In “If I Tell These Stories” Helen Klonaris details what it was like to grow up as a white child in a predominately non-white neighborhood and still imagine herself at the “center.” She explains the trouble that she has had un-imagining the material and immaterial boundaries that have been set in place by racism. What I found most interesting is that Klonaris’ particular experiences exemplify how what is imagined as well as what is not imagined influence the way in which we perceive ourselves and our relation to others in the world.
As children, our environments are perhaps the first sources of our imaginations. If a child has an “imaginary friend” or if they imagine that the living room floor has turned into lava, that child is bringing what they’ve created to the material space that they are in. The scene that they create is influenced by the associations that they have come to make. So there the child is, tip-toeing on the couch, proclaiming safety for themselves and everyone that they can imagine beside them.
Klonaris writes, “My imagination is riddled with the stories racism built. My imagination is not a gentle place in which to play, to run and jump; it is not separate from the landscape I was schooled in.” In this way, our imaginations are limited by hierarchical boundaries. The way in which we imagine others is directly affected by the way in which we have imagined ourselves. If we are at the “center” as Klonaris was taught to imagine, everyone else is in the lava. If we are not able to imagine ourselves at the “center” where does that leave us?
This inability of imagination does not disappear in adulthood. Klonaris explains how the associations that she made as a child—even while actively trying to reverse them—have paralyzed her. The cracks in her imagination have fractured the images that she has tried to create. She writes, “The way I never said the word black because I didn’t know it was ever said to mean beautiful, to mean love, to mean life.” She wonders if she sees her partner as less beautiful. Does she love them less because as a child she would not have been able to imagine the two of them on that couch, sharing the same safety?
This problem of shared safety or shared experience is something that often comes up in writing workshops. In a workshop that I am in, the question of voice and particularly who is allowed to write a specific voice, was presented. Which voices belong to us? I think of this question as one that is more so related to imagination. In an essay on our “writer’s reality” I responded:
‘Writing is an act of imagining; an act of summoning. Our imaginations are inhabited by a mixture of images, voices, and feelings—all of which have been collected, most often subconsciously…To create, is to summon these abstractions; to write what will not leave my body…I write from what I have collected—both willingly and unwillingly. It has been said that “Everyone has come to believe something.”…These “somethings” that we believe—whether material or immaterial—have a way of living inside of our psyche, and therefore our work. Our imaginations are not free from what we have come to believe.’
The question that I ask then, is not if we are able to write in voices that are not our own but instead, how do/can you imagine those in the lava—those that you were not taught were beside you? How do you summon lava from the center?