Tell Me An Other Story

I’ve decided that I need to dedicate the next year of my reading life exclusively to books written by people of color. Let me tell you how I got here.

Back in April I read that New Yorker piece by Junot Diaz,  the one about being a person of color in an MFA workshop. As a queer black woman and an MFA dropout (I made it a year, though it only took a semester before I started having doubts), it resonated like hell and made me madder about my educational experience than I’ve been in a long time. It was almost hard to read for how much it hit home, but I had to keep going because I was picking up what he was laying down.

I knew what he was saying about the frustration of white people telling you how your own people behave and how your own people sound. I knew what it was like for white people to tell you that your identity—not to mention your desire to inject a little bit of that identity into your work—is a “distraction.” I knew what it was like not being able to get a useful critique of your work, all because classmates (and in some cases, professors) couldn’t get past all of the “other” in your stories—the vocabulary of black hair care, the subtleties of adolescent same-sex attraction, the idiom you didn’t realize was uncommon—to bring up how much the story needed more plot. (My stories always needed more plot, y’all. Always.)

There were two things in particular about the essay though that really stuck out to me. The first was that twenty years after Junot’s MFA experience we, the Brown People Who Would Write, are still struggling this same struggle. Which shouldn’t surprise me, of course, but the delusion of progress is comforting and that comfort is sometimes necessary to keep ourselves going. The second thing that stuck out to me was this right here:

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.

I had one of those record scratch moments. This is how white my literary education has been: it never even occurred to me to think of a Cherrie Moraga tradition, an Edwidge Danticat tradition, an independent tradition where we got to tell our stories to each other. That I could potentially free the parts of my mind consumed by double consciousness to work a little more on the nuts and bolts elements of storytelling* was like realizing there was a fifth cardinal direction; like finding out that there wasn’t just a sixth sense, but a seventh or eighth that I’d been missing out on all this time. However obvious this realization seems on the other side, it was new and transformative knowledge to me at the time.

I could have used that knowledge every time I dumbed down a description or sanitized a bit a dialogue in one of my stories. With the knowledge that a self-contained, for-us-by-us tradition was possible, I might have had it in me to say” tough shit” every time I started imagining hypothetical questions I would be asked in workshop. Do you think for a second any of my white peers ever waffled over including references to A Prairie Home Companion or rock climbing? And I’m still mad about all the shit I had to read about sailing. Do not even get me started about sailing.

While the whole essay is amazing and you really should just go read it, the first time I read it I just kept coming back to the paragraph quoted above and thinking damn, I should do something about this. I’m not saying that I think a year of reading books by non-white authors is enough to undo a lifetime of indoctrination, but it’s where I can start.** The good people at Persephone have agreed to let me document my experience here; what I’m reading and why I chose it and how it affects my literary and racial sensibilities.

So why can’t I just do this on my own time? Why’s it gotta be all public? Fucking 2014, right?

Here’s why:

  1. I won’t stick to it otherwise. White supremacy is insidious and also? Sometimes I’m just lazy about picking a book to read. I’ve been making a list of books to choose from and it is really hard.
  2. Hopefully I’ll pick up some books I normally wouldn’t. Now I don’t mean I wouldn’t normally read nonwhite authors, but there are many genres, like manga, that I’ve never really explored before. I’m also excited to try a bit more “urban” fiction, which is a controversial but financially flourishing genre that I haven’t read since I ate up The Coldest Winter Ever back in high school. I see patrons of the library I work at checking out books like Bitch: Reloaded constantly, and I have every intention of making myself read it (and more books like it) before this year is up. Mostly because the title is Bitch: Reloaded. Are you telling me you don’t want to read a book called Bitch: Reloaded? Liar.
  3. I’m more likely to stick with the few exceptions I’ve built into this if they are publicly on record. The exceptions to the rule are: books I have to read for work, biographies of people of color, and The Winds of Winter, should George R.R. Martin finally finish it before the year is up. I feel fairly safe predicting it’s not going to happen, but I’ve never wanted to be more wrong about something.
  4. Most importantly: I want suggestions! Left to my own devices, even the Author Spreadsheet of Doom I’m assembling will be lopsided. I won’t just favor my usual genres (history, fantasy, historical fantasy) but I’ll also be stuck checking the same resources for the same books. If you can think of anything, anything at all written by a person of color please suggest it in the comments for me.

