Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Reading Exile (Or, The Surprising Truth of Alaskan Women Looking for Love)

by Charity Erickson 

The Palestinian post-colonial critic Edward Said speaks of alienation and exile in his photo essay “States,” a genre-mixing piece that communicates the plight of Palestinians in Israel through investigative journalism, personal narrative, photography and lyrical prose. It tells the story of a people who inhabit a land that is-and-is-not their own, a people who find themselves without a homeland, without an anchor for their identity.

During a brief foray into graduate school, I taught this essay in a first-year reading and writing course. It was intended to serve as an example of how to use evidence; my students were supposed to create their own photo essays exploring the concept of exile, mimicking the way that Said “reads” meaning into the photographs he uses.

It was, on the main, a failure of an assignment. As with most first year writing papers, I got a lot of summary, a lot of filler-fonts, and what made this assignment worse was that they thought I wouldn’t notice when they filled up half-pages with grainy pictures of their hunting dogs and favorite vacation spots. For all but a couple of thoughtful freshmen, exploring “exile” meant talking about a place they missed.

An infrequent class attendee’s hastily pasted images evidenced that morning’s hangover. Another student’s gruesome photos of violence in the Balkans combined with overly confident (yet inscrutable) prose told me that he was recycling something he wrote for AP English and he thought he should be exempted from my class (his eye-rolling habit contributed to that reading).

Many of my students’ photographs presented vivid portraits of exile, but their writing revealed that they were unable to connect the pictures to the concept in a fully formed way.  They knew the feeling; they knew that these images spoke to it; but they couldn’t bridge the gap in words.  As I moved through their photographs, my voyeuristic eye could see what they could not. A picture of a high school football team communicated one student’s mourning for the status and power he enjoyed in his small town, now lost at the big state school where he was too small to play. A photospread of gorgeous models, giving voice to a young woman’s fashion exile in the Midwest, spoke of the jealous wasting disorder that was sucking this woman out of her very self.

Sometimes we are bad at reading our own pictures. These students were communicating alienation, mourning for lost identity, for having to pretend so as to belong; they were exploring different elements of the “exile” concept, but they didn’t realize it; they couldn’t express it in words.

I was reminded of this when I saw the first episode of a very silly reality show on TLC called “Alaskan Women Looking For Love.” The show is based on a ridiculous pretense: a group of women from a fishing village in Alaska go on a trip to Miami for a few weeks, hoping to find committed boyfriends. The thing that fascinated me about the show was that amidst its highly structured plot points, the unscripted interactions between the women and their family members were somehow quite intimate and real.

I was especially taken with the storyline of Jenny, a former youth minister whose recent divorce from her pastor husband has made her a pariah in the (I can only assume) fundamentalist Evangelical community from which she drew her identity. She grew up believing “worldly” exploits like drinking would condemn a person straight to hell. Now that she is out of that rigid religious culture, she doesn’t know what to believe. She spends afternoons at the bar, trying to find a place to be comfortable; yet she looks anything but.

In what could only have been a staged confrontation, Jenny explains to her concerned mother that after being rejected by her faith community, she cannot muster the strength to pull herself out of the low place she is in; she can’t even muster the strength to care, she says, weeping.

I was shocked. I have never seen a moment of emotional honesty like that on a reality TV show. From other preview scenes aired during that first episode, it looks like we will see Jenny go through a trial familiar to many of us: the post-Evangelical meltdown. Oh, how I see myself in her: glancing furtively at the more-accomplished partiers, wondering if you are passing as a fun person; drinking to prove something; confusion and frustration about why you can’t figure out how to be a good bad-person like everyone else.

I don’t expect anything life-changing from this show. It’s frothy fun and the women are damn likeable (though I do hope future episodes cut down on the Miami club-scene “whooo”-ing—good lord, that’s annoying). But for those of us who have experienced the same kind of exile Jenny is going through, there is a little more to the picture, something more to be “read.” There is something true on this reality show, believe it or not. So I’m going to keep watching. 

Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.

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