The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember working in a theater in Paris.
How I got the job was due to a misperception of identity.
At the time I lived on the Île Saint-Louis.
As romantic as this sounds, I should explain that my apartment was in an ancient stone building that formerly had been a convent.
I lived in a top-floor maid’s room.
My arms outstretched, I could touch both walls at the same time.
The “Turkish toilet” was public and down the hall.
In the winter I had to insulate the whole thing with cardboard.
It was a hole.
My landlord was happy to hear my voice on the phone when I called to inquire about renting it.
My French was good enough that I let nothing on of who I was.
He told me to meet him in front of the building.
When I showed up, he feigned to be looking for someone else.
Finally I approached him and explained I was looking for the landlord.
That’s when the questioning started.
“You are American?” Yes.
“Can I see your passport?” Okay.
“You were born in Lebanon.” Yes.
“But you’re American?” Yes; I was adopted.
“Ah! so your parents are American?” Yes….
His whole demeanor changed.
“You’re very lucky.” I don’t understand.
“I mean to say, I don’t rent rooms to Arabs.”
I stopped on the stairs and refused to move.
I had no way to defend myself.
Adoption cast me in this role I never asked for.
I felt the sting of his remark, but did not feel it applied to me.
When deep down I knew that it did.
Like the times I would call temporary agencies in New York City.
They loved my resume, they loved my properly formed English sentences.
They loved my name which gave nothing away.
They promised me that with my resume I could name my price and place of employ.
Then I would show up.
Their demeanor would change.
“We’ll keep your resume on file.” But you said on the phone….
“Thank you! Have a nice day!”
Later it would be revealed that Fortune 500 companies were demanding a certain “type” of employee.
It was a question of their “public image”.
All “Others” need not apply.
The scandal made the papers, and everything made sense.
At which point they simply changed their tactics.
Like moving their operations out to the “whiter” pastures of the suburbs.
Following in the footsteps of the “white flight” that created them in the first place.
The business version of gerrymandering election districts.
One day I was walking across the Seine on the way home.
It was the middle of winter, and there on the bridge were two obviously American guys.
They were drunk, and they were yelling at the top of their lungs at passersby.
This was something I noticed a lot in Paris.
Americans seeing themselves as if on the stage of a musical celebrating their lives.
With the rest of us just bit players in their performance.
A complete remove from the reality of the place they found themselves.
They turned, saw me walking, and let go with a tirade.
“Nice haircut! What are you, a fuckin’ Marine?”
“What are you, a fuckin’ clown?” I replied.
They were startled into silence.
They ran up to me and we started talking.
They needed someone who could speak the language to help them in their theater.
They were producing the play 59 Pink Thunderbird by James McClure.
It’s basically a comedy about the “loss of innocence” after the Viet Nam War.
America has a long history of “losing its innocence”.
Usually after wars that it has a direct hand in waging.
And wrongly implying that the country was at one point “innocent” to begin with.
It also has a history of making comedy out of tragedy.
I’m just saying.
In the play, the word “gook” is used a lot.
This might be referred to as “theatre verité”.
A candid realism that defines the intended audience.
Before anyone even arrives at the theater.
Like an election in a gerrymandered district.
I threw aside my misgivings, and agreed to help them out.
I was in charge of tickets and lights.
The theater owner would bark orders at me in French.
I think she was glad to have someone present who understood her barking.
I imagined myself to be “networking”.
Making my way back into working with the theater.
When in fact I was just slaving away.
Playing a very different kind of role.
While I waited in the small light booth for the acts to finish, I would sketch the actors.
I used these sketches in my lithography class at the École des Beaux Arts.
When the play was over, I presented them all with the prints I had made.
Created in a communal studio where you were obligated to work collectively.
Something I thought I was doing at this theater.
In my head I thought I was actually part of something.
It wasn’t a feeling I was really used to.
I never heard from them again.
A year later I ran into one of the guys who I met on that bridge.
I greeted him effusively until the moment I realized he didn’t at all remember who I was.
Adoption cast me in this role I never asked for.
Like being in someone else’s play.
Guessing at the lines.
Invariably getting them wrong.
An infinite rehearsal.
For a performance that won’t end.
