Co-Opting My Words: Two Visions of Performing in Another’s Voice

It’s been years since I’ve heard the poem read the first time.  It’s been years, but it sticks in my mind not because of its topic, not because of its power, but because I heard it and thought, “how dare you.”  It comes to my mind now because I thought this and chewed on it for many years, and because a friend of mine mentioned how much she loves Eve Ensler, how much she thought I’d enjoy I Am an Emotional Creature.  This friend isn’t close to me.  I choose not to talk to her much, because she has a tendency to co-opt my words for her own purposes, to tell me I experienced things in a way that makes sense to her, in ways that support her worldview, but erases what I actually said and felt and remember doing.  Her recommendation brought back a lot of memories. 

I remember Eve Ensler’s voice, addressing an audience, delivering rules about how to survive being taken as a sex slave.  It’s entitled “A Teenage Girl’s Guide to Surviving Sexual Slavery.”  The girl’s name is Marta, but we only know that about halfway through the poem.  And Ensler does this tricky thing… we know she’s been to the Congo.  We know she’s spoken with Congolese women.  We know she’s worked this angle of education about domestic violence, about rape, about atrocities committed against women, but we don’t know who this teenage girl, Marta, is.  Ensler’s book, I Am an Emotional Creature: the Secret Life of Girls Around the World, about the emotional lives of teenage girls when faced with violence and sex and their bodies and life, is a string of “fictionalized” narratives.  Fictionalized.  Well, how fictionalized?  We don’t know.  Is Marta as Marta real?  Is she some kind of amalgam of different girls Ensler spoke to?  Did Ensler take Marta’s words exactly, or did she invent language to describe her interpretation of Marta’s experience?  Is Marta entirely composed of “should be like this”es?  We don’t get to know.  Ensler here co-opts this experience, puts words into the mouth of this… girl? collage? invention?  It struck me as dishonest.

I don’t believe this is the only way to create art that speaks to others’ personal experiences.  I don’t believe that a writer or an actor or a painter is limited to inventing something whole cloth or appropriating another’s experiences in order to make a point.  There is more to it than that.  I’ve always laid the work of Anna Deavere Smith next to the performance of Ensler’s poem.   In her 2005 TED Talk, “Four American characters,” she performs monologues not just inspired by the interviews she conducted around the US, but performs the section of interview itself, taking on the tone and inflection of the speaker, listening to the recording again and again and performing it exactly, bringing the character and their words to the audience.  Her art is one of juxtaposition.  Her art states where it came from when dealing with the words of others.  She gives her sources with an unabashed honesty, and tells the audience what she is doing.

And therein lies the key.  When dealing with the words (and experiences) of others, a certain kind of honesty is needed, a certain kind of respect for the source.  I won’t be reading the book.  And I won’t be talking to my friend again any time soon.

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