Transformations in Writing from the Self

Intersectional identities (Image from Sex and Society)
Intersectional identities (Image from Sex and Society)
Intersectional identities (Image from Sex and Society)

A while back on my other blog, Love’s Labors Lost, I wrote about what it meant for me to write a play from the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.

At the time, the play I was working on was Tulpa, or Anne&Me. Since then, I put a few more pieces under my belt: Encanta, Doll Test, and The Elvenking.

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The person I was when I started Tulpa, or Anne&Me is not the same person I am now. The process of writing that play exorcised a lot of internalized racism, misogyny and homophobia. I no longer lament the fact that I’m a gay Black woman. I love it. I celebrate it.

Enter Encanta, the play that thumbs its nose at Eurocentric, androcentric, heteronormative fantasy by taking place on a tropical island where everyone–and I mean everyone–is LGBT and of Latinx descent. What began as a love letter to Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla) of ABC’s Once Upon A Time transformed into an act of self love.

Encanta is not a play about The Struggle (TM). Gender, race and sexuality are not obstacles to overcome, but things to enjoy and celebrate. It’s not afraid to be silly and fun. It’s romantic and fantastical and not ashamed of it.

If Tulpa, or Anne&Me reflected the broken mirror that was my experience of gay Black womanhood up until then, Encanta is a kaleidoscope of dizzying patterns and color that reflected and celebrated the beautiful complexity of identity.

The play itself does not directly talk about social justice. Simply being what it is and the people being who they are shows a radical shift in my consciousness. I no longer feel the need to justify women, people of color, and LGBT people being front and center in any story I write. Gone are the assumptions I held about my blackness, my queerness, my womanhood being “special interest” topics and not human experiences.

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In Encanta, gay Latinas and Afro-Latinas don’t exist to collect Good Liberal points. They reflect the things lacked in the media I consume on a daily basis, things I longed to see: rich, multifaceted, queer women of color doing things like kicking ass, falling in love and being the star in a world of magic and imagination.

Some may find Encanta’s setting elements artificial, bordering on unbelievable, but is that any different from all the films and TV shows where everybody important is straight, white and male? I don’t think so. At least Encanta would give Latinx actors a chance to shine.

If someone finds it harder to empathize with a human being who is a different color, a different gender, or a different sexuality than with monsters, aliens and superheroes, then that suggests something going on with them and not because a character who is Black, female, LGBT, disabled or poor is lacking some universal human trait.

One would think that this is self-explanatory, but it really isn’t. When you get told your whole life that your story is not human but a niche, you eventually start to believe it. Whether consciously or not, I approached Blackness, womanhood, and queerness as limitations. It was only consciously unlearning the things I was taught about myself that made me able to think and choose differently.

I am now able to see and recognize that my experiences of race, gender and sexuality expand rather than contract the humanity of my work. It leads to new types of questions, more varied interpretations, more interesting analysis in addition to the ordinary kind of analysis and interpretation. What I give up in a generalized applicability for a mainstream audience I gain in being able to give my work more depth and complexity that would have otherwise been absent.

The irony is not lost on me. The very things that I thought took away from the value of my art and my voice are now the best things about them. I would be proud, but the work is not all mine. The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond was instrumental in that process as well as countless conversations I’ve had with other women of color and LGBT people of color. Without them, I would probably still be hating myself and not know it.

What about you? How has the way you write about race, gender, sexuality, and other identities evolved?

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Shawn C. Harris is a playwright who has written, developed, and produced plays on New York City's indie theatre scene. Her works consistently feature strong roles for women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Since 2008, she has been writing essays and sharing resources about theatre, social justice, and diversity on her blog, Love's Labors Lost. In 2010, Shawn founded Crossroads Theatre Project to develop plays that re-imagine the form and content of African diaspora theatre.