Who the hell are you as a writer? What do you stand up for? When you hear of evil and see evil, do you speak of it? Where’s them fighting words? What you got?
In 1996, Filipino playwright Paul Dumol, who was famously accused of sedition in his plays, and suffered persecution by his own government because of it, once pointedly looked at me as the only Western face in one of his workshops, and asked a very good question: what on earth do playwrights write about in the West?
The question is one that has bugged me ever since. He wasn’t trying to be funny. I don’t think he was being anti-Western. I don’t suspect him of trying to big-note himself or cause embarrassment. I do believe he was pointing out his genuine bafflement. To him, theatre without real muscle, without tangible danger of imprisonment or causing civil unrest, without struggle and passion and political meaning is pointless.
I realise his question assumed two things:
Firstly, the question assumes life in the West in the 90’s to have been so stupefyingly comfortable overall that playwrights must surely all be half asleep at their Power Macintosh computers or trotting out light-hearted kitchen sink dramas and jaunty musicals. Tsk, tsk, Western writers were wrapped up in ‘first world problems’. But you and I know there were and still are hundreds—perhaps thousands— of very unsettling topics to be tackled by writers in the West. Racism, race inequality, violence against women, corporate corruption, epic democratic fail, lost generation, consumerism, cultural misappropriation, ecological crises, an ageing population, oh crikey yes, this list is long.
Secondly, the question assumed that Western writers were somehow by law compelled to be always looking at Western topics in their writing. Of course, we aren’t. And, of course we don’t.
The 1990’s was the dawning of a massive writing revolution in the West. Globalisation and the confluence (love that word, confluence) of ideas caused by the Internet and social media, not to mention massive economic migrant/refugee waves that are changing the face of Europe, have made it safe to say writers in the West still have a pile of sticky truths to pick through with keen eyes—both Western and non-Western truths. That’s even before we start talking Trump.
Even when Paul Dumol’s question was making assumptions about the West, even when I am fully aware of the issues that writers in the West should be speaking about, the next question that bugs me is this; am I doing it?
Am I being as ‘seditious’ and alert as the times demand me to be? What role are we all playing in our writing? Are you here to speak the truth or merely just to mollify the masses with light-weight content?
This post is the first in a series that I want to spend unpacking our will as writers to be real participants in reporting on the Zeitgeist. I want to talk about the actions of the Hamilton cast, I want to write about what real seditious theatre looks like, I want to talk about our part in this world; the real deal, the real muscles of who we are and what we are actually doing as writers. Where are our fighting words?