I get a little uncomfortable myself around writers who talk about "speaking for the outsiders, for the marginalized." It's tricky as hell to speak for someone else, and the Real Change slush pile is full of well-meaning writing by well-meaning people who miss the mark totally.
Even those who have been homeless, or who have enough empathy to see from the eyes and feel with the damp and itching skin of a woman on the streets, are sometimes mistaken in attempting to speak for all homeless people, or all outcasts. I am not all women. I can tell you my experiences as a woman, as honestly and close to the gut as I can, and hopefully you will get some more understanding of some other humans from what I say -- but you will not understand all women, because we vary as much as any other human being, and humans vary more than snowflakes because snowflakes keep the same basic shape until they melt.
But it is still worth it for each of us to speak our experience as fully as we can -- and to empathize with the experience of others as fuly as we can. You could say that human beings don't manage much in the way of absolute full, pure and complete truth, but we just get as close as we can and it usually works. Well, we also can't understand each other full and completely. We stretch our understanding as far as we can, until we get it to a level where the communication we're trying for works. I don't understand my friend Dr. Wes Browning the way Dr. Wes understands himself, and he doesn't understand me the way I understand myself. But he could write a post from my address, and I could write a post from his, and I'll bet you peanuts to chocolate very few of our correspondents would catch on.
I wrote a little story from the point of view of a black hip-hop street kid. I will not make the claim that I now completely grok, with an all-encompassing totality of understanding, the beingness of any black hip-hop street kid. But I got enough understanding in that story to make that story work, and it carried over to being more at home on the streets with kids like that. I understand them more than I did.
I understand enough of what happens inside an abused woman, and an abusive man, to write a story about it. I won't claim to understand it totally. But I understood it to some extent, and that extent was important to voice.
Or take my report of the 1997 Take Back the Night Rally in Seattle:
One part of the take Back the Night rally is a Speak Out,
where women who are victims of violence get the stage to tell their
story. Tonight, that part of the program came right after my speech,
so I was still standing close to the stage while I listened. And a
middle-aged Native American woman came up beside me; she reached for my
hand and mumbled, "Would you come up there with me? I have something
She was one of our damaged ones. I could smell alcohol on her breath, her eyes were cloudy, she acted a bit disoriented. She was also obviously in emotional pain.
So I held on to her and said, "Yes." Then after a few moments listening to the current speaker, she mumbled, "I don't know what to say."
I used some of the questions that help people get started on their stories in writing workshop. She went from mumbling "I can't remember" to suddenly bursting out, "I was beaten up. I was raped. I got pregnant. I was twelve. It hurt." And she jerked up her shirt to show a scar from her sternum down to her belt line, that probably went to her pubus. Like they used to do cesarean deliveries. Which a twelve or thirteen year old girl would have required.
We talked. I told her if she only felt comfortable saying a little bit, she could come back and say more next year. Then we went up on stage. All I said was "My friend Priscilla has something to say." Priscilla told her story in her own words. They weren't even the words she'd used talking to me offstage, but she said it straight, simply, and her words had power. She even showed them her scar.
She said, "They took my life away. And I was only twelve."
When she came down off the stage she was holding her head high. Her eyes were clear. There was a glow to her face and when she smiled, her smile didn't have any tightness in the corners. She got a lot of hugs from women in the audience. We hung out together for a while, then she moved off; we saw each other during the march, then got separated; talked for a bit afterward, then she went home. She doesn't need to cling to me any more. She's started healing.
I do not know Priscilla totally, and I never will. I cannot put on her flesh and feel it, or feel her emotions and her thoughts and her memories as she herself feels them. But I can come close enough to say some things that need saying.
And with more of us doing that, some day we will have a human community.
The Bird Homeless