The Politics of Empathy

For over two years I’ve been researching and writing a poetry collection about sex-trafficking and objectification issues in America. When I give poetry readings there is always at least one person, if not more, from the audience who comes up to me and asks: “Why are you writing about this issue?” What I’ve discovered is, they’re really asking, “Are you a trafficking survivor?” I answer truthfully, “I am not.”

Many of these questioners say that my persona poems (that is: poems where I’ve adopted the voice and perspective of a fictional or historical person) made them wonder about my life experiences. While I’m glad that the poems are powerful enough to be believable, I am careful not to take ownership of stories that are not mine. This would be exploitive, disingenuous, rude, and does not further the cause that I’m advocating—which is the end of modern-day slavery.

The second thing people ask is, “Well then, WHY are you writing about this issue?” At first this question grated—I wanted to say, “To help end modern-day slavery!” But now I understand this question is significant. As the manuscript progresses, I find I am accessing and writing about my own formative trauma and history of objectification. That is to say, I’m accessing the impetus for the project.

Parsing this trauma—which includes severe parental neglect, foster care, and sexual exploitation—has been a starting point to enter the trafficking stories, to cultivate forgiveness for people who’ve done me harm, and to make restitution to people I’ve harmed. In other words, this trauma has been an entry point into empathy for sex-trafficking survivors. And, empathy is crucial when writing persona poems. It is also crucial for social advocacy,

THE LINE BETWEEN EMPATHY AND APPROPRIATION

Many writers wonder if “empathy as entry point” is enough when writing about the experiences (much less fictionalizing the thoughts and feelings) of others who are decidedly different from one’s self. I met several such writers at the 2015 AWP conference panel “The Politics of Empathy,” which featured editors and writers from Talking/Writing Magazine. Together, the panel and the audience were asking: “What is the line between empathy and appropriation?”

I did not, and do not have a definitive answer to this question. However, I’m doing my best to keep this line clear by setting boundaries, or guidelines, for my project. In no particular order, here’s what I keep in mind:

-CONSENT— When I interview survivors, or practicing prostitutes, I obtain consent to use their stories and ask them if they want me to refer to them in the poem (and/or the liner notes) with their initials, a pseudonym, or with their full name. As it happens, much of my material comes from anonymous sources who’ve talked to various news reporters (either in documentaries or in articles) so I assume that a tacit consent has been given.

-CONTENT— Fahim Gulamali, of ArtWorks for Freedom, has said, “Art is particularly useful in illuminating complex subjects, so use your work to depict human-trafficking accurately.” She goes on to ask artists to avoid depicting sensationalized stereotypes. To this end, I write and finish a poem and then, before letting it out into the world, I pause to ask: 1) Does the poem raise AWARENESS? What I mean is: does it bring light to dark places? Also: 2) Does the poem foster HEALING? I don’t want to revel in darkness—my goal is to transform, or heal, it.

-EDIT— After I “check myself” regarding the content, I share my work with other writers I know. Their reactions and suggestions have been informative, and amazingly helpful. I’ve always workshopped my work—either to improve it, or to understand why I shouldn’t change it. But this new project, this topic, is especially close to my heart so feedback—in order to navigate my stated goals, in order to let the project breathe and grow into new places, in order to write the best possible poetry—has been imperative.

-GIVE— I know poetry only goes so far to raise awareness about any issue so I decided to give directly to the community I was writing about. I began volunteering as a blogger for Amirah, a local advocacy group for sex-trafficking survivors. I also teach Free2Write poetry classes at Amirah’s safe house. My hope is to empower these women to tell their own stories in their own way. One former student is even seeking publication for a book!

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With my manuscript nearing completion and final edits soon to begin, I plan to continue to follow these guidelines, to trust what speaks through me, and to write the best poetry I can.

 


2 Responses to “The Politics of Empathy”

  1. Kathleen Aguero

    Thank you,Jennifer, for this thoughtful and useful post.

  2. Mardith Louisell

    Good post, Jennifer. I appreciate that you thought about guidelines and boundaries for your project. And that you are brave enough to write about this difficult subject when you aren’t a survivor. Kudos to you for all of this.

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