Full of disquieting missteps and missed cues.
I recall when I told my father I wanted to apply to a school of art or a school for theater.
He said: “You can do whatever you want, just promise me you won’t be an actor.”
I think this was the only time he actually came close to admitting that race was an inhibiting factor in his America.
He said I would have a life of “bit parts; hackneyed stereotypical roles; character acting.”
My downstairs neighbor in New York was an actor.
She resented the want ads in Hollywood that read: “ethnic wanted”.
She was constantly told to straighten her hair; fix her nose.
Things I painfully recall thinking I should do myself.
I remember my audition for NYU’s drama school.
I chose a monologue from David Rabe’s Streamers.
Another attempt to digest what happened in Viet Nam.
Played to those who had absolutely no concept of what had been wrought in their name.
And focusing on players wholly outside of where anything resembling the tragedy of that war had taken place.
I am willing to wait until it is understood by everyone just how offensive this is.
And on how many levels.
In the waiting room I knew I was out of my league.
In the audition I couldn’t even get a sound out.
The rehearsal director said: “I don’t want this to be painful for you.”
“But more importantly, I don’t want this to be painful for me, either.”
His exact words.
The operative metaphor of the play is a parachute that doesn’t open.
Leaving the one having jumped to plummet to his death.
That about sums it up.
I remember being active in my high school Drama Club.
It was more or less a ticket to hang out in the auditorium instead of going to class.
I remember the musicals we put on in my high school.
Full of horrifying stereotypical characterizations.
That we played to full tilt.
The tradition of the American musical can be seen as a signaling to those who have arrived that they need leave behind their former ethnicity as well as their former class status.
I still would like to go back and apologize to anyone I offended with such antics.
At one point some of us went down to Six Flags Great Adventure.
They were having tryouts for summer employment.
You know, those silly vintage Americana song-and-dance routines.
We had been rehearsing up to that point with private accompaniment, so my classmates had not heard me sing yet.
I could tell by their reaction during my audition that I was doing something right.
They were convinced I would be hired.
Then the rehearsal manager lowered the boom.
“You did great, but we’re really looking for more All-American types.”
Straight up; that’s what she said.
And thus sums up just a few of the dreaded moments of stark realization that one does not belong.
These were the moments when acting skills became most important.
This is what is so difficult to relate about my return to my place of birth.
For this has mostly all been alleviated.
I’ve finally reached a point where I no longer feel the need to put on a face.
I no longer am spending half my energy just to keep up my role.
I’ve stopped reciting someone else’s lines.
I’ve removed the makeup.
I’ve erased the division between actor and audience.
And I no longer can return to that previous stage.
With an audience agitated by my very presence sitting in pained silence wishing for my exit.
A whole different kind of “stage fright”.
I remember researching minstrelsy for an article I was writing.
I was reading about the actor Bert Williams.
These were the days of a fledgling Black diaspora theater.
Plays that were so popular, they integrated theater audiences in and of themselves.
Black actors playing black characters to viewers who had never ascribed agency or culture or life to such people.
But this was too much.
This could not pass.
This was too “uppity” of them.
This was “not knowing one’s role”.
Bert Williams complained that white audiences expected to hear him speak the invented language that white minstrels had created and placed in black mouths.
He complained that he was forced to rub burnt cork-black onto his not-dark-enough face.
To placate the expectations of those who paid to see him play himself on stage.
When I first read about this I had to leave my house.
I left and walked around for hours.
So much this haunts me.
The black theater never took off.
Instead we are left with cultural detritus such as Porgy and Bess.
That also substitutes for actual history.
And we expect people to be interested in what we have to say?
In the act of attempting to tell our stories we fail to understand that the very mode of such a retelling forces us to lean in a given direction.
It forces us to speak in a particular way.
It forces on us a mediation that removes us from reaching anybody.
It has its own weight, and fits into a particular way of thinking.
By this I mean to say that we cannot speak if we stand on someone else’s stage.
With someone else controlling the technicalities of how we might want to relate.
The expectation of what comes out of our mouths shapes our very words before we’ve even spoken them.
The tele-prompter demands that we stick to the script.
The audience has seen this work performed before.
