Writing The Other
by Sadie Hoagland
Sadie Hoagland holds a PhD in Fiction from the University of Utah and an MA in Creative Writing-Fiction from UC Davis. Her work has appeared in Slush Pile Magazine, The Black Herald, MOJO, Alice Blue Review, Grist Journal, and The South Dakota Review, among others. Her novel, STRANGE CHILDREN, placed second in the Del Sol Press First Novel Prize this past summer. The story focuses on two sisters, Emma and Annalue, and takes place in a polygamist commune in the desert, where a 14-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl fall in love, breaking religious law. They are caught, and a year later she gives birth to his father's child, while the boy commits murder four hundred miles away, a crime that will slowly unravel the community.
When I tell people that my novel, Strange Children, is about several characters coming-of-age in an isolated polygamist community, there are usually many follow-up questions. One of the most frequent is: Did you grow up in a polygamist community?
I did not. For many people, this raises a concern. Most of them express it by asking me about my research process (which was, as you can imagine, rigorous and sometimes very, very dark). Others are more frank and ask in one manner or another: What gives you the right to write about it then?
I confess I asked myself the same question as I embarked on this project. I read survivor memoirs, newspaper accounts, polygamist sermons and history, and I still asked. Finally, I facebooked a Private Investigator who works to aid and represent polygamists, which eventually led to a meeting with an ex-polygamist boy (these young men are often called "lost boys" by the media, but it's not a term they like). I met him on a hot dusty day, at a gas station set amidst red stone mesas, near the Utah-Arizona border, and just a few miles from the most well-known polygamist community in the West. As his story unfolded, those questions began to diminish. The more I knew of the real world, the more I was certain I was creating a fictional one.
Yet still, for others, this question of "right" remains. While I'd like to argue that serious writers don't need to defend their subject matter, history has taught us that they often do. Yet, conversations about who can write as "Other," as post-colonial theorists have pointed out, do more harm than good. This isn't to say we need not have intense research processes, aversions to tropes, and even more astute abilities in empathy, but rather that we do more harm in avoiding difficult, foreign material than we do in writing about it.
The playwright Anna Deavere Smith puts this beautifully in the introduction to her play, Fires in The Mirror: "If I have an inhibition about acting like a man, it may also point to an inhibition about seeing a man, or hearing a man... Does the inability to empathize start with an inhibition, or a reluctance to see?"
We need to see. We need to engage in the peripheral, and sometimes shameful, margins of our cultures. We need to try to understand difference, and I do that by writing. I do that by paying an ex-polyg kid to drive around a hostile polygamist commune in the desert and navigate it for me. To explain to me what it is that I am seeing, and what it was like to grow up there. To tell me why he still lives in an abandoned hotel at the edge of town as an outcast rather than move on. I do that by writing characters that feel real to me; characters whose devoted yet complicated relationships with their culture teaches me what we all have in common. Characters that are telling their own truths, as diverse and surprising as they may be. By engaging with the "Other" in this way, the writer can accomplish what others cannot.
The writer can imagine, through all manners of narrative technique, the what it is like to be someone else entirely, even someone in a totally separate historical/political/social space. By attempting to capture this consciousness, the writer asks the reader to also try to imagine what it is like. To really see the Other. To embody, and foster compassion for, experiences that otherwise feel completely outside of oneself. This is one of the most basic and valued functions of literature. It is also one of the largest challenges for a writer. How much of our heart can we give to a project that has a real people, a "lost" boy, in the real world? Can we give it all? When I left the desert that day, I wanted to. I wanted to turn around and offer that kid a home. I wanted him to know he didn't have to live like that, that there were safer places, happier places. It was hard for me to keep my responsibility, my empathy, on the page. And it was this same difficulty that let me know I was on the right track.
Literary fiction picks its own audience these days, and with that audience artistic ability is often privileged over battle scars. I mention this because I also try to write what the people of these communities cannot. I mean literally cannot--the literacy levels of the particular commune I researched were astoundingly low. Very few children had been to school past the age of twelve. In fact, as we drove by the community's many half-finished buildings, insulation exposed, additions half-framed, my source pointed out the school. He said it had been shut down for a while now. When it was open, he said, much of this schooling consisted of religion and a history of polygamist forefathers. This is why he and many other young men from there go to work in the oil fields. They don't need an education. I am not trying to claim that a "survivor" could not write a novel, but rather that significant barriers exist. Knowing this, I handle my subject matter with even greater care. I feel a responsibility to create a community in my novel that, while I know it cannot and should not be a simulacrum for the real community, at least does not distill reality with anything so reductive as some kind of judgment or moral tale. I try to create a fictional world that maintains the richness of the real one, as different and unfamiliar as it may seem.
Polygamy is a popular cultural theme. Much like serial killers, our society holds a certain fascination for people who live this lifestyle. This fetish is expressed in television shows, reality and otherwise. The news exposés that use survivors to tell their stories also play to the spectacle. They have no interest in truly understanding the experience of the survivor, as varied as it may be, but rather in perpetuating stories of difference, of freakishness. Many of the young boys living on the fringes of the community were hoping to be picked for a reality show, they were planning to ride their dirt bikes off sand dunes to attract attention. They too see themselves as different and, like most teenagers, want to be on TV. But once the cameras are rolling, their stories become simplified, tailor-made to reinforce our notions of what is good and bad, who is victim and who is perpetrator, a simple before and after of trauma. Fiction shouldn't do this, at least not good fiction.
No, fiction should do more, see more, say more. It should make us think about what we'd be like if we were raised in a polygamist community, how our values would be different, how the world would begin and end on the same red dirt road. Fiction should make us think, as an ex-polyg kid made me think one day when, as he sat nostalgically looking at his old house, a house he's not allowed in anymore, he said: "I can't imagine any better place to grow up, really."
He said this right before he thanked me for letting me tell him about everything in the community, and not just the bad stuff. That's all most reporters want, he said. I told him I wasn't a reporter, but a fiction writer. "Cool," he said.
So-back to the question at hand-No, I did not grow up in a polygamist community.
But I'm a fiction writer.