It’s a Privilege

February 9, 2015 § 8 Comments


Dubai-Property-11Hananah Zaheer weighs in on the recent discussion in Salon, Dame, Missouri Review, Bustle, Medium and on various personal blogs, about writers, money, privilege and support. 

It’s a privilege.

I often joke that I wish I was a writer in the old days. Non-specific, old days where artists had patrons who took care of their expenses and living, and all they were responsible for was writing, creating, painting. My husband likes to remind me that I do: him.

This is true. Much like Ann Bauer admits in her Salon piece I, too, must confess that I do not have the pressures that come from having difficult financial circumstances. I live in Dubai in a nice neighborhood. I have help at home, I drive a nice car; I had never considered the word exactly, but I fit the description of being “sponsored.” I work, too, but it has been mostly as an adjunct and let’s face it, that is not the chosen path towards affluence. I have the luxury to be an improviser, be involved in theatre, run a comedy sketch-writing workshop. These are things that being “kept” affords me.

Am I still jealous of other writers? You bet I am.

You see, privilege comes in many different forms. It is true that I don’t have to think too much about shelling out money for conferences, or that I don’t have the pressure of making ends meet. But what this also means that I am at the mercy of someone else’s schedule: Last minute meetings, work trips, a deal that requires furious emailing back and forth. For the sake of my husband’s job, I live thousand of miles away from my writing community without access to “contacts” and “networks” and meetings and readings and all the things that make a writing community.

I am envious of writer friends who do nothing but churn out novel after novel, story after story without being distracted by sick kids and football games. I will admit this out loud: being a mother and a writer is hard work. Probably as hard as “rotting in a cubicle” like Laura Bogart says in her response to Bauer. And yet writers like Jane Smiley, Zadie Smith, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison (the list goes on) make it work.

The lack of privilege of a certain kind is no excuse. It just is what it is. I suspect it is much like anything else: Being a lawyer and a writer, being a doctor and a mother. Two professions in one lifetime is a lot for anyone.

I, too, am making my way through.

What I am suggesting is that there are enough challenges in the writing life without the added guilt of having a particular kind of privilege. As if a lack of financial struggle means I haven’t quite earned…something. A status, perhaps? A badge of merit? Or legitimacy as a writer?

The things Bogart speaks of, the “selling cardigans at Lord & Taylor; a graduate student tutoring kindergarteners on the alphabet and prepping high-school seniors for their SATs; an adjunct with a five-class courseload across two campuses” are indeed difficulties. But just as she has made room for writing in her life, so do I, so do we all.

And in some ways, I feel that anyone’s success as a writer comes despite the privilege, and not completely because of it. The debate about the different challenges writers face is out there and if we are to spend more time exploring it, perhaps the discussion could use a focus on the different aspects of the shared experience of struggle, and not just the idea of making a living. Yes, it is important to acknowledge where we are and what the things are that make our lives easier, but if I look around, if I ask all the writers I know, most would say they are making their way through in one way or another.

A writer friend and I had this conversation over text in the wake of the debate over acknowledging privilege.

“I feel our desire to write is equally legitimate,” I was saying, “not related to what we have.”

“Well, it is,” she goes, “somehow even more so that we are willing to create art despite not having all these struggles. Besides,” she said, coming back from a brief disappearance, “I am kept and I am still cleaning the bathroom.”

Enough said.

_________________________________________________

Hananah Zaheer writes, lives, and teaches in Dubai. She is an Associate Fiction Editor for the Potomac Review.

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§ 8 Responses to It’s a Privilege

  • wickedmuse says:

    Reblogged this on A Wicked Muse and commented:
    My take on the debate.

  • carosara says:

    Reblogged this on Page & Petal and commented:
    If you haven’t yet dipped into the conversation about how writers balance their income-streams and their creative output—or, more to the point, how many writers are subsidized or supported by their spouses—use this piece as an opportunity to retrace the path through the links to Ann Bauer’s Salon piece, Laura Bogart’s response, and more.

