Let’s talk about bodies in space.
No, I don’t mean actual outer space, though I’m sure “Gravity” was one of those really great movies I was too lazy to go watch. Didn’t Sandra Bullock win an Oscar?
I’m talking about space – social space. The space we carve out for ourselves, the space that’s made available for us. For example, your class room is a space. And there are different bodies that take up that space and relate to each other in different ways. Your workplace is a space.
Twitter is a space.
It’s a corporate space, to be sure, so it doesn’t fully belong to us. But if #OwnYourOwn is any indication, the transgressive potential for creativity-fostering, community-building, self-expressing and social justice…ing, is all there.
Here’s the thing though. Spaces are never neutral. Bodies in space? Even less neutral.
How bodies relate in space – and more importantly, how these bodies are read by others, depends on a lot of things. There’s a lot of historical, cultural baggage behind how we see people, behind whose voices are legitimized, and whose are dismissed. And yes that’s still true even on twitter, where disembodied voices express themselves through words in a little box with a 140 character limit.
There’s a reason why some feminists of color, to get a break from threats and taunts launched at us as a response to our words, change our twitter handles to that of white faces or cartoon characters. There’s a reason why some public voices, including us authors, struggle with trying to figure out what we can say – and what we should say—on our own social media. It can be a dangerous game.
After all, the Young Adult Community is also a space. And, if I may, it’s a very white middle class hegemonic space. That’s not just speculation. Publisher’s Weekly has already talked about the lack of diversity behind the scenes and we’re all aware of the need for diversity among authors and the works that get publishing support. That makes it a tricky space, sometimes, for women of color to navigate, as authors, bloggers, readers etc.
Case in point: when I first got on twitter as an unpublished YA author, I wanted to make friends and be a part of the community. I also wanted to talk about white supremacy and racial injustice. Hey, I’m a post-colonial PhD student, it’s what I do. But over time, I started to worry about writer career things – every time I talked about social injustice I lost followers. I bothered people. Am I scaring away publishers? Would I lose readers too?
And like I said, it’s not neutral. In certain spaces, certain bodies, identities and voices are privileged over others. Just like male voices like Joss Whedon or JJ Abrams can get applauded when talking about feminism while female voices are read as shrill, overbearing and dismissible, white authors have an easier time speaking about racism then authors of color, especially black female authors who already have to fight against the common assumption that speaking out about injustice as a black woman means you’re just ‘angry.’
Here’s what feminist theorist Sara Ahmed has to say about it:
There is a relationship between the negativity of certain figures and how certain bodies are encountered as being negative. Marilyn Frye argues that oppression involves the requirement that you show signs of being happy with the situation in which you find yourself. […] To be oppressed requires you show signs of happiness, as signs of being or having been adjusted. […] For an oppressed person not to smile or to show a sign of being happy is to already be recognised as negative: as angry, hostile, unhappy, and so on. (Ahmed 48-9)
Authors, bloggers, readers of color and other marginal identities are always having to negotiate these spaces, always having to deal with the fact that we are burdened with centuries of oppressive history that already colors how people read, interpret and respond to our bodies, identities and voices.
So what do we do?
I’d love to say just own it. Own your space. That’s the title of the essay after all. That’s how I feel, but I also can’t deny or erase the sad reality of the consequences (and danger) that can come from not being able to edit yourself and ‘play nice.’ I can’t, and shouldn’t be able to make decisions for anyone.
But I can tell you what I’ve learned.
I’ve learned that my voice is powerful. I’ve learned that my voice matters. And I’ve learned that even though there will likely always be consequences to the types of things I say within these spaces, whether it be on a panel with other YA authors or on social media, there is always a community there ready to have my back and yours. There is, rest assured, a community of people who are going through the same things, jumping through the same hurdles. A community of people who get me, who get you.
You don’t have to own your space if you don’t want to. But if you decide to? We got you.