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Writing to Transgress: A fight against feeling like a fraud

Pema Chödrön, an American nun in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, in an interview in 1993 said, "my models were the people who stepped outside of the conventional mind and who could actually stop my mind and completely open it up and free it, even for a moment, from a conventional, habitual way of looking at things. If you are really preparing for groundlessness, preparing for the reality of human existence, you are living on the razor’s edge, and you must become used to the fact that things shift and change."

This conversation made me think, why we need to write to transgress or break the bonds and limiting boundaries that control what we say and how we do: To step outside of our comfort zone and completely open our mind and free it.

Naomi WALLACE, an American playwright, said that writing to transgress means to “step over the line, redraw the line, erase the line, even multiply the lines so that we sit up, step forward and strike out” (source). However, this style of writing is fighting against the status quo, the act of transgression must have a purpose. As women writers, how shall we write and what we should write that transgress limitations purposefully?

As an example, Deirdre LASHGARI, an American English literature educator, is best known for her edited book Violence, Silence, and Anger: Women’s Writing as Transgression (1995), which focuses on the works produced by well-known authors such as Harriet Jacobs, Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lord, Senegal’s Mariama Ba, Lebanon’s Etel Adnan, and Jamaica’s Sistren Collective (source) and used transgressive writing to express women’s stories of violence and anger writing against normative expectations.

When we talk about writing as transgression, what boundaries are we attempting to step over, redraw, or erase? What do we do differently?

Transgression is a common word, circulated enough to make us believe we understand what it is. When we ask what transgression is, normally we hear the term as an indication of breaking a law, commit anything illicit, disrupting, and rebelling against social order and norms. That means our assumption of transgression is nothing more than deviance. It is true that transgressive writing is about rebelling and going against the stream but that does not limit it to merely the breaking of a law or going against normative social or cultural limitations.

In my idea, transgression is what constitutes our identities, and without it, we could have no sense of our own subjectivity. It is the transgressive otherness that forms and informs who we are. Hence, transgression is when we cross a line, step across some boundaries, or move beyond convention and comfort zone and that is the duty of a writer, in any field, to explore what is not being explored.

Writing to Transgress means as Sjollema and Hanley (2013) expressed, to “represent a residual power that acts locally and provides a voice to the powerless“. Riding defines Freire’s method of literacy work as “raising consciousness,…” and “a critical comprehension of reality.” (in the New York Times, 1985).

Writing to transgress is to build an understanding not merely of the text but of reality. We need to go beyond pop-fiction love stories and superheroism action-adventure and dive deeper into the dark waters of twisted relationships and accidental hurt, ordinary people’s lives, the complex mind, and human behavior, the uncomfortable unknown. It is to give voice to the voiceless, the oppressed, and the unheard. That is where fiction should focus on.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire stated that “cultural conquest leads to the cultural inauthenticity of those who are invaded; they begin to respond to the values, the standards and the goals of the invaders.” (1970, p 153) His main pedagogy was developed in response to the impacts of cultural and religious persecution and asserts that education enables “the oppressed to ‘read the world’ and, through writing, to communicate their own experience to others” (Kane, 2001).

Writing to transgress means to identify “the prevailing forces that work together to silence people and create a culture of judgment: family dynamics, schools, churches, public media, and the need to make a living (Louise Dunlap, 2007, pp. 20-21). Hence, she believes that the best advice we can give ourselves when we write is to be aware of self-judgment and set it aside.

When writing in a form of talking about what normally people avoid talking about, it sometimes may feel fraudulent. Fraudulent, as Peggy McIntosh (1984) explains, may mean having no confidence in oneself and one’s abilities. This can play the psyche of the individual and in society at large. She mentions that we feel like frauds because by “taking the pulpit or taking the podium, or taking the front of the class, or taking a position in the news… positions which the world associates with people of merit and importance. The higher we go in those hierarchical structures, the more likely we are to feel, hollowly and in our inner selves, that we do not belong.”

As a woman writer in the genre of transgressive fiction and coming from a country like Iran where patriarchy defines a woman’s identity, attitudes towards women’s stories and lives have a huge impact on devaluing my work and feeling like a fraud. To fight against ideas that a woman needs to be helpful and nice, I write to disrupt these societal expectations. If you feel repressed, unconfident about defining your own identity, and anxious about judgments of yourself, your community, and norms, take a step forward, write to change this vicious cycle, write to transgress.

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