Op-Ed by Richard Wiley (Korea) — “Drew Brees and the Case Against Staying in Your Lane”

 

Drew Brees and the Case Against Staying in Your Lane

by Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69)

Tacoma News, Jun 14, 2020

Recently the term “stay in your lane” has been used in identity politics and identity literature to mean something like, “keep to your own culture, don’t usurp my territory.”  Since I have spent 40 years writing about white Americans living in other cultures, learning about other people and other languages, and therefore most emphatically not staying in my lane, I felt the criticism acutely.

I grew up as a privileged white kid in Tacoma. I didn’t know jack about anything until I got out of college and joined the Peace Corps. I didn’t know African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, nor native Americans, either, except for a group of Puyallup Indians who performed native dances at the Browns Point Salmon bake every other July. I grew believing that my world was the only world, and worse, that all people everywhere thought just as I did.

At first, in the Peace Corps in Korea, I couldn’t tell where one Korean word ended and the next one began. I was lost in the language, lost in a wholly different way of acting and thinking, and drowning in soup and kimchi, morning, noon and night. I stayed that way for about six months, but then I began to emerge from my cocoon, if not exactly a butterfly, at least a semi-decent human being. And I never got over the metamorphosis, the knowing that we are not all the same, that we are as gloriously different as the spices in our cuisines and the grammar of our languages. And so I wrote about it in novels set in Japan, Korea, Nigeria, and Kenya. I inserted myself by constantly driving out of my lane. Sometimes I did it well, and sometimes I made mistakes. But my holy grail was to write as well as I could about something I didn’t know well. I considered it an act of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. For a while, though, I’ve felt conflicted, by being told by others that maybe I ought to leave those shoes alone.

Yet now here comes George Floyd’s unspeakably horrible death, with its concomitant and universal sadness; a death that burns like the brightest of beacons for us to follow and teaches me, once again, that getting out of our lanes is a part of the answer to it all, if not for us all. I say “if not for us all” because that cop with his knee on George Floyd’s neck (his name will remain unsaid) is lost, as is Donald Trump, who, though he mightn’t put his knee on the neck of an individual man, wants very much to put it on the necks of us all, until we either agree to travel in his lane or our breathing stops. All we have to do to know the truth of this is to contrast him with Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints quarterback, who misunderstood the message of kneeling in protest by NFL athletes, but then not only began to understand it, but stepped out of his lane to say so, to admit he was wrong – while all Trump knows how to say is, “Law and order, law and order, law and order!” like a Mariska Hargitay fan gone nuts.

If there is good news in any of this, it’s that we understand what we must do to wash our hands of Trump and his minions. We must go out in November, in droves, and vote them out of office! But if we are ever going to remove the yoke of America’s original sin, or live by the words of our Declaration of Independence, then we have to do much more than that; we have to change our thinking, and doesn’t that mean that staying in our lanes is the worst thing we can do?  We may make mistakes, like I did in my novels, but getting out of our lanes is the only way we can begin to erase the boundaries between them.

Drew Brees did it. I hope the rest of us can, too.

Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69) is the author of nine works of fiction and the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, The Maria Thomas Award, and the Washington State Governor’s Award.  He is an emeritus professor of English at UNLV and currently resides in Los Angeles.  His most recent work, Tacoma Stories, came out in 2019.”

 

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  • The experience of travel, especially with a thin wallet, sweats the fat off the brain. Extended living in a strange place while learning a different tongue (like in the Peace Corps) can be illuminating if one can really master that language for it is like a shell encasing a way of thought. For instance, the Aymara people of Bolivia, Peru and Chile do not limit their language to the categories of “true” and “false” but consider the possibility of the “unknown” or “maybe.” That is really strange! The Inuit people of Alaska have forty-seven words to describe snow. In each case, the language is part of a way of life very remote from ours. Can one really describe this? Maybe. It all depends upon the depth of one’s experience partnered with a mastery of writing. In my case, each time I set pen to paper to describe a faraway place and people I take pause. I tiptoe…

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