Representing the Other

Yesterday I was part of a panel discussion with writer Sid Marty, and moderated by Pamela Banting, about “Representing the Other” in Creative Nonfiction. We covered several interesting ideas during the 90 minute discussion, but a comment from a member of the audience questioned the responsibility of the author in portraying the Other, and I would like to muse on that a little here.

The gentleman suggested – and I am paraphrasing – that writers must work to reduce the ‘otherness’ of the Other. To show the reader what we share in common and the ways we are the same. This is a common trope found in travel writing: the idea that people in foreign cultures are “just like us.” The claim is oft followed by the question, “So why can’t we all just get along?”

This idea is politically correct. It may give us a warm feeling and a John-and-Yoko glow. But it is nonsense. No travel writer – and perhaps no creative nonfiction writer – is interested primarily in what we have in common with the Other, regardless of his or her claims. The writer goes off to seek the differences in the world, the exotic, the unfamiliar. That is the point of the whole exercise. I don’t give a shit about commonalities.

Besides, it is impossible to un-other the Other. We can never hope to truly know another person, especially one coming from a background completely foreign to our own. How could I truly comprehend a man who has lived his life in a desert refugee camp? Or an Indian migrant camping out on the edge of Europe? Or a Palestinian farmer watching his olive trees bulldozed to build Israel’s Wall? Or, for that matter, the young IDF soldier doing the bulldozing? To suggest that we can understand these people and show how they are, in some important way, “just like us” is hubris. It is also, I think, insulting.

Writing the Other is not about comprehension, but about responsibility. We are beholden to the Other to portray him with compassion. We strive to make our readers sympathetic to and respectful of the Other, not to understand him. Perhaps we work to bust myths and debunk stereotypes. In this way, we write to affect change in our reader. To teach the reader something new.

Much of my writing is about the cultures of Islam. There is no Other more maligned and feared these days than the Muslim Other. In my Iran book, Poets and Pahlevans, I show the reader that the Iranian Other is not a fundamentalist and flag-burning radical, but a sophisticated and reasoned caretaker of rich cultural traditions. The book does not claim that the Iranians are just like us, far from it, but it aims to show the reader that the Iranians are not how they perceive them to be. The book is, at its heart, a 300-page love letter to the Iranian people that celebrates the ways in which they are unique from Us. We can learn much from them.

The gentlemen in the audience stated we can prevent war by showing what we have in common with the Other. My initial response to his comment was that stopping wars is not my job. It isn’t, but I wish I’d expanded on that a little more. His point is that we are less likely to drop bombs on people similar to ourselves. I think this is naive. As a culture, and as a species, we don’t have much problem harming our own. I suggest instead that portraying the Other with compassion, revealing the beauty in their uniqueness, and inspiring sympathy for their culture is a more realistic path to peace. We are even less likely to drop bombs on those we’ve learned to love.