Kai Cheng Thom
The following piece appears as part of the month-long series “Post-Truth Politics and the Creative Craft” on the blog, curated by guest editor Natalie Wee.
To be a storyteller is to deal in the creation of power. As a Chinese trans girl who once dreamed of becoming a writer in colonial Canada’s predominantly white, overwhelmingly cisgender literary arts scene, I learned this lesson early on in life, as many marginalized writers have—decades before the American presidential election of 2016 and the seemingly endless liberal hand-wringing over the state of “post-truth” politics that followed.
Really, though, this is a tale as old as time. Political power—and the oppression of minorities—is achieved through the creation of stories that are legitimized through the use of violence. Take, for example, the following myths: gay men and transgender women are pedophilic rapists, so they should be pathologized and imprisoned; immigrants are stealing all the jobs, yet somehow also scamming welfare, so a wall must be built to keep them out; Muslims are all terrorists who should be banned from America.
All fictions, all lies, are used to acquire and consolidate power at the expense of the vulnerable, but as a storyteller, I think that there is something much more interesting and frankly sinister at work in the current socio-political climate. There are hidden truths that lie inside the right-wing and fascist lies that have risen to dominance in the social mainstream.
Paranoid fictions about transgender bathroom rapists strike chords of intolerance and moral panic in a sexually conservative, rapidly polarizing culture.
As any skilled storyteller knows, a story must draw upon fundamental truths, no matter how twisted, in order to tap into power. Behind every fascist fiction and colonial lie, there is an ugly reality to be found: false narratives about immigrant job-stealers and Muslim terrorists play upon the rampant xenophobia and socio-economic inequity rotting at the core of a nation. Paranoid fictions about transgender bathroom rapists strike chords of intolerance and moral panic in a sexually conservative, rapidly polarizing culture.
The Jamaican-Canadian dub poet d’bi.young anitafrika has written, “give an mc without integrity the mic / and s/he will rhyme the death of the people.” This is exactly what has happened, except that the MC in question is the current President of the United States and his mic is a Twitter account. For all his vicious, horrific shortcomings as a political leader, the President has emerged as a consummate, corrupt storyteller—a wicked trickster of mythological proportions. He has torn open the heart of a nation with his words in order to feast upon the decaying truths within. And I would venture to guess that mainstream media has largely failed to rise up against him because, by and large, the mainstream media has itself rarely spoken to the hearts of those dispossessed, disadvantaged, and marginalized by a society characterized by vast inequities along the lines of race, class, gender, ability, and national status.
So where, then, does that leave those of us in the creative arts, who have chosen storytelling as our calling and livelihood? Does the “post-truth era” hold new responsibilities for us?
I would say not. Rather, the responsibility remains what it has always been, though it is one that many of us have forgotten in the context of late-stage capitalism, in which artistic success is framed as endless productivity instead of self-reflexivity, exceptionalism instead of community, and celebrity instead of accountability. Our responsibility is the storyteller’s ancient calling: to find our integrity, to find our heart, to live in critical, yet loving, connection with the communities that surround and sustain us, and to tell the stories that are essential to our mutual liberation.
In practical terms, this means we must consciously engage with power and with politics. We must be prepared to have difficult conversations with each other and within ourselves. We must relinquish the priorities that broken artistic institutions have set for us—individual acclaim and financial growth to the exclusion of all else—and rediscover the communal purpose of our work.
So, my community, raise your voices! Sing your songs. A wicked storyteller rises in the South. What shall we do? Where shall we go? Who shall we be?
Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, social worker, and lasagna lover who divides her time between Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories. Her writing has been published widely in print and online, and she has performed in cities across Turtle Island. Her first novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press, 2016) is a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her first book of poetry, a place called No Homeland is due from Arsenal Pulp Press in April 2017.