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Seeking Our Reflections in Writing: The Diversity Within

Image - iStockphoto: shinnji [1]
Image – iStockphoto: shinnji

‘Those in Whiteness’s Thrall’

Whiteness is…more of a genre than anything else.

Erik Anderson [2]
Erik Anderson

This is the Erik Anderson [2], author of The Poetics of Tresspass [3]. He’s writer in residence and director of the Emerging Writers Festival [4] at Franklin & Marshall College [5] in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In an essay at Salon [6]White bro reading: Yes, I’m reading men and women equally — but they’re still mostly white [7], Anderson is getting at a difficult thing.

Much as, in my writing, I often bristle at the constraints of genre, I also find myself objecting to, and pushing against, the way whiteness delimits me, and those around me. But troubling literary genres is one thing. Troubling whiteness is another. A person is practically consigned to whiteness at birth: it becomes, like it or not, his métier.

The Poetics of Trespass [8]
The Poetics of Trespass

As sincerely as many of us may want to see more diversity in our books culture and industry, can we find that same drive in ourselves?

How often do you read outside your own place in the socio-economic landscape? What if we and others don’t read beyond the comfort zone of our own “whiteness at birth,” per Anderson. This works not both ways but all ways: do  you read outside your own blackness or maleness or femaleness, or your Asian heritage or your Hispanic background or your Polynesian family tree?

Can we accomplish authentic diversity in the business of publishing if our private literary lives aren’t diverse?

Here are some of Erik Anderson’s best lines:

We know he’s right. And we also know he’s asking a lot of himself. And of us.

Provocations image by Liam Walsh
Provocations image by Liam Walsh

In a Mirror, Darkly

This is my provocation for you today. Anderson starts, as his headline implies, in an important place.

Like a good bro, I have been possessed of the delusion that my voice matters, that my opinions have value even if they’re fatuous. I’ve spoken simply because I could. Because I’m a white man. And because my behavior is not just representative of power. It is power.

We can all, in quiet moments, list our various privileges and limitations. Anderson speaks of “those in whiteness’s thrall.” There’s an awful beauty to that line, isn’t there? Maybe that’s a lot of us, operating “in whiteness’s thrall.” Or it may be a few of us. It may be me. It may be you. Only in our hearts, with help from our minds, can we know and name this. And we have to do this in private, for ourselves.

One reason the now tired term tribalism has been so resonant for us in social contexts is that we feel its truth. Even against our will, we are creatures of various tribes. Never mind the characters we create, what of our own character, our own nature? We are driven not only by who we are but by who made us. Becoming what we want to be?—that’s what a lifetime is about.

And yet are we not to try, then, to change things on the exterior plane? Of course we must. Surely it’s good news [9] from my colleague Sarah Shaffi this week at The Bookseller that a crowdfunding campaign has been launched in the UK for a festival celebrating black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers’ achievements. Shaffi writes:

The Bare Lit Festival, organised by non-profit advocacy group Media Diversified, will take place on 27th–28th February in London. Novelists Leila Aboulela and Xiaolu Guo, poet Jane Yeh, London’s young poet laureate Selina Nwulu and journalist and fiction author Robin Yassin-Kassab are among those scheduled to appear at the event.

The need? Shaffi goes on:

Business coach and consultant Mel Larsen last year calculated that in 2014, just 4% of the authors [10] appearing at the three big literature festivals—the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Cheltenham Literature Festival and the Hay Festival—were black or Asian…

As Anderson puts it, “I can count,” and so can we all.

The imbalances built into our industry’s culture and our culture’s industry are evident. But although “VIDA inaugurated a Women of Color count in 2014,” Anderson notes, “the organization admits that the dataset was too incomplete to produce a ‘statistically sound study.'” A bit like our inability to see sales figures for ebooks, we’re unable to calculate fully the divides that lie all around us.

