Literature of Colour: Where’s the (Real) Love?

By Special Correspondent Thea Lim

Note: Much of this post is based on generalisations drawn from my own narrow experience. Any corrections to my observations are very welcome.

library of colourAfter three years of toiling in sphere of feminism, anti-racism, non-profits, community-based organisations, queer politics and environmentalism (…), last January I decided to go back to school to do my MFA in Creative Writing. This decision came with much hand-wringing and anxiety about whether or not I should keep on doing work that seemed to have some kind of concrete impact on the world around me, or if I should just throw in the towel and examine my belly button for three years. In the end the belly button won – I figured that in life, you gotta do what you love. Or at least you should spend three years here and there doing it.

But after coming to terms with my return to superbougiedom, I had another hurdle to consider. How was I going to manage in the world of mainstream creative writing? The only real exposure I’d had to collaborative creative writing was in workshops for people of colour. Or for women of colour. Or for queer women of colour.

In the end, like Bill on True Blood, I decided it would be good for me to go mainstream. After all, great literature is about being able to uncover what is universal in human experience – even as the universal is cushioned by very specific experiences. I figured it would be good for me to be able to write for people of colour, but in a way that was accessible to white folks; or at least not unnecessarily hostile towards the Dominant Culture. (Kinda like what we do here…)

And I have been pleasantly surprised. While my graduate program is mostly white dudes, there are still lots (read: more than one or two) other writers of colour. But more than that, I have been continually surprised and moved by my co-writers interest in, and openness to my point of view, even if it differs from theirs.

So where’s the problem?

It’s the reading list.

While everybody has heard of Junot Diaz and read at least one of his short stories, few people seem to have read The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, despite the fact that it won the Pulitzer the year I started my MFA. I have never heard mention of Jhumpa Lahiri or Sherman Alexie.  So far, I’ve only seen Toni Morrison turn up on reading lists for courses in African-American Lit. The Colour Purple is too polemical to be considered during an art-based discussion (I am told). When I mentioned Edwidge Danticat in a class (despite the fact that this is the most annoyingly well-read group of people I have ever come across) I was met with blank stares.

It’s not like Danticat, or any of these writers, are obscure. They have all been nominated for – or won! – the biggest prizes in American Lit. Most of them have placed on any “Important Writers” lists of the past ten years. Yet all the conversations I hear revolve solely around Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, David Foster Wallace, Tobias Wolff…

So what gives? It makes you feel kinda discouraged that people of colour can win every prize, but can’t get a mention in classes at one of the US’s top ranked MFA programs.  What’s the big deal, you might think.  POCs are not only getting published – they’re getting read, and they’re winning prizes? What’s to complain about?

To me it feels like writers of colour are being made homecoming queen, but never getting invited to a single party.  Lit of colour is celebrated in the awards circle, yet its continuing ghettoisation despite the prizes is puzzling and depressing.

Is the literary colour divide wider than we thought?

In conversation with Mat Johnson earlier this year, he told me that he likes teaching at VONA* because he feels that sometimes writers of colour don’t get as much out of creative writing workshops as their non-POC peers. This is because the level of critique they get from said peers is thin, Johnson says, with the justification that people are loathe to critique writing that describes an experience they themselves haven’t had.   I wonder how Johnson’s theory might apply to instructors.  Why don’t more white instructors teach writers of colour? Is it because it seems risky to teach stories about experiences on which white instructors are not experts?

Yet we talk all the time about things we’re not experts on.    I’ve heard MFA students deftly deconstruct stories about astronauts, imaginary animals & fantasy relationships with Che Guevara, yet white students are not able to overcome the anxiety of being too white.**  Once again race is the elephant in the room.  So much of the obstacle to useful conversations about race – in any setting – have to do with the fear of being caught out.

The only writer of colour who gets real mention is Haruki Murakami, and I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that he lives and writes in Japan. An uneducated guess is that he is safe to adore because he lives outside of the sticky rules of race in the US.

Even when instructors include writers of colour in their reading lists, discussions of these kinds of stories are usually a blip, and they hardly ever cross over into the realm of bar or coffee shop talk, where the real conversation takes place.

Maybe, as I suspected in the beginning, I’m looking in the wrong place if I want to see writers of colour given the same attention as white writers. But considering (again) that the power of literature is in its ability to cross boundaries, it’s a heartache.

In the meantime, enjoy this list of literature of colour that should get more mainstream play — beyond the awards.

James Alan McPherson
Lan Samantha Chang
Andrew Pham
Sheba Karim
Naeem Murr
Kiran Desai
Allen Russell Gee
Gish Jen
Yiyun Li
Karen Sheppard
Juan Felipe Herrara
Michael Ondaatje

Ba Ninh, The Sorrow of War
Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
Gayl Jones, White Rat and Healing
Paule Marshall, Brown Girl Brownstone
James Baldwin, Go Tell it on the Mountain & Another Country
Hari Kunzru, Transmission
Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children
Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters
Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand
Chris Abani, Graceland
Danzy Senna, Caucasia
Ha Jin, Waiting

Luis Omar Salinas, The Sadness of Days
Gary Soto, New and Selected Poems & The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy

Thanks to Quincy, Janine and Will for their help!

* VONA is a yearly week-long workshop for writers of colour, taught by some of the best writers of colour in the country, including Junot Diaz, Suheir Hammad, Chris Abani, Elmaz Abinader and Mat Johnson.

**Or worse, white students are overconfident and happily appropriate the stories of folks of colour – without ever reading the stories POCs tell themselves.

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