The Culture and Race Question

When you’re a writer of colour, or one who otherwise comes out of a non-normative culture, you have a special set of doubts when it comes to your work. Even right now, writing this blog entry, I wonder to myself, “Am I the right person to write about this? Do I really know the best way to talk about it?” (That word, non-normative, troubles me a lot.)

And the truth is, I probably don’t. There are people who have experienced far more, and who have thought about this more deeply and with greater intellectual rigour than I can apply here.

But it’s a thought I’ve been chewing over in my mind with increasing frequency. And then I read this, which is more about publishing than writing, but is still kind of horrifying that Pat Smith can publish work that Preeti Singh cannot.

A few months ago, Junot Diaz wrote a scathing assessment of his MFA experience. My experience in the workshop has never been quite like he describes. Maybe that’s because this is Canada, and issues of race and culture are different here–not necessarily better, but different. Maybe because as a person of colour goes, I’m a privileged one–being stereotyped for being nerdy and good at math isn’t a remotely equivalent experience to being stereotyped as a drug-dealing criminal.

At the same time, the Diaz essay rang a few bells for me.

Like the time when I’d made my main character non-white (in a story set in Toronto; a highly diverse city) but never made that a plot point… and the feedback was “Isn’t this like Chekov’s gun?”

Why?  Because being something other than white is so unusual? In Toronto?

Like the number of times I’ve written pieces featuring Indian characters or cultural events, and been given feedback of “Can you put more Indian stuff in it?  I want to really see the colours and taste the spice.” And it makes me wonder, is my writing too spare, or are my (almost always) white readers looking for some sort of exotic cultural voyeurism that is pretty much never the point in my work?

And yet, I generally don’t get told to ground my characters more in culture and colour and spice when there are no Indian elements. I understand that there’s a degree of unfamiliarity here. But I wonder, if I wrote science fiction or fantasy with the same degree of detail, would the feedback still be to see more of the exoticism of the world?  And what if those details are not relevant to the story?

Then there’s the number of times I’ve been given suggestions which make zero sense. Another story, set in Toronto, and the suggestion was to make the family live in the Little India area of Toronto. Except, virtually no Indian people live in that area. (It’s named for the South Asian-focused businesses in the area.) Or to change the story so that parents hated the daughter’s boyfriend for being white and to use cultural insults for him (like mangiacake, except Indian) because of the dishonour he caused… except there was no boyfriend in the story, a white guy is not such a big deal, honour isn’t really a thing in that culture, and I’m not even sure I know what the insult word for white person is.

These were suggestions borne out of stereotypes for what we expect to see from writers of colour. When I was younger, I never wanted to include Indian people in my work, because I didn’t want to write those same stories. I didn’t want to write about interracial relationships where ultimately everyone realized that we’re all human and alike in some way. I didn’t want to write about the plucky immigrant longing for home but still making a life in a new country. I didn’t want to write cultural tourism about India and trot out a horror show of bride burnings and untouchability. And yet, that is so often the feedback.

It’s not that I don’t like those stories, because I do, but am I writing the wrong things? Is my work, when it doesn’t conform to those types of stories, uninteresting?

I don’t believe that. I believe as writers, we have the right to write about anything as long as we do it well. (I haven’t even mentioned the number of times I’ve read bad cultural stereotypes from white writers.)

And then, there’s the Preeti Singh/Pat Smith debacle. There are the stories that Junot Diaz relates. There are stories I hear from other writers of colour. There’s the awkward moment in the workshop when someone randomly says “What if you made this character Indian?”

This isn’t a coherent blog post, largely because these are thoughts I merely chew over without any resolution.

I don’t know the answer.

I only know the doubts.

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Poet who didn’t know it

I don’t think anything strikes as much fear into a prose writer’s heart as writing poetry. Seems funny, in a way.  You’re a writer, poetry is a form of writing, what’s the deal? They are just words.

Nevertheless, signing up for a poetry course with Susan Musgrave last summer has been among the more nerve-wracking things I’ve done, and I have been bungee jumping.  I spent months freaking out over having to write poetry. Upon meeting my classmates, I made a point of telling everyone that I am not a poet… pre-excusing my ineptitude.  They were quick to tell me that they would have never known that from my poetry, but of course, I assumed they were liars.  Nice, polite, Canadian liars, but liars nonetheless.

I came out a convert. I am a poet. Who knew?  But so, I think, is every writer. They just haven’t admitted it to themselves, and perhaps every prose writer needs to get in touch with their inner poet.

More than any other genre, poetry forces you to confront language directly, in all its weirdness, playfulness, depth and absurdity, but also in its sound, its meaning, its shape and placement on the page.

But in looking at language in such a raw way, you also need to confront the fears that you hide in the language. I am a good writer because I have an excellent grasp of spelling and grammar.  I am a good writer because my sentences are clear and easy to understand. I am a good writer because there is a logical flow to my words. These are important qualities for writing, say, a business letter, but poetry allows you to challenge all that. Poetry can be clear and easy to understand, but poetry can also be convoluted and incomprehensible.

Poetry also encourages meaningful risks.  If you can do anything with language, then why not do anything? But then, if you can do anything, the decision to do it matters.  That is, if I don’t have to restrict line breaks to the end of the paragraph, then I can put them in anywhere I want.  But then I have to know for myself, why here?  Or here?  Sometimes that knowledge is simply instinct.

Poetry, I think, also forces you to stop thinking “Am I good?” or “Did I do this right?” and start thinking “Is this what I intend?”

I’m not sure that there’s a clear way to define good poetry. Emily Dickinson’s, “It blows the top of my head off” seems to be the most useful, but I suspect that what blows the top of my head off may be different from what blows the top of your head off.  So when you look at your own work, what can you judge it by except what it does to your own head?  You have to go with that, and trust in that, at a deep level where despite questioning every letter and every comma you feel that what is on the page is doing what you want it to do, and perhaps that will blow someone else’s head off.

It’s a useful attitude to take for writing prose.  Not everyone will love your prose, or get your prose.  At some point, you need to dig into your intentions, and your instincts.  You need to take risks because you feel that this is what is best for your story.  And you need to let the language reveal the story, and not hide behind what it says about you.

And fall back in love with language.  Why else are you doing this anyway?