. The exchange of power and ideas is a performance done in full view of the community. The role of the writer/scholar is to start the argument, looping back to recapture previous narratives. Such referential meanderings evoke Montaigne’s essais, but the performative has still deeper roots. In oral tradition, the story/essay is but one side of a dynamic triangle, in relationship with the griot (storyteller)/author and the audience/reader. The author shapes the story according to community needs and response, thereby sharing the authorship process. Ancient storytelling thus functions much like current theories on hypertext (“text that branches and allows choices to the reader” Nelson 1993: 2), digital (computer, technology-based) storytelling, and multimedia.

The San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, is home to countless technology startups espousing multimedia storytelling, as well as numerous venues for live storytelling and one-person shows. Except for organizations like the Digital Storytelling Association, which came out of the oral history movement of the 1970s and acknowledge that their practice is “the modern expression of the ancient art of storytelling” (2011: P1), most appear to believe that they’re on to something new. And while the technologies may be, the forms and gestures are not. Multimedia performance/interactivity is not non-traditional, experimental, even necessarily elitist. It signals a return to traditional, communal, and most importantly—now considered non-Western traditions—like oral storytelling, talk-story, and testimonio. It is interactive, not because networked computing has democratizing effects, but because, at its the most basic, storytelling is interactive and instructive. And the Bay Area and New York are epicenters in part due to their large, literate multicultural populations. Mixed media is the lingua franca of the mixed experience.

Journalism has jumped on the multimedia bandwagon, resulting in some fantastic genres like performance journalism and digital documentary poetry (one of the best examples being Kwame Dawes’ HOPE: Living & Loving with HIV in Jamaica). But journalists, even literary and narrative ones, approach the roles of subject and narrator differently than do essayists. I’d like to see the essay embrace multimedia as a multicultural gesture on the part of the author. After all, the essay is already hybrid, Creative married to Nonfiction. The Nonfiction element (or, as I call it, Head Data) follows the conventions of traditional essay, employing the tools of hard nonfiction (research, data, logical argument, interviews). The Creative element (Heart Data) seduces the reader with lyrical and fictional techniques (narrative, imagery, characterization, whispered personal intimacy, the “command of metaphor”—what Aristotle famously calls in Poetics, “the greatest thing by far … to have”).

For years I sought a third element, struggling against the limitations of linear thought on a two-dimensional page. I dubbed it Body Data, an experiential or visceral structure that could recreate and enact the author’s complex experience for the reader. Usually it involved coming up with an innovative, extra-literary structure or typography. Now multimedia seamlessly allows for the addition of that third element as other sensory media; digital media (and book arts) allow the writer to replicate her journey for readers to navigate and border-cross.

Examples of what I’m talking about include the video-poems of lyrical essayist/ experimental poet Claudia Rankine, in particular Situation #6, an important collaboration with John Lucas wherein Rankine performs a hypnotic poem atop video of black male youth shopping against the imagery and noise of a police cruiser. The Atavist’s Twice Upon A Time: Listening to New York, Hari Kunzru’s essay on the sounds of New York, accompanied by his photographs of street graffiti, movable text, and a soundtrack of street sounds and the music of Moondog, synched to the reading experience. And TriQuarterly Review’s library of video essays, including Stephen Chen’s Grandpa, which tells the story of a mixed Chinese-Anglo family, each media format evoking a different way of seeing.

Apparently, if my husband is any indication, a Nigerian can’t think in a single temporal space; he knows that the past and future walk hand-in-hand with the present. And even though I think he’s nuts, as a Nigerian-Nordic-American, I am forced to acknowledge more than one reality, to hold more than one worldview in my head. For those of us who process our globalizing world through multicultural lenses and bodies, who must reconcile the traditional and the modern, who codeswitch between oral tradition and written word, these open-ended, polyglot forms may be the best way to make sense of our complex, fractured experience. The closest thing we have to home.

Faith Adiele is the author of The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems (Shebooks), a witty, tricultural look at black women and fibroids, and Meeting Faith (W.W. Norton & Co.), a travel memoir about becoming Thailand’s first black Buddhist nun; co-editor of Coming of Age Around the World: A Multicultural Anthology (The New Press); and Writer/Narrator/Subject of the PBS documentary My Journey Home. She is currently Interim Director of Writing & Literature at the California College of the Arts, where she teaches documentary narrative and international literature, and is designing a graduate course on the digital essay.

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