Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama and the Politics and Poetics of Interrelatedness

With President Barack Obama's election, the country (and the world) has witnessed a transition to a new paradigm: the politics and poetics of interrelatedness.

What do I mean by "interrelatedness"?

Obama successfully utilized a strategy of connecting different groups (whites, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, biracial/multiracial Americans) by underscoring what they have in common: They all need better-paying jobs, less costly health care, greater educational opportunities, etc. In short, Obama emphasized the interrelatedness of their respective needs and wants as communal needs and wants: Obama would often say, "We are the United States of America." One might speculate that a biracial person such as Obama would be especially sensitive to our need for community.

In an analogous manner, many contemporary poets of color have been utilizing the same ethos of interrelatedness in their art. For example, Alberto Rios' poem "Seniors" brings together a collection of characters whose ethnicity or racial backgrounds do not take center stage; rather, the poem focuses on the speaker's omnipresent longing to connect these disparate individuals (William who exposed himself in class; Konga who did a rubber band trick; Maya's pride in the family's ability to afford a refrigerator; the "hot girl on a summer night" who was "all water") with a universal desire to love them all "in some allowable way," and that human instinct to love, whether it be religious, romantic, or platonic, or a commingling of all three, is reaffirmed by Rios' ability to see these characters as universal archetypes: One does not have to be a Latino to enjoy or empathize with Rios' speaker. Hence, Rios' poetics of interrelatedness does what Obama did: People from different backgrounds can appreciate the poem as a united readership.

But interrelatedness is not an easy task for any writer or poet to achieve; for example, many white poets and writers have taken the "interrelatedness" of their works for granted.

Whenever I enter a movie theater, I'm always struck by the overwhelming whiteness of the cinema and literary works that inspire them. For instance, I've been a fan of Woody Allen's films for decades; however, I've never understood why Michael Caine's character in Allen's Hannah and her Sisters had to be a white male: Couldn't the character have been a Latino? And when I consider the Raymond Carver-inspired, Robert Altman-directed Shortcuts, I can't help but think that many of those characters could have been played by actors and actresses of color; after all, Carver spent a lot of time in the San Jose area of California, and I just can't imagine (if Carver were still alive) that he would stipulate that all of the characters in his stories must be played by white actors if his works are adapted to film.

Obama achieved interrelatedness in his political campaign to garner the votes of a heterogeneous populace, but many of us who write might not be able to claim such success (and, I suspect, some of us might not even value such interrelatedness: "I know my audience--and so does my publisher--and I write for them!").