IMO: I can’t write.

When I was working on my MFA in Creative Writing, my first manuscript concerned an African American family in 1900. I asked my mentors, “How do I realistically create African American characters? How do I know how they felt?” Their answer for portraying people of color, gender, Jews, Asians, and Native Americans was to reveal the universal qualities intrinsic to us all. I took that to heart. So I created a Native American character in my second book. In the third novel, I’m creating Jewish sisters and exploring Japanese racism in the Pacific theater of World War II. Apparently, that’s a big no-no.

In the last decade, there is a backlash to my privileged life as a white woman. In fact, I am told, I am unqualified to write about diverse characters because I will inherently instill tropes and stereotypes that are insulting. Or, I will become the white savior who attempts to elevate the marginalized but in doing so, I discredit the group.

Though my heart is in the right place, it is misguided. While I want to showcase marginalized members of history, creating fictional characters unlike me is the wrong thing to do. When I started my academic journey in the early 90s, I rode the progressive wave–teach the history of the marginalized. Let’s change the canon. Now I feel like my surfboard cracked in half, and I’ve been kicked out of the club.

Well, shit.

I spent a great deal of time and money becoming a social historian. I love the research. Are the same issues facing white historians? Do I just give up writing, then? Or just write about white women? I am really fascinated by Jewish, African American, Native, and Asian history. I find their stories more interesting than my own. Here’s the informational article that got me thinking:

I wonder how one respectfully gets around this writing obstacle? This extends to films, naturally. I just showed students Invictus as a way to connect my African American students to apartheid and racism. Nelson Mandela is certainly worth celebrating. Should Clint Eastwood have made that film? What about his film Gran Torino? Am I obtuse?

I’m not angry or pouting. I’m more curious in this day and age what is the answer?

Dear Jane Campion,

Benedict Cumberbatch has an excellent shot at an Oscar nomination/win.

I wanted to thank you for adapting Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel and directing The Power of the Dog (2021). Your films feel like good books that beg to be analyzed. Take The Piano (1993), for instance, your signature film for the past thirty years.

I taught it in English Composition class as a visual text twenty years ago. We discussed how the piano was a character in the film. Was it not the voice of the mute protagonist Ada? Was it not a metaphor for the treatment of women in a patriarchal world in 19th century New Zealand? That is, the piano was a burden to men. It was carried, abandoned, tattooed, mutilated, and drowned at the bottom of the sea.

We compared and contrasted the spiritual connection of Ada and George Baines while the clueless colonizer Alisdair Stewart (one of Sam Neill’s best roles) attempted to control his environment, the Maori people, and his wife with disastrous results. The best character was the eight-year-old daughter, Ada. Flora was a precocious, mischievous “angel” who becomes a little demon, manipulating Christianity to punish her mother for choosing to distance their bond for another man.

You embraced the wild scenery with a passion. It was necessary for the piano to have a complex voice. Michael Nyman‘s score is still breathtaking.

Today, I’m awestruck with my favorite film of 2021. I feel compelled to write you and extend my gratitude for your adapted screenplay and direction of The Power of the Dog (2021). The emotional wrestling between the characters makes it worth many discussions. Set in Montana in the 1920s, you embraced the topography and shared to the audience the beauty and harsh realities of the cowboy culture and the ambitions of a ranching family.

Kirsten Dunst plays Rose, a fragile mother who is intimidated and close to ruin by the bossy, jealous Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch). Photos courtesy of Netflix.
Kodi Smit-McPhee, smoldering, complex, and exciting to watch.

Jane, your characters are never one-dimensional. Their motivations are hidden. Their feelings are hidden. Their narrative arcs are complete. Through the camera’s lens via close-ups, staging, and the stark lines of the setting, you flush out their feelings. To some, the characters may seem too hidden, but I’ve always been a fan of inference and subtlety. That disturbing score heightens psychological warfare. You have created a beautiful film and given me hope that the art of filmmaking has returned.


Your Favorite Fan

P.S. What did Phil Burbank see in the hills? What was he staring at? Ah, the lines of the hills are hips, torsos, legs of a lover’s embrace. Perfect.

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