Cinema critic Roger Ebert was talking of the importance of the witness in every movie and pointing to the places where the character appeared in the film under discussion, mostly in a lower corner. The comment flashed me to the reality of how often the hardest thing to see is what should be the most obvious. It’s not just the elephant in the room, it’s things we take for granted.
One way or another, all fiction is built on the observer, who is also to some degree an outsider or misfit, too. (If there are any exceptions, I’d love to hear them.) Four of my novels, for instance, were intuitively built around a photographer, a profession that makes Cassia’s father a well-trained witness. In turn, as she investigates his archives, she, too, becomes a witness, even before she starts commenting on his earlier life.
Of course, as a reader, you also become a witness. Or even a voyeur, as Camille Paglia has contended. It’s almost like every page is a microscope slide to be interpreted.
Curiously, I now see this also at play in a long-term non-fiction project in my life. Forty 40 years ago, seemingly by accident, I became involved in trying to uncover my father’s ancestry. I thought we were simply homogenous Midwesterners who had always been in Ohio from its beginning. What I discovered, though, was that one branch was – but German-speaking and largely akin to Amish. My name-line, however, was Quaker by way of North Carolina and its slaveholding culture. Both strands were outsiders to the larger society and also pacifist. It opened my eyes to alternative histories and to a recognition that stories don’t always have to resolve nicely – three people may record their memories quite differently, and maybe all three are true, if not factually accurate.
Oh yes, the research was often collaborative, with correspondence going and coming from others working on parts of the puzzle. It wasn’t always quite as lonely as drafting fiction or poetry.
To my surprise, as my novel What’s Left was taking shape, Cassia started assembling bits about her Greek-American grandparents, who had died before her birth, and then beyond to her great-grandparents, who brought the family to the New World. Like me, she found valuable clues in the surviving snapshots and formal portraits regarding their personalities, as she also did in the letters and other documents.
None of my ancestors came by way of Ellis Island, and on Dad’s side, they were all in this country by the time of the Revolutionary War. I once pondered doing a series of novels on them, but I’m still intimidated by the technical challenges – a realistic language they can speak and we can understand being high among them.
Witness, I might add, has an extra dimension in Quaker thinking. It’s not just what one sees or hears but how one lives. The goal is integrity, as in wholeness or consistency. Is that what others see in us or our lives and work? Or even as our goal and ideal, even when we fall short reaching for it?