    I was thrilled to first read Bauer’s essay, suggesting that for as long as “sponsored” (or, less kindly, “kept”) writers omit their status as such from their narratives of themselves and their careers, they are perpetuating problems of privilege. Of course, the same is true well beyond the writing world. Forget envy of productive writers who also have cute outfits at literary parties and manage to attend yoga classes in the middle of the day. Full-time mothers, editorial assistants, public school teachers — these jobs are all ripe for spousal sponsorship.

    In the years between graduating college and seeing friends build careers and families, I slowly began to notice a pattern. Not — not! — universal. But noticeable. Men were choosing power-and-money jobs, women were choosing careers of passion or purpose. Freelancing, teaching, participating in the publishing industry, pursuing PhDs. And then these men and women paired up, and women making modest salaries jumped up in purchasing power and comfort, their gripes about the cost of insurance, loan payments, and rent fading into silence. (Some already had the safety net or outright support of financially comfortable families.) New York is a city that seems to be stuffed with investment-bannker—associate-editor marriages.

    As an unmarried person, my financial-familial life story isn’t written yet. Neither is my career’s. But even single, I have plenty of my own privilege to acknowledge and to be grateful for. The cultural and political structures that I imagine create these patterns we unwittingly follow deserve much, much more excavation and discussion. I’ll leave this morning’s post to be the first part.

  • ryderziebarth says:

    NAIL ON THE HEAD.

  • kmorsewriter says:

    After reading Allison Williams’ and Hananah Zaheer’s essays, I felt a little sick to my stomach. Instead of staying true to the original intent of Bauer’s acknowledgement of how privilege helps one’s writing life, these essays have gone down a path that is not only ‘unfamiliar’ to me (Sundberg’s kind phrase), but which have curled within them an inchoate defense of the very benefits they are supposed to be presenting in a neutral light. There are so many things wrong with the self-indulgent logic of Zaheer’s essay. I thought about the essay all day yesterday, and have pinpointed the following points where the logic was especially thin, or just plain fallacy.

    1. “I am at the mercy of someone else’s schedule: Last minute meetings, work trips, a deal that requires furious emailing back and forth.”

    This is the daily lived reality of the majority of adults with jobs, and especially for those with children. It is not special to sponsorship. Even if you work for yourself you are ‘at the mercy’ of other people’s scheduling constantly. Lots of writers can’t get the time off of work to go to conferences or residencies, or they have small children and can’t leave them, or both. The “financial security in return for submitting to someone else’s schedule” is not a burden unique to a sponsored writer. Being in a committed relationship (especially with children involved) means constantly taking someone else’s work schedule into account, no matter who pays the bills.

    2. “For the sake of my husband’s job, I live thousands of miles away from my writing community without access to ‘contacts’ and ‘networks’ and meetings and readings and all the things that make a writing community.”

    There are thousands of artists and writers in committed partnerships that have compromised by moving to a locale that is not a bustling artistic hub. At the end of the day, someone in the relationship has to make the money to pay rent. If you are a writer in academia, there’s a high chance you’ll end up in a rural area that lacks ‘contacts’ and ‘networks’ because it turns out that the majority of the people on this continent live outside of the handful of cities where readings happen nightly. While it is true that being able to attend said readings really is nice, the internet is an awesome space to build community. For example, here is Zaheer, sitting at a desk in the United Arab Emirates, complaining on a well-respected journal’s blog based out of Ohio. The online opportunities available for writers is amazing!

    So what is it that Zaheer really wants? While I’m sure that she does not get to attend as many conferences she as would like due to distance and family life, that holds true for most writers. Also, there are lots of literary people in Dubai – Allison Williams, Brevity’s own social media editor, lives there herself. Painted Bride Quarterly basically lives out of NYU Abu Dhabi now. It sounds like Zaheer has built herself a fairly active literary life, one more lively than she would find in most small towns across the USA. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. It seems what she actually wants is this: access to publishing. Which is a different complaint and struggle. Who doesn’t want access to publishing opportunities through contacts, and what emerging writer doesn’t feel like they could always have more?

    3. “I will admit this out loud: being a mother and a writer is hard work . . . And yet writers like Jane Smiley, Zadie Smith, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison (the list goes on) make it work.”

