Marisa Chib: Writing as writing, as rioting, as righting

Guest Columnist
Friday, May 25, 2018
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2018

My first day at Brown, I remember excitement and nerves. The smell of a fresh coat of paint as I walked into my dorm, the flash of a camera bulb as I took my ID picture.

But most of all, I remember stepping into my first modern culture and media class. Opening the heavy oak door of Wilson Hall, pushing past crowded rows of wide-eyed students. I waited alongside my peers as our professor walked in, larger than life, carrying with her the secrets of the silver screen.

She started with a question. “What is the power of your words?”

My pen hung over my notebook, unable to answer. How could I sift through the infinite uses of language? She looked around the room, watching the question linger.

Then, quietly, she spoke: “See, the way I see the community at Brown, we are all a network of individuals, spaced evenly apart, buffered by our own experiences and silent histories. The only thing that connects us is an invisible network made up of the stories we tell one another; the words we speak into existence, and by extension, what we write on paper to share beyond the boundaries of our community.”

If this is the case, then the power of our words is in how we use them, if only because each of us weaves our story into others, knitting this community together.

Which then begs the question; how will we use the power of our words?

I’ve thought about this lesson many times as I grapple with existing in the space between being a student of color and a screenwriter on this campus. I am often reminded of a quote by storyteller, Teju Cole, who said “writing as writing, writing as rioting, writing as righting. On the best day, all three.”

My personal history as a storyteller started at age nine. Much to my parents’ frustration, I used to write on my hands as a child. Ballpoint pen tattoos; hastily scrawled from fragments of creative inspiration. Potential stories were woven around sketches. Narrative arcs ran perpendicular to lines of dialogue. My hands told the physical story that my mind was still processing; an amalgam of ideas across genres, informed by the stories I read and heard.

By the time I reached 19, I had transferred to Brown, ready to pull my words from the physicality of my hands and reconstruct these threads along the lines of art, literature and emotion to form screenplays.

But I found it much harder to write the stories of my lived experiences among the artist communities at Brown. I would go from one student film set to another and encounter variations of the same narratives. Whether it was for a mystery or romance or adventure film, every casting call always ended with pale skin, every scene was framed through blue eyes. Faced with an internalized pressure of wanting to fit in — wanting to write work that others saw as valuable — my words slowly began to conform. I followed Hollywood’s biggest narratives, choosing stories that featured white men, marginalized white women, erased people of color completely. When I finally wrote my first screenplay, I traced the words from the palms of someone else’s hands.

I was writing, but my words were only operating at the most basic level. Writing was used to construct text, nothing more.

Perhaps it was serendipitous then that Brown gave its second important lesson in the back of another classroom. In a screenwriting course my junior year, we were tasked with an assignment. “Find a story that magnifies one part of your identity and build on it”. Upon hearing this, the guilt and longing for my Indian heritage built up inside of me, and I reached for the first author I thought of: Salman Rushdie.

After I finished Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” I realized how much I had lost of my identity in the last few years. I picked up another, filled with more words of an Indian author. And the more I read, the more I discovered characters that I recognized in myself. These stories had names with the same syntax as my parents’, it contained humor in words with double meanings in Hindi and English and wrote of grandmothers who peeled mangoes in the same way mine did. These stories gave me comfort in belonging. More importantly, they showed me how to use my words in a way that saved me from the singular narratives of mainstream entertainment.

I began to work with a community of minority filmmakers at Brown who questioned the assumptions of Western writing and explored how to represent diverse narratives. We wrote together, filling page after page with worlds that contained characters of all shades and sizes. Finally, Brown offered a space where women were not objects, immigrants were not helpless and people were not just statistics.

The mere existence of powerful women and people of color in film became a tool of protest. At Brown, my writing became rioting.

The summer before senior year, Brown gave its third lesson. For my thesis, I interviewed communities that had been historically silenced in an attempt to bring their stories to light. I spoke with members of the homeless population, undocumented students and those living below the poverty line. I gathered conversations and bore witness to generational trauma.

But beyond asking what stories I should tell, the Brown curriculum urged me to ask how these communities would like to be portrayed. I sat with one woman as she relied tales of her life and shed light on stories of endemic drug use, violence and discriminatory public policy. At the end of our conversation, I asked how she would like herself imagined as a character.

She paused, startled, and began to cry, as she was so flattered that someone thought to ask her how she would like to interrogate her own story. The simple act of transferring the narrative role to the subject gave her the agency to determine her own depiction for the first time. That day, Brown showed me how to use words to right injustice.

As I reflect on these lessons, it seems as if so much of how the world is perceived is constituted in the way it is written — the characters highlighted, the narratives chosen, the settings given preference.

Yet equally important are the voices that are conspicuously missing, whether purposefully or gradually. Since arriving at Brown, we have all been asked to question narratives of history: Who has been given the right to speak up?

To address this question, we must select the narratives of the present that represent the world we hope to see. We must question which stories have not been told and demand their creation. We must examine our role within society, and give and make space accordingly. If there is one thing that the sociopolitical climate of the last few years has taught us, it is that we cannot simply wait for a more equitable world. We have come of age at the cusp of a civil rights movement, and it is up to us to interrogate the assumptions of a single narrative.

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