Wednesday, November 26, 2008

My name is Mara Baldwin and this is how my conscience was born.

When I was 12 our family moved from urban New Jersey to picturesque upstate New York and I was able to rewrite my past for a new audience of highly critical upper middle class peers. These stories included amazing exciting things I did, elaborated on how intelligent my parents were and described with intensity any brush with fame or historical celebrity I could make up. In eighth grade I told my teachers that all my relatives were direct descendants from indentured servants on the Mayflower, which, of course, is only partly true-- I am every bit of European mutt as the next kid in the Ithaca public school system.

At some point it became clear to me that as the eldest child, the eldest grandchild, and the daughter of two parents whose personalities fixate on preservation and documentation of the past, it was my responsibility and duty to record our memories and hold them in the light. However, those histories are subject to permutation. Someone told me that it was recorded through case study and observation that the more times a person told a story, the more it changed. For example, if an individual was told a story they could repeat it more accurately a week later when asked to recount the details than they could if asked to tell the story after a week of recounting the story multiple times every day. Because when we tell stories we achieve authorship-- facts change, things are embellished or omitted-- the memory becomes less vulnerable and more performative.

There's one story in particular that I've been telling people since arriving in Ithaca 12 years ago. At some point I told so many people that I kind of forget that it wasn't true. But at this point, more people know that that memory occurred, than people that know that memory did not occur-- it has been proactively encrypted into the memories of all my friends who know that this thing happened to me. I just moved to San Francisco 3 months ago, and recently was interviewing with potential housemates, looking for a new place to live. At one of these interviews, I found myself telling this story, and realized how funny it was that I was telling it again, to a new community of people, in a place where no one knows me, and again, where I can completely rewrite who I am, who I was and who I'd like to be.

When I think about the process of telling people 'the truth'-- that this particular memory didn't really happen to me, I know that people would take it personally, feel hurt that I lied to them and maybe lose trust in the validity of my future stories. That's why I'm choosing not to out myself on the internet-- it feels like a more personal confession than that. I've been thinking about this hurt I could make people feel and how it relates to the coming out story-- how people can feel hurt to learn that a person is 'different' than how they seemed before. I think about this and how I never told my grandmother, Mimi, that I was queer, how I didn't tell my dad until 3 years after I told my mom. I wonder if I 'owed' it to them earlier and if telling selective truths/details about my love-life was the same thing as lying.

The problem is that gender is performative-- it's a kind of storytelling. We wake up every morning and put it on in one way or another to tell people visually, with our dress, body, and body language, not only who we are, but who we were and who we want to be. I've decided that I'm not convinced that I've ever lied about who I am, even in the act of telling a story about myself that isn't true, even in my attempts to 'pass' as an identity that I am not. Identity and memory are not factual, they're fluid. This is why I can feel acclivity to objects that aren't mine, to pictures that are not of me, to stories that are not my own. I think this is why people can fight for human rights even if they don't know what it feels like for their own to be in danger, why straight people should defend the rights of gays to marry, why a white middle-class girl can draw pictures of things she doesn't own to illustrate memories she hasn't had.

In 9th grade I read Rigoberta Menchu's book, I, Rigoberta Menchu. The book was written and published just before I was born, in 1982/1983 and Rigoberta Menchu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 at the ripe old age of 33 for its publication and her uncovering of human rights violations committed by the Guatemalan armed forces during the country's Civil War that lasted from 1960 to 1996.

More than a decade after the publication of I, Rigoberta Menchú, anthropologist David Scholl conducted a thorough investigation of Menchú's story for his 1999 book Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. While Stoll confirmed that Menchú grew up in a Mayan peasant village, which was visited by Marxist guerrillas and then attacked by the Guatemalan army, he also discovered that Menchú changed many elements of her life, family and village to meet the publicity needs of the guerrilla movement, which she joined as a political cadre after her parents were assassinated.

In the book, Menchú maintained that her family was actively involved in fighting against their subjugation by wealthy Guatemalans of European descent and the Guatemalan government. She also claimed that her father, Vicente Menchú, had founded the peasant movement known as the Committee for Campesino Unity. Instead, while poor, it was uncovered that her father and family was relatively prosperous by local Mayan standards. During the late 1970s, when Vicente Menchú's daughter claimed that he was an underground radical political organizer, he was at home in his village of Chimel working with U.S. Peace Corps volunteers.

In her 1982 life story, Menchú claimed that she and her family had been forced to work as peons on a distant coastal plantation for eight months of the year, as millions of other impoverished Mayan farmworkers continue to do every year. According to neighbors, however, the family was sufficiently well-off to avoid this fate. Menchú also claimed that her father refused to allow her to attend school, on the grounds that it would turn her into a non-indigenous "ladino" who would forget her Mayan roots, but in reality, Catholic nuns supported her in a succession of schools until she reached the 8th grade.

In one episode in her 1982 story, Menchú claimed that her younger brother Petrocinio had been burned alive by Guatemala's military as she and her family were forced to watch in a town plaza. After interviewing local townspeople and reviewing contemporary human rights reports, Stoll concluded that Petrocinio was shot by Army-supported paramilitary groups, rather than burned to death and that Menchú and her family had not witnessed his death. However, Stoll argues that her 1983 story is not a hoax. The reason is that she in fact lost both her parents, two brothers, a sister-in-law and three nieces and nephews to the Guatemalan security forces.

In response to Stoll's findings, Menchú initially accused him of defending the Guatemalan military and seeking to discredit all victims of the violence, but later she acknowledged making certain changes in her story. The Nobel Committee has dismissed calls to revoke her Nobel prize because of the reported falsifications; however, Professor Geir Lundestad, the secretary of the Committee, said her prize "was not based exclusively or primarily on the autobiography". According to the Nobel Committee, "Stoll approves of her Nobel prize and has no question about the picture of army atrocities which she presents. He says that her purpose in telling her story the way she did 'enabled her to focus international condemnation on an institution that deserved it, the Guatemalan army.'"

When the book was first published, it was titled, "Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia," which translates to My Name is Rigoberta Menchú and this is how my Conscience was Born. I like this title for an autobiography because it admits that the personal story is just a prop for a larger dialogue. This is how I feel about the drawings I'm doing right now. I tell stories because they open me up to other people, and in my vulnerability, it becomes easier for me to talk to other people, for them to listen, for them to talk back to me. Our lies turn into dialogues which turn into memories.

No comments: