Ah-ah-ah-ah! The term ‘faux pas’ kept jumping out at me. Fou pa. Fox pas. Are there literary fox pas? Don’t think so. I know what you’re thinking: she’s sitting on her high horse. But horsey is dead, although I didn’t kill it—what I’m trying to say is that the notion of the ‘faux pas’ can come to exist in something like a binary, where conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ run amok in the house of heaven and hell. There is one thing though … although I wouldn’t call a ‘faux pas’, more than it’s an outright wrong: and that’s fascism. Emotional fascism. Literal fascism. Intellectual fascism. When ideas reach a dead end, and which do not allow for other ideas to flourish. All the things she said, all the things she said, running through my head—as the editors’ note in the first issue of US literary journal n+1, commenting on the critical mores of liberal publication The New Republic at the time, went, ‘You can go through the defence of taste and come out the other side, as if you jumped out the kitchen window into the alley dumpster. There is a kind of fake refinement that turns into a vulgarity baser than any other. It doesn’t come from saying the worst, it comes from deciding what other people can’t say—and adopting a bullying, innuendo-ish, dishonest tone in trying to shut them up.’
They continue: ‘A word that turns out is “tasteless”. They use it in the same way you might reprove a toilet joke at the dinner table or around relatives. But with them it takes on moral weight. It’s a very damaging mistake: the idea that sniffing out the tasteless is the same as taste itself. It confuses censoriousness with a faculty of judgment that links the aesthetic to the moral sense.’ And since we’re thinking in French terms, I think about what the philosopher Derrida once wrote in his 1979 meta-book of letters The Post Card, ‘I have necessarily written upside-down and in order to surrender to Necessity. […] There would only be facteurs (factors), and therefore no vérité (truth).’ It’s simply not enough.
The term ‘faux pas’ suggests something embarrassing. I’ve been embarrassed all thirty-five years of my life. I’ve been so embarrassed that embarrassment is no longer part of my affective dictionary. Writing is a constant act of embarrassment; it’s a strange act that allows for self-evisceration and self-dignity at the same time. Not many people can bear it, so they choose one. Aurelia Guo wrote, in her hybrid book World of Interiors, which I read recently, ‘Turning failure into money / I’m into control, and out of control / Reading books alcoholically.’
This is my eighth year writing. When I say this, I mean writing professionally, writing for money, standing on stages like these. But I’ve been writing all my life. I started writing because I had so much to say, and which I couldn’t verbally articulate. This is on top of the fact that at the time I lived in a place which did not encourage or allow for much creative self-expression. I wrote in my Livejournals, on messageboards, in blogs and comments sections, in zines. I was purging all the silences out of my system, learning together with those who were as alone and afraid enough to express ourselves through those channels. This is not to say that everything I write now is correct and will stand the test of time, but embarrassment is no longer part of my affective dictionary. It’s all part of the big picture. You can tell me you don’t agree with something I’ve written, and we can discuss it, perhaps without getting into fisticuffs. It’s all subjective isn’t it? What’s embarrassing to you may not be to me, and vice versa.
I’ve been told—through whisper networks of course—that there are people who think I play up a certain disenfranchisement when I mention the fact of never having been educated beyond high school (in so-called Australia, it’s a Year 10 equivalent—go figure); it’s affirmative action, and all that jazz. What’s really resulted through this is a kind of reverse impostor syndrome: do people say my work is good, because I’m actually good, or is it because they think I’m ‘good for someone who didn’t go to uni’? You know, like ‘that drummer is good for a girl’ or ‘that lawyer is good for a Black guy’, that kind of shit. It plagues me all the time. When I first started writing ‘professionally’, I would hide this fact, as if it was a shameful secret. No one can know. But I began to realise it’s pointless trying to play catch up: our experiences and reading trajectories form our own mental maps, and that is what art is. There isn’t and shouldn’t be one way to do it; we should be allowed to embarrass ourselves, and constantly. And now that I’m standing on a podium like this, speaking, I feel it’s imperative to say so. Not as a brag, but to say to others who may be the same as I: hey, it’s possible. You don’t have to have a degree to love reading and writing, and want to pursue it. I’m lucky—or unlucky, depending on how you see it—to exist in a time of the internet, where access is more democratic. The only time I’ve stepped into the hallowed halls of a university is when I cleaned a first-year’s dorm room at Ormond College. She was moving down the hallway.
Reading and writing, as with other kinds of art, unfortunately is still coded through notions of respectability and taste. But I’ll leave you with something from Charles Mingus, the great jazz player, who would’ve been a hundred years old this year, also an autodidact, who once said in an interview: ‘What I’m trying to play is very difficult, because I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason why it’s difficult—it’s not difficult to play the mechanics of it—it’s because I’m changing all the time.’ That’s the embarrassment. I’m happy to remain embarrassed.
This piece was originally delivered at the program launch of the Emerging Writers’ Festival.
Cher Tan is an essayist and critic. Her work has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, Overland, Gusher magazine, Kill Your Darlings, The Guardian and Runway Journal, amongst others. She is an editor at Liminal and the reviews editor at Meanjin. Twitter: @mxcreant