I’ve been sitting on this post for months, but I really need to talk about this, so here it is.
When we started running VoV, the idea was to give all women a place where we could stand up and tell our own stories through poetry and prose. And this has worked really well over the almost four years we’ve been doing it.
However I need to throw a reminder up on here.
See, the operative words in that mission statement are “our own”.
In the local – and probably not-so-local, if youtube is any judge – spoken word community, there’s a lot of what I think of as Activist Poetry; poetry that makes the personal political in one way or another. I’ve written that kind of poetry and chances are that you, reading this, have as well. Some of it’s more personal and some of it’s more political, but there’s definitely a lot of it about.
And, of course, not everyone shares the same politics.
Some of you have probably listened to someone like me perform a piece about womanhood or sexuality and wondered how the performer could feel so differently about their chosen subject than you do. I know I’ve sat at the back of the show, twitching in my seat, as someone has performed a poem about her pro-life stance, or has used a word like “hooker” as if it were a pejorative instead of a career choice; and I’ve bitten my lip and reminded myself You can’t police people’s choices of words. She’s telling her own story. If you tell her she has to tell it differently, then it stops being Voices of Venus and turns into Voices of People Who Sound Just Like You.
But sometimes you do have to draw a line.
Remember what I said about telling our own stories?
There’s this pervasive, insidious idea that there are “people with no voices”. To pick an example near-and-dear to my own heart, people who are vocal about wanting to abolish sexwork through criminalization are also, frequently, people who don’t listen to actual sexworkers talking about how the criminalization of their jobs, or things associated with their jobs, actually makes the work more dangerous and the industry, itself, harder to leave in the long run.
Frequently, “people with no voices” really means “people whose voices get ignored”.
And those are not actually the same thing.
I mean, look at VoV. We created this stage because women have, for a long time, been classified as “people with no voices”: People whose voices get ignored. It’s why Charlotte Bronte wrote under the pen name “Currer Bell” in order to publish. It’s why an unknown author with a potential run-away hit on her hands styled herself “J.K.” instead of “Joanne”. It’s why Rusty felt a need to write that post about attendance at the women’s slams in town.
Just because women, as a population or as individuals, have been told in various ways that “people (with voices)” don’t want to listen to us… doesn’t mean that we’re not speaking, or that we have nothing to stay.
So. Where am I going with this?
Sometimes well intentioned people – people who officially “have voices” – fuck up. A man will try to speak about sexualized street harassment as if he experiences it to the same degree that women do; a white woman will try to talk about racial oppression from a perspective that isn’t, and can’t be, hers; a straight person will try to talk about the experience of being queer…
I get that we do this because we want those stories to be told, to be heard, to be listened to. But when we, as activists using poetry and narrative to draw attention to oppression, try to speak from a perspective that isn’t our own; and when we rely on two-dimensional tropes like “The Noble Savage” or “The Almost-Deceptive-Enough Trans Woman”, or “The Abused Street Hooker”, or any of the other cardboard cut-outs, in order to do it… we’re being part of the problem.
The best thing we can do, when we want a situation to be brought to light, is to shut up and listen, and make space for those stories to be told by the people who experience those situations.
If you’re someone who officially “has a voice” – a straight person who wants to talk about homophobia, a white person who wants to talk about racialized oppression, someone with a roof overhead who wants to talk about homelessness – do it by telling your own story.
I can’t write about decolonizing indigenous women’s bodies – the way, say, Moe Clark and Emilie Monnet do – because I don’t have that experience. But I can write, as Luna Allison did in her “Scotch Broom” poem, about being a naturalized transplant, a white woman whose home is on colonized soil.
I can’t write about whore stigma from the perspective of a street-based sex worker, or an indoor escort, because those experiences aren’t mine. But I can write about the horror and disgust on the face of the faculty-member who demanded “Does your wife know you have naked women in here??” of the animation prof that I work for …and talk about it that way.
If we talk about oppression by being open, and getting vulnerable, and telling our own stories, we make space for everyone to tell theirs.