Patricia Powell: The responsibility of writers

The importance of writers and artists to the fabric of society lies in their ability to recognize all that is unseen and ignored in the world, and to create work that presents new possibilities through shifting perspectives, Sonia Farmer writes in this article for The Nassau Guardian.

For some, this means manipulating standard language or methods to push the limits of our understanding; for others, this means delving into the deeply complex imbalances and injustices suffered by many in day-to-day life.

After a month-long series of panels, readings and lectures about the writing life, The Bahamas Writers Summer Institute closes this weekend thinking about this great power and responsibility writers hold.

Over the weekend, writers, artists, students, academics and everyone in-between gathered to hear a lecture by BWSI Visiting Writer Patricia Powell. Following in the footsteps of past visiting writers from the region such as Olive Senior and George Lamming, Powell lectured on a subject that has strong ties to her own work: “In Search of the Masculine.”

The subject is indeed timely as societies around the world struggle to keep up with major shifts in gendered identity.

Here in The Bahamas the struggle is palpable – female College of The Bahamas graduates hugely outnumber their male counterparts at a rate almost directly opposite to the male-to-female ratios in Her Majesty’s Prisons; young men die every day at the hands of their brothers over slights; young boys in school will not even hold another boy’s hand in a circle of prayer for fear of looking ‘sissy’ and violence against women by men has reached a critical turning point.

To begin to heal, says Powell, we must reimagine new gender relations – an existence where the masculine and feminine aren’t completely isolated from each other but rather, like yin and yang, come together in the perfect balance in each individual.

“We spend our whole lives separating ourselves from the feminine, when in truth it only makes us more aggressive, crazy, brutal and angry,” she said.

“There cannot be a real masculine unless the masculine takes into account the feminine of itself.”

“I think it’s easy to blame people for these issues but where does that get us?” she added. “As difficult as it is, we have to recognize that the people who do the most damage are the people who are in the greatest deal of trouble and someone has to help them.”

Besides being a timely subject for the region, the focus on gender, sexuality and race holds particular significance for the writer, being only some of the complex central themes in her published fiction, from which she will read in the BWSI closing night this Sunday evening at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Through her books – Me Dying Trial, A Small Gathering of Bones, The Pagoda and The Fullness of Everything – the Jamaican writer examines the untold stories of the Caribbean – stories of fluid gender and sexuality, migration, domestic violence and gay men living with AIDS.

Her willingness to expose the dark underbellies of Caribbean societies that lie beneath constructions of paradise has garnered her such awards as the Bruce Rossley Literary Award, the Ferro-Grumley Award for Fiction and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award.

But more than that, it has earned her the reputation of a fearless writer – though Powell accepts this title with great humility.

For her, writing is a careful and often terrifying investigation into the lives of those who suffer in imbalanced societies

“For me it starts with questions – why is it this way? Why do they behave this way? Why do they cause this kind of pain?

What kind of pain would they be in to cause this kind of havoc in other people’s lives? I don’t have answers,” she said.

“I’m curious about people, about how they make it through really challenging circumstances, I’m curious about their bravery and their strengths.”

“I don’t think of myself as very brave, in fact I’m very fearful most of the time, but at the end of the novel, I can see how one would say that,” she continued.

“Writing is a journey, a willingness to go through an emotional terrain – and maybe that’s what bravery is: the will to keep going and doing it as honestly as you can, and allowing yourself to fall apart, allowing yourself to come back together again.”

Having taught creative writing at MIT, Harvard University, Wellesley College, the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and now currently teaching at the graduate creative writing program at Mills College in Oakland, California, Powell will also lead a Master Class in Fiction today from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The College of The Bahamas Oakes Field Campus, room F7, which is open to anyone for $50 who would like to delve into the creative process of fiction writing.

To Powell, it’s important for young writers to cultivate in themselves a sense of curiosity and openness about life and different perspectives.

“One should have a willingness to listen to the messages of the text, to let the work talk to you because I believe writing is a relationship between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind,” she said.

“When I first started writing, I thought I was the boss of my books, the master of that universe,” she added.

“But now I’ve learned that it’s really a conversation that is happening, and much of writing is walking into that darkness listening. I think perhaps that where the bravery lies, that’s where it comes from.”

Important too is the ability to create distance between the writer and the subject – an internal migration of sorts, she adds.

Having grown up in Jamaica until the age of 16, Powell then moved to the United States – something which she feels finally allowed her the space to begin writing about the taboo in the Caribbean without fear of reprisal, and also helped open her up to possibility.

It’s no wonder that in her work – like the work of many Caribbean writers who left home in order to untangle their own complex experiences about Caribbean life and identity – migration remains a central theme, no matter where she writes.

“I think migration has allowed me to be away and then to come home,” she said.

“I think the essential ingredient there is that it also allows for distance. If you’re home, you have to find a way to migrate out of the soup you’re in, and that’s more difficult but you kind of have to be able to psychically withdraw so that you can see again with new eyes.”

“I realize the privilege I’ve had because I left, but I realize I could have left and not removed my blinders – because many people have – so I see that I’m in another soup here in this country,” she added.

“I still have to figure out a way to engage that migrating mentality. How can you step back and still witness and still write from the edge so that you can see a little bit more clearly?”

But most important of all for Caribbean writers must be that commitment to open possibility and create change through their work.

It is only through the compassionate telling of even our most difficult, painful and shameful corners of our society that writers can help Caribbean people realize a more complete identity of themselves.

“I think it’s important, if you’re writing about the Caribbean, to write about the truths of our lives,” said Powell.

“I think it’s really important for people to see themselves mirrored, to see their experiences shown and not just in a degrading way but really honored for their suffering, for them to see they are not alone.”

“I think it’s also important that we also show our readers and mirror for people who are suffering that there are other ways – a way to shift,” she added.

“I’m not proposing a big Hollywood ending – it’s just a subtle turn. I think if we can imagine something, then we can be free. We have to dream, otherwise we don’t offer any possibilities.”

Patricia Powell will read from her work at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas on Sunday, July 29 from 5-7 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

To attend her Master Class in Fiction today from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., please bring $50 to register at The College of The Bahamas Oakes Field Campus, room F7.

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