I can’t wait to get started on this series, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it! If you have any questions, comments, and again, book suggestions, absolutely leave a comment on this post, or any of the subsequent ones.

 

*Junot’s New Yorker essay is actually an adapted version of the intro to an anthology of work from VONA, which sounds like an awesome POC workshop that would right some of the wrongs of traditional white MFA programs.

**Like every other time in my life when I’ve wanted to make a change in myself , it will really just involve reading a lot. Looking at you, High School Black Power Phase.

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Ashley

Ashley is a North Carolina based aspiring librarian and amateur historian (if by "historian" you mean "one who loses many hours to dynastic Wikipedia spirals"). She does not hate the South.

8 thoughts on “Tell Me An Other Story”

  1. SO late to the party. (I am adding you as a friend on goodreads, if you don’t mind! I would like to follow along.) If you’re open to poetry – Lucille Clifton is one of my favorites. She also wrote some children’s books, for those of you that are looking to diversify. I think Gloria Anzaldua did as well.

    For a while I had a bookshelf on my goodreads page that was marked poc-author but then I felt weird about doing that. So I deleted it, which is unfortunate, because it had taken a long time to finish & now I’m thinking maybe it wasn’t weirdly exclusionary? I don’t know.

  2. I’m so glad y’all are interested in this!! I’m in the process of getting my gathered books onto a list on Goodreads. This is only a small sampling of what I’ve gathered so far, but if you want to follow along you can right here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4276409-ashley?shelf=no-white-books

    Thanks for all the suggestions! Keep them coming. (And please ignore the Joe Abercrombie book on my “currently reading” list! I hate leaving books unfinished so I’m gonna take care of that one before I start this project in earnest.)

  3. This is so great! Would you be open to having a Google Spreadsheet/calendar/Goodreads list somewhere so we can read along when we can? (a la Mark Reads?)

    I’m woefully underread when it comes to POC writers, but some suggestions below!

    Being a lit person you’re probably already way ahead of me on these but: Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith and NK Jemisin. Oh, do graphic artists count? Because Fiona Staples is a POC, I think, though I haven’t been able to find any info about how she identifies in a quick search.

    And if you’re into nonfiction, can I recommend Simon Singh (The Code Book; Fermat’s Last Theorem; Trick of Treatment); Siddartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies); Jung Chang (Wild Swans; Empress Dowager Ci Xi); and Atul Gawande (Complications).

  4. Your comment about how white people think POC are could be a C+P from one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stories in The Thing Around Your Neck. There’s a writing workshop and the white man continues to tell her that she is showing “the wrong Africa”.

    Besides that collection of stories I’ll recommend Wizard of the Crow and Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, of the top of my head.

  5. This sounds like a really cool project! I look forward to your list. I’ve longed to do some of the “100 books you must read before you….yadayadayada” but they’re all the SAME. (And have too much James Joyce.) I’d love to see more diversity in those lists, or just insert here and there. But, being utterly unknowledgeable in Fancy Literature, I am too scared to do the curating. Really excited to see what you come up with! Sounds like a great series!

    Also: “Do not even get me started about sailing,” made me laugh in my office. BFF and I are white girls, and we have totally had the pissy conversation about the fucking SAILING.

  6. This was a lovely – and eye-opening – read. My lone suggestion is Malorie Blackman: she’s a Brit, current Children’s Laureate, and the female protagonist of her Noughts and Crosses series is called Persephone!

    The other half and I are both white, and I’m becoming more aware of how lacking in diversity many of our children’s books are, so this has inspired me to search out more diverse books for our boys.

    Best wishes with your reading journey!

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