Silence as an Empty Room
As someone who has grown up in a household of artists, I’ve always had a special reverence for people’s creations. Though my mother was highly critical of her own work, there was a general sense that destroying it was in some way not acceptable. I took that to heart. My sisters’ drawings have all been kept. Old storybooks I made have just resurfaced from basement boxes. Our childhood voices are kept alive through this reverence for creation and imagination. It was for this reason that I struggled to understand an experience Maxine Hong Kingston wrote about in her memoir Woman Warrior (1975). For three years as a child, she painted over all of her artwork in black and covered up anything she wrote on the blackboard so that it couldn’t be read or seen. I struggled to understand her motives and also her complacency for what I read as a huge loss. Then I began to think of this action as a form of silence. Tillie Olsen touches on the different types of silences that exist in her essay “Silences” (1962) and these silences can be read into Hong Kingston’s blacking out.
Hong Kingston’s refers to this, one of her first experiences of silence, as her “thickest” (Hong Kingston 1975) – and in the context of Olsen, I would read it as a silence of “self-censorship”, or “hidden silence” (Olsen 1962). Olsen describes hidden silences as “work aborted, deferred, denied” and censorship as “[deletions], omissions,” (Olsen 1962). I think in many ways, this was what Hong Kingston was doing – perhaps as a practice in control in a new and difficult environment for her. She didn’t speak up in class both because she disliked the sound of her own voice and because she didn’t see the necessity of speaking. In some ways, I think her blacked-out artwork was a way of taking control over her silence and silencing herself further – so that if she couldn’t verbally communicate, then she also wouldn’t visually communicate.
At the same time, I would also like to acknowledge what Hong Kingston herself said about it as a way of showing potential: “I was making a stage curtain, and it was the moment before the curtain parted or rose.” In this sense, her silence was actually more inviting and far less oppressive than any of Olsen’s silences because it invites the audience and herself to produce more. Hong Kingston’s censoring or hiding of her creative work was actually her way of showing potential. Here I’d like to introduce my own type of silence, in the form of a metaphor: silence as an empty room. What I mean by this is silence as a space that acts as an invitation, for entry and use. In the way we use silence in the classroom as a way to welcome voices who ordinarily would have more trouble joining in, Hong Kingston views her blacked-out artwork as “full of possibilities” and says, “I […] pretended the curtains were swinging open, flying up, one after another, sunlight underneath, mighty operas,” (Hong Kingston 1975). She creates the potential for limitless possibilities and creation.
Olsen sets up a dichotomy in silence between “natural” and “unnatural” silence and I would argue that Hong Kingston’s blacked-out artwork was a combination of both. Olsen defines natural silence as “what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony) – that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation” (Olsen 1962). In other words, natural silence is writer’s block – the space in which the mind is empty and open, waiting for inspiration. Unnatural silence, however, is defined as “the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot” (Olsen 1962). Hong Kingston’s blacked-out artwork was, I would argue, a moment of creating writer’s block, or creating that empty and open space. She imagines the black as a curtain on a stage, set to open. She doesn’t know what the curtain will open to, but she knows that there are limitless possibilities behind that curtain, and she’s created this space of possibility. At the same time, she creates the space by denying the existence of the art or writing she’d previously produced. By not allowing those pictures to “come into being,” she is performing an act of censorship and, therefore, unnatural silence.
Hong Kingston may have used black ink as a way of reacting against an oppression she felt in the education system, or she may have been using it as a way of creating and reveling in safe space. More likely, she was been blacking out her artwork for both of those reasons. In the same way that my assumption of loss in Hong Kingston’s blacked-out artwork was utterly false (especially since it was actually a space of potential), an assumption of silence as either entirely oppressive or entirely supportive is also false. The fact that natural and unnatural silence can exist in such a closely-knit way within Hong Kingston’s work is not only a critique of Olsen’s dichotomy, but also an acknowledgment of the complexity of silence.
Hong-Kingston, M. (1975). Woman warrior. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Olsen, T. (1962). Silences. New York, NY: Dell Publishing Company.