There’s no excuse for not pressing forward for fairness, for conscious efforts in thoughtful representation at every turn. These things are critical. But as the hammer-headline on Anderson’s essay puts it, “We need more than a VIDA-style count for writers of color—we need to confront the implicit whiteness of literature.”

‘The Implicit Whiteness of Literature’

Where does that lie? How do we get our hands on it? Our heads around it? Our hearts into it?

Here’s Anderson:

The very act of identifying with a character or losing yourself in a story can obviate the ways, at least in aggregate, your reading, and my reading, is racist.

We all stagger under a historically unprecedented load of cultural messaging today. We’re to some extent creatures of spectacularly effective commercial constructs that tell us, one ad at a time, who and what we are. Put aside any disappointment or frustration you may feel in yourself and think about the truth of what Anderson has said.

As we read, we reveal to ourselves—if we can just take our self-criticism out of it—where our ingrained affiliations lie. Then we might be ready to tackle something from a sexuality alien to our own…something from a racial construct we can’t experience in daily life…something from an ethnic perspective baffling to us.

But we must choose to do this.

Otherwise, how successful will we be in trying to make “external” VIDA-count-like changes in publishing? If we switch out the people but never read their books, what have we gained?

‘Those Who Identify With Whiteness’

Image - iStockphoto: adisaktounjuntuek [11]
Image – iStockphoto: adisaktounjuntuek

At a recent conference I covered, a panel of black authors spoke to an overwhelmingly white audience of writers about how they could be injecting people of color into their stories. The white authors were assured that they could ask questions of their black friends and literary colleagues without embarrassment, in order to get things right. This felt helpful and inviting, even collaborative. Until it dawned on me as I watched this long session that the black panelists never once suggested that they, themselves, might bring white or Asian or Hispanic or East European or Arab characters into their own work. I don’t want to make them “wrong” for this. They were operating on a one-way street that their culture has cobbled together as durably as my own once managed the slave markets in my hometown of Charleston. Theirs was a failure of reciprocity shared by every one of us in the room.

We were not, as a group that evening, as yet, so evolved.

Anderson:

The deeper, underlying problem here is that even if I’m ready and willing to accept (cf. James Baldwin, Eula Biss, Ta-Nehisi Coates) that my whiteness is a damnable lie, the lie is still real, even if it’s not true…That said, I can interrogate and trouble the ways whiteness has been projected onto me, how these projections have enabled and empowered but also hindered me, and how, more damningly, I have internalized the mask of whiteness in my literary work.

We can interrogate ourselves, he’s right. Lift that “mask of whiteness.” And again, I’d say do it with compassion: how many of us woke up one morning and decided to be biased?

I like what Anderson is talking about. I appreciate his courage in bringing it forward. He wants to do something better than hit the stations of the cross “in the acquisitive fashion of a boy scout working toward his diversity merit badge, one step among many on the well-meaning road toward white enlightenment.”

Me, too. But it’s not easy, is it? Nor quick. Anderson has tracked his own reading for two years to see if he can detect progress. After the second year:

I was happy to see that the proportion of books written by women increased this past year (36 of 63), [but] the number of books written by people of color only increased by a sliver (13). That something like 80 percent of my reading was produced by white writers suggests that, as a genre, whiteness may extend to literature in at least one glaringly obvious way: Those who identify with whiteness seek its reflection in writing.

What reflections do we seek in writing? Is Anderson right? I get the feeling that he’d understand my counseling patience with ourselves, too. But pressure. Patient pressure. It’s probably going to take a lot of it for many of us to begin reading fluently in other cultural contexts.

What’s your experience? How easily do you read someone else’s reflection?

About Porter Anderson [12]

@Porter_Anderson [13] is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [14], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He and Jane Friedman co-own and produce @The Hot Sheet [15], the essential industry newsletter for authors. Anderson previously was The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook [16] in London. Formerly with CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media–he has also been a featured writer with #MusicForWriters [17] series. More on his consultancy: PorterAndersonMedia.com [18] | Google+ [19]