Multiplicity from the Margins: The Expansive Truth of Intersectional Form

 What do you use shoes for?
My mouth clamps shut.
                                                                                                                                                           Hands wringing in lap.
Willing-my-legs-to-not-swing.

I sit in the principal’s office, a dim but cozy place with soft chairs, and stare at him in silence. He stares back at me with expectation. His black-brown beard with stray grey hairs. His kindly wrinkled eyes. Silence like a third person between us. I am afraid that if I speak, one orphaned answer will spring from my mouth and all by itself that one answer will have to be wrong.

Because there are so many answers.
                                                                         What do you use shoes for?
for rain
for color
to keep from stubbing my toe
                                               to scrape on the ground to stop my bike with its broken brakes
to keep from getting that worm Mom says gets under your skin in bare feet
                                                                               to dress up like my mom when she wears

heels
                                                           to show I’m a girl
                                                                    and have my own shoes
                                                                                                                   (even when I have to wear
                                                                                             my brother’s hand-me-down clothes)
                                                                             to show that I’m a tomboy on days
                                                                                                                                                     I don’t feel like being a girl
                                                                                  to show that we are lucky enough to buy nice shoes

but I’m ashamed of this too,
                                                                        because we live in America

(not like some relatives in the Philippines.)

Surely this would be too much to say
                                                                                                 too much space to take up
in such a small dim room, with the once-smiling principal looking at me now in confusion.

Not an Introduction but a Crossroads

Faced with the question “what do you use shoes for?” my five-year-old self wrestled with many answers. The struggle was not among the answers themselves, but between them and the external expectation of a single answer. What did the principal want me to say? Should I have answered as a girl? A tomboy? A youngest child? A daughter of striver-class immigrants? Or just as someone who didn’t want to get her feet wet? What if I said all of my answers, and the principal rejected me as dim-witted and indecisive?

This clash of internal multiplicity and external expectations of a single truth yielded one definitive result: my silence.

For too many writers, conventional expectations—and how they are institutionalized—can cause similar silences in life and on the page. Readers might expect a writer to identify as one thing: a person of color, a woman, a trans person or a domestic worker, for example. Editors might expect a work to be clearly “about” one thing with a disciplined point of view, a clear narrative arc, an opening, exposition, and authoritative conclusion. Publishers might expect an author to write in one distinct genre. These singular expectations may be useful and comfortable for those interested in maintaining the status quo. But for those of us in the margins of rule-making, singular expectations—and the way they are institutionalized—can perpetuate long histories of silencing and erasure.

I have written like this before: just in the form of conventional nonfiction; just as an Asian person; just as a woman; just as a disembodied objective white-sounding voice. With clarity and a takeaway message. This work of mine has been praised; yet this work has often left me empty; it has left me, to echo Audre Lorde, feeling mute as a bottle and no less afraid. And then I began to study literary nonfiction by authors from long-silenced communities, work by authors like Kazim Ali, Lily Hoang, Lauret Savoy, Robin Kimmerer and Bhanu Kapil. All of these writers resist oppressive forces of silencing and erasure to write what they feel must be told. And what must be told is complicated and uncomfortable and full of fragments, layers and gaps. This multiplicity of what must be told necessitates a distinct type of form; I call it “intersectional form.”

Intersectional form is characterized by writing in which authors write their intersectional identities, experiences and perspectives onto the page. What results is writing that breaks away from the confines of traditional narrative arc and instead moves through fragments and strands and strips, conveying multiple viewpoints to reject homogenous truth in favor of a more complex reality. In doing so, intersectional form necessitates the use of multiple genres such that the lines between nonfiction, fiction and poetry become blurred. Ultimately, by bucking expectations of singular topic, narrative arc, and conclusive truth, intersectional form resists convention not just for the sake of experimentation, but for the sake of conveying and even modeling new ways of being in the world.

This paper analyzes the intersectional form of three book-length essays or collections of essays by authors from marginalized communities:  Lauret Savoy’s Trace, Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon, and Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary. Each of these authors wrestles against silencing to tell what they feel must be told. Lauret Savoy examines the buried histories of her Native American and Black ancestors to trace the ways in which Indian removal, mining and slavery irrevocably shaped the American landscape. Kazim Ali rejects his right to remain silent and instead tells of moving through a world that brands him a criminal, as a queer brown Muslim man choosing to embrace both faith and love. Lily Hoang shatters the cone of silence imposed by the model minority myth to write about the pain, privileges and imperfections of her Vietnamese refugee family racing for survival and belonging in America. Each of these works dismantles once-dominant truths of Manifest Destiny, model minorities, the American Dream, and the purity of religion and sexuality through the content and craft of intersectional form. In naming and examining intersectional form in literary non-fiction, I draw heavily from the Black feminist scholarship of Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins, whose work defined and expanded the concept of intersectionality. I also draw from the literary non-fiction of social theorists from marginalized communities, including W.E.B DuBois, Homi Bhabha and Gloria Anzaldúa and their critical work on double-consciousness, hybridity and la facultad.

Because intersectional form seeks to expand what currently “is,” it is not a break with conventional creative nonfiction, but an evolution of genre. If creative nonfiction is about the transformation of raw reality into literary art (Singer and Walker 2) then intersectional form allows for the transformation of multi-faceted realities into literary art. If essays are a simulation of “the mind working its way through a problem” (Monson), then intersectional form allows for a more authentic simulation of the workings of marginalized minds wrestling with power and “gifted” with the multiple perspectives of the margins (DuBois).

 

***

Read the full critical essay at Assay: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction Studies