My mind’s been buzzing ever since July 8, when our dramaturg, Sarah Sapperstein, painted a picture of the ancient Greek society on which The Penelopiad is based. How serendipitous that Sarah herself summarized our discussion in last week’s blog, so I don’t have to try to do it now! I left the conversation with persistent, nagging thoughts. First, and selfishly, the curious nerd in me would really like a personal dramaturg, like Sarah, who would historically contextualize my daily experiences, subsequently bringing deeper meaning to who I am and who we all are. Um, yes, please!
But second, and more pressing, I’ve been haunted by the powerless, voiceless
women on whom our characters are based. Initially, I was interested because I was
trying to be a good actor. I thought, “I’ll do a better job telling my character’s story
if I understand where she’s coming from.” But the more time I spent thinking about
it, the more I realized these women have a far more pervasive impact on my life
and how I want to live it, beyond the confines of The Penelopiad. Or maybe this is
simply a project that has no boundaries!
At first, the shame culture of Ancient Greece feels far away. “How far we’ve come!”
we all say. It’s hard for me to imagine a world in which I can’t say what I want. It’s
hard to imagine not being able to date and marry (or not marry) whom I choose, to
go wherever I want, to be an actor, a singer, to tell my own stories.
But shame culture isn’t far away. And by the time I got home from rehearsal on the
evening of July 8, I was thinking about my own grandmothers. I was thinking about
how shame has impacted the lives of women in my family.
considered doing a bunch of research to present the history of Chinese shame
culture here (where’s my personal dramaturg?), but truthfully everything I need to
know is already here inside me. There are fragments of facts and stories that, when
laid out in a mosaic, form a image of shame culture, familiar and close.
As a little girl, my great-grandmother’s feet were broken and bound. The women
in her generation shared their husbands with other wives and concubines. My
grandparents’ marriage was arranged. I knew both of my grandmothers, and
neither of them ever told me a single story. My mother says she heard very few
stories from her own mother. “We just didn’t tell stories,” she says.
Saving face is a central part of Chinese culture. I think it’s what happens in shame
culture because what others think of you is the most important part of existing. To
me, saving face is basically preserving your personal and family’s appearance at all
costs, sacrificing personal expression and truth in order to be accepted in society.
I’m left with very little certain knowledge of my family’s history. I wish I could ask
my grandmothers to tell me stories of their lives and the lives of their mothers. But
they are gone, and even if they were here, culture might continue to silence them.
There’s a part of me that feels frustrated by this, angry even. My Americanized
disposition stomps her feet and pounds her fists - “not fair!” she cries. But instead
I’ll take a cue from what Margaret Atwood does in The Penelopiad. We don’t know
their stories, we don’t know how they felt, and they did not and cannot tell us. So
we imagine. I imagine what my grandmother felt, what she sounded like, how
she spent her days. I imagine her stories; I hear her telling them. And the more I
imagine, the more real she becomes. This is not telling lies. This is not re-writing
history. This is the truest form of empathy.
The invisible, silent women are the reason I sing, and act, and write, and imagine.
Lynnette Li is an actor, singer, and writer, originally from Metro Detroit. Some favorite credits include: the infamous original satire Octomom! The Musical (Cabaret Voltaire), one-woman show Journey to Topaz (Sierra Rep Theater), and Songs for a New World (The Red Stamp). She studied music and creative writing at Western Michigan University. Lynnette lives in Chicago with two cats, her daughter, Lena, and her husband, John.