All this week Tahoma Literary Review is offering a discussion of diversity in literature, with posts from a TLR contributor or editor. We hope the series will lead to a lively discussion. Comments are open this week.
On Voicing the Pain of Others
By T.K. Dalton
At your day job, the doctor turns the hospital needle piercing the Deaf woman’s skin. “Don’t be surprised,” he says, not exactly to her. “Discomfort should be expected.” You’re the sign language interpreter, and passive voice rarely translates. The woman’s 90-year-old face bristles as her body writhes, forming a message with no equivalent in English words.
When other needles in other hospitals have pieced your own skin, you’ve barely breathed. For a half-life of blood tests, you’ve stared unspeaking at framed pictures of birds, always hummingbirds. Something about those beaks.
A cable ties the needle to a machine sounding thick static. Another needle rotation, another contortion of her eyes and face, and you grunt. Your translation overpowers the machine for a moment, but how can your voice match those clenched, wrinkled hands, those veins curved tense as the arched back of a cornered cat? The doctor peeks at the screen, a reprieve. You tell the patient the machine makes noise. She nods laconically, then shakes her head.
The needles, they’re measuring something important, you say, fairly sure that this statement is not untrue. In interpreter school, you were taught to stay in-role. But from your own time in hospitals—off-the-clock and years ago, as a patient in pediatric cancer wards—you see a little narration as necessity. If not a cure, a treatment. If not inoculation, salve.
“It’s a privilege to muck around in sentences all morning,” writes Annie Dillard. At the bottom of said muck is the just-right word, the one that makes the sentence—and the particular pain of the characters living in that sentence—as real to a disinterested Reader as subject-verb-objects about their own broken Reader heart, their own selfish Reader mother, their own empty Reader life.
It is a privilege to write. To acknowledge that privilege fully, the writer aiming to voice the pain of another, and especially the writer benefitting from privilege (of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, national origin) has to recognize the ways in which his privilege causes that pain for others and the ways in which it protects him from pain of the same origin. These writers—and I’m one of them—sometimes discount or outright deny their privilege. Admitting privilege is uncomfortable. For example: Born into a different body, a different family, or a different country, I would certainly not have received medical care for a brain tumor found at age three. If found at all, imagine the likelihood of its being surgically removed not once but twice at a world-renowned clinic. I’d be dead, probably long dead. Yes, this is proving a negative. Yes, proving this negative requires a leap of imagination. That leap is called literature. Our concern here is ensuring that literature, in our time, equals our world in its breadth.
At my day job, my inability to quickly imagine ways that pain could be voiced exposed a gap in my own experience, one requiring such an imaginative leap. But before I could leap, I had to admit the gap was a kind of privilege, rather than a virtue—toughness, say, or faith. Since then, recognizing the gaps caused by privilege has helped me match words to varied voices. Our story has a happy ending, complex as a college-town bumpersticker. Thus it is resolved: A writer is an interpreter for the imagined, the anonymous, the disgraced, the silenced, the dead.
The writer has done the work to recognize his privilege, and he has rendered a story in which an unwashed Deaf stroke victim goes to a doctor’s appointment alone. It lands before the Reader, who may be an Important Editor, or who may be a Teenager Looking up from her Homework at Snapchat.
On the question of diversity in the literary community, I argue that writers who reflect on their privilege will produce attempts at art. Readers, then, need to seek out such art, to recognize and applaud what is difficult, challenging, uncomfortable, un-bumper-sticker-like. When the writer does his job and voices the pain of others, it’s the job of the reader to open his mind. To search for breadth, to expect it, to seek it.
Like a good doctor, the good reader must be willing to leap. Leaping requires the ability to see the parts clearly while simultaneously seeing past the parts to the whole. The interpreter can grunt away, but the doctor must want to see the pain—the fifth vital sign, they say—and then must let the pain make meaning. For the writer to express the pain of another, and for the reader to receive it whole, is to complete a transaction of pure art, that like pure healing, alleviates suffering by first doing no harm.
T.K. Dalton’s essay will appear in TLR’s issue 2. His work appears or is forthcoming in Southeast Review, Weave Magazine, Radical Teacher, Deaf Lit Extravaganza, Late Night Library and elsewhere. With John Maney, he co-edited What If Writing is Dreaming Together? (NY Writers Coalition Press). He earned an MFA from the University of Oregon.