By Ashley Spurgeon, fiction editor
Many of us read to find a sense of familiarity, to know we are not alone in the world. We read to see ourselves. And we also write for the same reasons. When I write, I’m trying to process the current events that flash like an afterimage when I close my eyes. I’m trying to understand the people I’ve encountered whose voices I find compelling. I’m trying to make sense of my world, my humanity, and sometimes that’s easier when I can set it in a place outside of my day-to-day life and let my characters figure it out.
In many writing workshops and craft lessons, I was taught, “Write what you know.” It was a common refrain that I jotted down in my notes but didn’t really think about until I had finished the first draft of my first novel. I finally knew exactly where the plot ended up and what my book was about, and when reading back through, I realized just how much the narrative reflected events in my personal life, the current political climate, and social issues I had been struggling to understand.
When I sit down to write, I don’t disappear into my fiction and forget the world around me. Yes, I immerse myself in the world that exists on the page in front of me, but that world is informed by the reality that I live every day. The real world crosses over into a fictional world, whether it’s intentional or not.
This blend happens because all creative work strains to get closer to what we are all looking for--a better understanding of the complexity and vulnerability that comes with being human. Our truth sits at the tips of our tongues waiting to be formed into words, and it doesn’t matter whether it is laid bare in a piece of flash fiction, a lyric essay, a sestina, or a graphic novel.
Fiction allows me to reach for truth in a less literal way than nonfiction does, but it still presents something real and relatable for the reader. Nonfiction presents a literal truth that isn’t attainable in fiction. Both genres challenge the reader’s ideas and enlarges their world simply by putting words on a page.
Perhaps that is why there is a draw toward hybridity. Perhaps one genre just isn’t quite enough to reach the level of truth we work so hard to find. If we can weave fiction and nonfiction, with elements of visual art and music and moments of poetry, we can lift the veil a little higher and expose a bit more of our humanity and remind ourselves exactly why we are here.
Fiction and nonfiction are not opposites--genres do not function exclusively of the other, they are parallel, and sometimes intertwining, quests to find truth.
When I think of genre, I think of a color-by-numbers coloring sheet. I think of borders that are imposed to contain identities, whether that be an association to a country, a religion, or a culture. I, for one, was raised Catholic by a Maronite Catholic father and a Ghanaian-Lebanese mother who went to Catholic boarding school. My mother was exposed to the beliefs of her Asante heritage, and her father was a Lebanese Muslim and her mother was a Ghanaian Protestant. That meant I had relatives who were practicing Catholics, Muslims and Protestants. It meant for my mother, designing a faith for herself that made room for all. Because of that, when it came to religion and faith, I had no borders or lines dividing the shapes on my coloring sheet. It meant I had no choice but to be human first, before being a race or a faith or a gender.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a mixed-race woman who doesn’t fit into one race that I find the idea of genre challenging. As a writer, I find myself sometimes adhering to publishers’ restrictions on length, form, content, and I want to write more and more for a world that publishers will not let exist. When determining what kind of journal Inverted Syntax should be, I found myself frustrated with the different genres we must impose on readers because we are all in this world of controlled categorizations. As readers, we have memorized frames of references and schemata that we draw upon to help us make sense of content and context within literary works, but that background information only makes sense within certain spheres, a limited group with similar experiences.
Genre restrictions also perpetuate the idea that because things tend not to be created to fit into multiple overlapping categories, human beings who are able to fit into multiple identities, whether by gender or race, are opposed by a world that struggles to accept them because they don’t have a designated genre space on “the bookshelf.”
The idea of genre in literature and the arts, like with the idea of borders, not only minimizes our humanity but also restricts creativity to a fixed system of comfortable patterns while trying to contain artistic impulses within the bordered spaces that is allotted for our creativity. Can creativity be restricted? What art can be produced in a world of genre restrictions? If we continue to adhere to these outdated writing and artistic rules, we will not transform our world but instead allow the corruption of our humanity.
Throughout history our world has changed because of hybrid thinkers, those with competencies in multiple areas: Da Vinci was an inventor and artist; Benjamin Franklin was a politician and a scientist. Genre categorizations become a bigger issue than simply whether a piece of writing is more poetry than prose, they become an affront to creativity, to invention and innovation, to humanity, to identities, and to the boundless possibilities that exist when hybridity is allowed to thrive. For some, genre categorization feels playful and safe as when one colors within the lines, but for many others, it is a suffering that restricts invention and creativity to imposed lines.
Much like borders, genres are a construct. And the publishing industry, much like politics and government, controls the lines and often rejects cross-categorization. In a world where bookshelves are structured around what is the most marketable, crossing genres creates a problem for the publisher.
But real life is not neatly composed to genre. Our lives are disjointed and disconnected. Sometimes I think in poetry, speak in prose and dream in fantasy, and I’m still learning how to write this voice. Hybridity thus is inevitable, because the act of writing and making art is an identity-making act. And when you bring yourself to literature and art, you arrive multifaceted, in broken and fractured parts. How can you not cross genres?
We break the genre rules so as to write ourselves, so as to write and paint across the genre coloring lines until there is no “genre” but instead a new space for brave new works.