    Being a mother and a writer *is* hard work. Full stop. I am a mother, I am a writer, I know how frustrating it can be to have one’s writing time repeatedly moved or shortened to prioritize a child’s needs. However, Zaheer associating her situation with that of the mothering writers she lists is so tenuous as to be insulting. For example, Morrison worked an 8-5 job for decades while being a single mother to two children, all while being a black woman in the USA from the 1930s to, well, now. Yes, both Zaheer and Morrison have children, but little else of their situations overlap.

    What was so exciting about Ann Bauer’s original piece is that she not only acknowledged her privilege without defending it, she provided context from her own pre-sponsor life of having children, working, trying to write and being unsuccessful. Most writers with small children, especially women, struggle to find enough time to write. Added to this is the fact that most creatives with children are working *three shifts*, not two – that of parent/partner, worker, and writer.

    It true that “Two professions in one lifetime is a lot for anyone”. It sucks that US culture, capitalism, and government conspire to not pay most creatives for the time spent on their work. But let’s be honest – in the “olden days” Zaheer jokes about, she wouldn’t have had a patron. Patronage wasn’t be going to *any* women, period. If you doubt me, make a quick list of artists/writers that had patrons. How many ladies are in that group? As a woman writer, I recognize that the system is systemically flawed and unfair, but it’s sure a hell of a lot better than even a hundred years ago. I also recognize that Zaheer truly has a leg up in this game by having financial sponsorship. I just wish she would do the same without caveats.

    4. “What I am suggesting is that there are enough challenges in the writing life without the added guilt of having a particular kind of privilege. As if a lack of financial struggle means I haven’t quite earned…something . . . The debate about the different challenges writers face is out there and if we are to spend more time exploring it, perhaps the discussion could use a focus on the different aspects of the shared experience of struggle, and not just the idea of making a living.”

    Do a thought experiment with me, will you? Slightly rephrased, what do these arguments remind you of?

    “Life is challenging enough without the added guilt of having a particular kind of privilege.”

    “Because I haven’t struggled in the way others have others see my experience as less ‘earned’, which isn’t fair.”

    “Perhaps the discussion should focus instead on our shared experiences.”

    For me, these phrases sound eerily like the #notallmen hastag. A misdirection, a derailing of the greater debate. Not *all* sponsored writers have it easy – I have kids, after all. These self-serving arguments diminish Bauer’s original intent of transparency and acknowledgement of a real phenomenon.

    5. “I feel our desire to write is equally legitimate,” I was saying, “not related to what we have.”
    “Well, it is,” she goes, “somehow even more so that we are willing to create art despite not having all these struggles.”

    What? No, seriously, read that exchange again.” *Somehow even more so*? The essay ends with the side-eye argument (because Zaheer never actually approaches her defense of her own privilege straight on) that writers who have comfortable financial lives are somehow more noble in their creative pursuits. What does this even mean? That without the frisson of the daily rat race, one needs to work extra hard to maintain a spark? Is this one of those moments in workshop where an undergrad student worries aloud that having a happy childhood has ruined him as a writer? Oppression is real. Struggle is real, financial or otherwise. Zaheer’s argument is not.

    In the end, I am hard on Zaheer because it seems so strange for a writer to volunteer or agree to write a piece (however it landed on Brevity’s social media desk), but then undermine the original idea out of unexamined personal discomfort with the subject. I felt the same way about Allison Williams’ sponsorship-as-transaction piece. By only half-acknowledging her privilege Zaheer not only misdirects and derails Bauer’s intent, but in the end makes the hazy assertion that her privilege is in itself a ‘reverse oppression’. Which makes me ask: If she couldn’t write the piece without being able to edit out her feelings of defensiveness, then why did she write it? Why didn’t she make a more interesting, and ultimately more honest, piece by exploring those feelings head-on? Finally, why send it out to be published?

    • wickedmuse says:

      Kmorsewriter. Thank you so much for your detailed response. As a writer, nothing better for someone to pay attention to one’s words, even as they are here.
      There is much to say in response, but I won’t. Because my intent was, and remains, to focus on the many different challenges and privileges we all face as writers, none any less important or less worthy than another’s. Here’s wishing us all success, however it may come.
      Hananah

  • […] I did.  Opine that is.  Wrote the thing.  Sent it off.  The next few days were an avalanche of response.  Some good, a lot of bad. Well, […]

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