They don’t want to be disappointed.
Our fellow actors expect us to fall in line.
The “show” must go on….
I remember when my father once surprised me with a sheaf of papers.
He called it the introduction to the book he imagined I might eventually write about my adoption.
He titled it using the name the orphanage gave me.
It starred him in the title role.
Making of me a bit player in my own story.
My heart stopped beating.
I got up and walked into the kitchen, leaving my sister to explain to him what was problematic with this.
My mother followed me.
“Ma, it’s not his story to write.”
“I know, hon.”
My mother gets a lot more than I ever gave her credit for.
Within the adoption realm, there is not so much a competition of narratives.
There is an active battle to overcome the willed prevention of our story-telling.
Whether from adopters, or fellow adoptees.
This is completely different.
This is much more insidious, and much more problematic to address.
But we are certainly not alone in this regard.
For the migrant, the refugee, the displaced, the dispossessed, the adopted, a pre-fabricated “story” awaits.
A “ready-to-wear” mythology.
Fitting someone else’s agenda.
It’s not enough to narrate “our version”.
With everyone “entitled” to their own narrative.
I remember driving cross country with a good friend.
We were bringing her Plymouth Valiant from New Jersey to California where she had just moved.
In Arkansas, the roads were so rutted by truck traffic that driving became almost impossible.
To try and veer away from the set path meant being violently thrown back into place.
Or off the road.
This is our situation.
The question then becomes: How do we expect others to listen?
When they are in fact bent on us not speaking in the first place?
And they are only prepared to listen to what they are predisposed to understand?
Before a word is uttered, the playing field must be leveled.
Words that are outside of the range of allowable communication need to be expressed.
In as forthright a manner as possible.
With as little distance between speakers and audience as possible.
And with an acknowledgment that all will be heard.
I have long been loathe to speak personally of my adoption.
I understand that this becomes fodder for a particular brand of “Poor Orphan” schadenfreude that has no place in a humane society.
The accusations stand ready, and we know how that goes.
And so I am deemed angry. And I must obviously hate my family. And I assuredly had a bad life. And I am of course nothing if not bitter.
This is what will be said.
By people who need us only to corroborate their own mythologies.
In an effort to make up for their own insecurities.
A society that adopts does not deserve to hear our stories.
A society that validates adoption is not worthy of taking part in our narratives.
I no longer see the society that adopted me as being an audience I wish to address.
This fundamentally changes everything.
For what would it mean, in terms of social well being, if a mother didn’t have to marginalize herself by talking about the pain of giving up a child?
What would it mean, in terms of social well being, if an adoptee could feel free to express herself without reprimand?
What would it mean, in terms of social well being, if veterans returned to a society willing to listen to their experiences?
Instead of using them to jingoistic ends and to recruit more cannon fodder?
What if a soldier came back to the United States and it was simply understood what she went through?
Without her actual story replaced by a super-mediated version?
And without it being played to an audience completely removed from her reality?
And without her being labeled as “suffering” from a “condition”?
For example, with something like “PTSD”.
Or, in the adoptee realm, with something like “RAD”.
Or, in the middle school realm, with things like “ADD”.
Means of stifling, of silencing, of keeping quiet.
Ways to expel us from the body politic.
The most profound of rejections.
The problem is of the audience, not the actors.
And I proclaim loud and clear I will be no one’s entertainment.
And I promise to not whitewash my story to appease their gentility.
And I vow to not blacken my face to mold myself to their preconceptions.
I am no one’s minstrel.
Adoption cast me in this role I never asked for.
In a wretched stage play that I now deem over and done with.
The poor player has done strut and fret his hour upon the stage.
And the time has come to “bring the house down”.
Image: Hallowe’en | Date: October 31, 2006 | Place: Design studio; AUB, Beirut | Camera: Sony “CyberShot” DSC-TX1; Carl Zeiss lens | Caption: For Hallowe’en my students all dressed up in black T-shirts, jeans, and Converse sneakers. Here they are all with arms crossed, mimicking my usual stance in class. I told a colleague that watching them file into the room was like starring in my own version of The Matrix. It was a respectful yet playful “fitting me in”, which I appreciated more than they could possibly understand.