[Thursday Throwback] Ask Racialicious: How to Read and Respond to Literature of Colour

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

The Racialicious inbox received a very honest email from a writer currently enrolled in a creative writing program, with reference to the book Ms Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.  Bynum waits until late in the book to reveal that Ms Hempel is a mixed race person of colour. This raised all sorts of queries for our questioner:

…when I write fiction, I write white characters.  When I read fiction I read them as white characters unless/until I am expressly told otherwise.  This feels like an ignorant move on my part but at the same time, I feel that that’s what I do because I am white, and that people of other ethnicities read fiction as their ethnicity (or perhaps not, since the field is dominated a lot by dead white guys, but that’s another issue), and they write characters as their ethnicity…

Which I suppose eventually comes to this question: am I to assume that a writer of color is writing stories about people of (their) color?  Am I to assume that the black woman in my class is always writing about black people?…[That] the gay writer is writing about the gay experience, or gay relationships? Was I supposed to assume that Shun-Lien Bynum was writing about an Asian character because her name is Asian?… (See how much of an ass I sound like right now?)This feels like a form of discrimination or stereotyping.  Why should I assume that just because a person is black that they’re going to write about black characters?  Do people of other races assume that white writers are always writing about white characters?  Or is that what we’re supposed to do, as writers and as readers?

I’m sure it’s obvious that I’ve been in a sort of bubble with this issue.  In my undergrad, there were only 2 nonwhite students in the creative writing classes I took, and in my MFA program there is only one.  It seems to be an issue that we skirt around in workshop, for fear of offending someone, perhaps…

This questioner had the fortune (or misfortune) of sending this to me: in case you didn’t already know, when I am not crusading on the internet, I too am a graduate student in a creative writing program.  Here are some amended excerpts from the earful and a half I sent back to our questioner:

As for your question: should we assume that all writers of colour are writing for themselves?

All writers have audiences that they are writing for, and it becomes evident who their audience is as soon as they get going. But because much of Great American Lit is written by white writers who are white-centric, much of Great American Lit is written for white folks. So the assumption grows that all audiences and all characters are white – sometimes readers are surprised when they realise all along they have been reading a nonwhite book.

I would say many white writers are not conscious that they are writing for a white audience, just as often in the media the word “everyone” or “regular American” or “the people” means (middle class, hetero, cisgendered, abled) white people. I have to disagree with your (qualified) assertion that generally readers will just assume that the character is of the same ethnicity as them. Rather, many readers of colour are hyperconscious of the fact that a Great Book is not addressed to them; for many of us* learning to appreciate literature requires an extra step that is not there for white readers: we have to learn how to find ourselves in work that may sometimes actively exclude us.

Sidebar: I tend to have very little patience with white readers who tell me they didn’t like a piece of lit of colour because they felt it “didn’t speak to them” or “it made them feel bad.” Readers of colour learn the contortions necessary to be able to take part in Great Literature which may, in its whiteness, act as if we do not exist. Considering the amount of daily work this requires, I don’t think it is too much to ask of white readers that they twist their heads around every now and then to try and meet literature of colour where it is.

But back to your question: the fact of the matter is that all writers write, consciously or not, for a particular ethnic audience. When you go to read a book, don’t assume who the audience is either way. It should become clear soon enough who the book is for. In any case I would try to avoid pigeonholing writers of colour in general; read our books on their own terms, just as you would any other book.

Which brings me to my next point – I think it’s vital to recognise that there are things we will simply not understand when we read books seeking to tell an ethnic experience that we ourselves do not share. I am not saying we will not get the book altogether. Rather I am saying there are aspects we will not understand. For example, I really loved Drown by Junot Díaz.  But I am very happy to acknowledge that as a mixed race middle class Chinese woman from Toronto, there are lots of things in his stories – which are very proudly Dominican American or even Dominican New Jerseyian – that are over my head. There is still much in his work that thrills me; I think Diaz is a particularly generous and inclusive writer. But I think it would be disrespectful, arrogant and honestly colonising of me to insist that I can totally understand the book, just by virtue of my superior reading abilities. No matter how many Spanish dictionaries I have, there are things in his stories that will elude me. And I think that is his intention.

In other words, it is totally untrue that all the secrets of a story will become available to you if you read hard enough. I had a creative writing instructor speak of “owning stories”: his theory was that if we read a story enough times and with enough of a critical eye, we would “own it.” I think that idea is problematic – there are many things that are not available to us, simply because of the narrowness of our own life experiences. Which is fine – just read books as the person that you are. Writers are not asking anything more of readers usually. But to assume that you can understand everything about a story, especially when it is not written specifically for you, can be a symbol of entitlement, a refusal to accept that many politically marginalised writers write things into their stories that are only for their own people.

You see the flip of this in how some white writers approach the writing of characters of colour, without humility, and with the insistence that they should be able to write whatever they want, as long as it is within their ability. But this is entirely about something other than ability. Speaking for a character of colour in a culture that often silences actual people of colour is a political act (whether or not that is the intention of the writer) that can be totally botched, if you do not recognise that as a white writer there are spaces in a life of colour that you simply can’t understand.

The bottom line for me, is to just be conscious of the fact that you’re white. And that white writers are white. And that all writers that write about humans are writing ethnic concerns. And I think it’s very important for writers and teachers of writing to be able to fess up to that: all writing is racial, all writing is political. All choices on a reading list are political. As a Racialicious reader I am sure you have heard before that race is invisible to (some) white folks because it is not a barrier to them; but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Let me close with a Junot Díaz quote about the faux colourlessness of American literature. I just can’t get enough of this guy:

We’re in a country where white is considered normative; it’s a country where white writers are simply writers, and writers of Latino descent are Latino writers. This is an issue whose roots are deeper than just the publishing community or how an artist wants to self-designate. It’s about the way the U.S. wants to view itself and how it engineers otherness in people of color and, by doing so, props up white privilege. I try to battle the forces that seek to “other” people of color and promote white supremacy. But I also have no interest in being a “writer,” either, shorn from all my connections and communities. I’m a Dominican writer, a writer of African descent, and whether or not anyone else wants to admit it, I know also that Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen are white writers. The problem isn’t in labeling writers by their color or their ethnic group; the problem is that one group organizes things so that everyone else gets these labels but not it. No, not it.

*Clearly this is not true for ALL readers of colour. My dad, for example, couldn’t care less what race the protagonist of the new Lee Childs book is. But this is true for me, and I have heard many readers and writers of colour say the same.