Last week I went to go see director John Cameron Mitchell speak about his films, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus. During his conversation about his own two films John Cameron Mitchell at one point said that to some extent he could identify with each of his characters. I’m fascinated by this idea—the vehicle of storytelling transcending personal experience to include other narratives. In January I went to see novelist Jonathan Franzen read and answer questions about his work. In response to one question he said that the danger of telling someone else’s story is not that you will tell the story wrong, but that you are taking away that person’s ability to tell it for themselves. This has been something I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially in respect to my own storytelling and drawing practice. What are the limits of what stories are mine to tell?
I asked this question at the end of the Queer Aesthetics Symposium of Rob Epstein, Susan Stryker and Cheryl Dunye, all queer film-makers who make films about queer stories. To some extent, all spoke of a responsibility they felt to represent queer narratives in film because of an absence in the genre. But I wonder to what extent they feel this obligation—how appropriate would it be to both Epstein and a lesbian audience for him to make a film about lesbian experience? To further complicate an answer to this question, how do other identities of race or class fit in to this feeling of obligation?
It seems that an important distinction to make is the difference between “identifying with” and “identifying as.” Rob Epstein spoke briefly about an experience he had interviewing gay men who had been imprisoned for their sexuality by the German Nazi regime during WWII. In many cases his identity as a gay filmmaker felt at odds with his identity as a Jew, especially in cases where the men he interviewed could not speak beyond their persecution as homosexual men to sympathize with the millions of Jews who were similarly persecuted, enslaved and executed. I think it is significant that the main characters of Cameron’s movies, and moreover, of Epstein’s, Styker’s, and Dunye’s films too, have shared racial and queer experiences with their directors.
I think that, obviously, most directors choose to tell stories which, through self-discretion, seem both important and appropriate for them to tell. In my own work I am interested in the navigation of this boundary line- between truth and fiction. The very telling of a story, which is similar to the display of gender, is a performative act—any storytelling, in this way, is always 'untrue.' But this definition of truth excludes the fluidity of chronology—that events are understood and reevaluated in endless variations after they happened. Once the moment is past, its memory and the interpretation of that memory become moments in themselves.
Last semester I was working on a projects in which I was rendering the front covers of books that I felt strong associations with in my childhood, rewriting the author’s name as my own, the idea being that stories are performances for a public world, and when they are given to that world, they lose their specificity as a single narrative as the story is experienced by others. I was torn, however, when considering what it meant to draw The Diary of Anne Frank—a book which certainly shook my core when I was young, whose story I identified and sympathized with. Somehow the transcendence of personal experience stopped short, however, as I questioned whether or not the story of Anne Frank could really belong to me, a WASP, in my twenties, nearly 70 years later. Who do our stories belong to? What are our stories to tell? What are the limits on identification and appropriation?