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Race, Authenticity, Culpability

A few months ago, an editor at a small literary magazine offered a polite and encouraging
email rejection of a story of mine titled Pipe. A child-narrated, first-person story, the piece
used a systematic approach to black Delta dialect, not reproducing AAVE so much as depicting a
particular boy speaking it-- which is to say, the story had a distinct voice. The editor wrote that
as a black writer they were uncomfortable with the storys representation of race, as much as
they recognized the power of the piece and the quality of the craft that created it. I wasnt
surprised at the response (though I hadnt encountered that precise objection), for Ive grown
accustomed to editors responding skittishly, working in questions about my own racial
background, my childhood and past experience, how my dialect work had been received
elsewhere. Some asked why these children spoke blackhad I considered that I am
reinscribing stereotypes? Was this dialect really correct? Wasnt this childs mothers drug use
a bit stereotypical? Wasnt this black characters family a bit too unconventionala middle
class black family in the Mississippi Delta, really? I have received dozens of personal rejection
letters in my dialect work lauding my risk with voice, originality, or the vividness of a
character, before concluding that we dont really publish this sort of thing, or as one editor
said, We are a magazine in the rural midwest and do not do African-American stories.
By contrast, stories and essays written from a point of view closer to my own, a
multiracial Asian who taught fourth grade in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi
Delta, elicit a different set of questions: Why does this teacher need such a foreign sounding
name? Why doesnt he talk more about his own culture? Couldnt I just make the protagonist
white? Why isnt the protagonists race a bigger dealand what exactly am I trying to say
about race in America? As a Japanese-Hawaiian Russo-Polish Secular Jew writing a novel about
a nave, idealistic young multiethnic overachiever who tries to save black children from severe
poverty in the Mississippi Delta, I am original, which is to say, I am an orphan. On the one
hand, I am that audacious non-black author who would write about the black South, a place
whose people have been reduced to a series of familiar gestures and stereotypes by Hollywood
and the white authors who wrote great Southern books. At the same time, I am utterly other,
the multiracial everyman who might represent the melting pot but is of no clear people or region
or discrete history, and so is rootless, isolated, without an audience who might be compelled by
identity politics to seek their own experience. I am not black. I am not white. I am not
Southern. I am impure and unruly, and evidently belongnowhere.
Last year, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill hosted a seminar on the
Classical Southern Novel, attempting to get at what it means to be Southern. Their focus
was on four primary texts: Harper Lees To Kill A Mockingbird, Robert Penn Warrens All The
Kings Men, Eudora Weltys The Optimists Daughter, and Margaret Mitchells Gone With the
Wind. A News and Observer report about the event noted: Though the subject of race is
omnipresent in most Southern classics, none of the works discussed Friday were written by
blacks. There were few, if any, blacks in attendance at the event at the UNC Center for School
Leadership Development. The report went on discuss confusion among seminar participants as
to whether Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man qualified as Southern, since Mr. Ellison was a native of
Oklahoma and only a part of the novel takes place in the South. The attendees were unsure what
criteria qualified an author as Southern (must a writer be born in the South, have had a certain
experience of the South, ie, Jean Toomers Cane, or simply write about the South?), but they
were clear about what they were comfortable withbooks by whites which considered race from
a white point of view. They made their choices before the conference, had already decided
whose voices would be heard, and who was excluded. They wanted a comfortable space to
conduct a comfortable and familiar discussion. Little surprise few black intellectuals or writers
were interested in the conversation.
These questions of race and authorship arise in an America shifting in demographics and
attitudes--changes that present less like progress than chaos and unrest. A year ago, a majority of
Americans were willing to consider Mr. Obama on his meritsan invisible, generational shift, as
children growing up in an MTV-internet age of hip-hop stars and sports heroes entered adulthood
still wanting to be like Mike. After this summer of hate, the birthers, deathers, and Tea Party
activists bearing guns and inveighing against the Kenyon President Obama, after the Henry
Louis Gates dustup and Glenn Beck rallying tens of thousands in a 9/12 march on Washington to
take back America for real Americans and the absurd spectacle of the Shirley Sherrod incident,
the construct of a post-racial America requires revision. History hasnt been altered; we do not
live in a golden age of racial harmony. We are limited by the past. Having a black man in the
White House with a Nobel Peace Prize doesnt alter the immediate conditions of black poverty
anymore than it convinces the English Faculty of UNC-Chapel Hill to revise their conception of
Southern to include the black experience.
In fact, we occupy a moment of cultural backlashold battles and divisions have been
revived, recast in new terms. Socialist and African are the new nigger; the talk-radio
pundits of the right tell us that Mr. Obama is a threat because of his racism against white people,
that much-marginalized group; the new nostalgia is not for the days of segregation or slavery, but
as Glenn Beck told us, for the day after 9/11, when we were united by fear and grief and a
President who talked to a God who told him to turn with righteous fury on anyone he could
brand an enemy. It is in this climate, feeling we ought to be post-racial and finding ourselves
instead embroiled in discord and dispute, that I locate this discussion of authorial authority in
race and regionality. My initial premise is simple: current literary attitudes toward race,
regionality, and authorship are fundamentally regressive, gazing into the past or passively
mirroring the dissonance of the moment.
Black writers today are frequently encouraged to write about past injusticesthe
reading public loves Toni Morrison, enjoys the gentle multicultural feel-goodism of Maya
Angelou, and will give the National Book Award to Edward P. Jones for a properly historical
novel like The Known World (while paying little mind to his contemporary work, like Lost in
the City). Oprah champions Zora Neale Hurston as if she was the first to find her. At the same
time, the winds have turned against Jeremiah Wright and Jesse Jackson and anything that reeks
of the experience of contemporary poor black people, favoring uplifting, transcendent rhetoric
about post-raciality, preferably delivered by a black man who speaks the language of white
America. Blacks who live like upper-class whites are in: this is the age of Colson Whitehead.
Class is supposed to be the new race. Among black writers who would say something else, panic
sets inand so the black experience beyond that of an Obama or Whitehead becomes ever more
outr and insular, writers trading missives in Callaloo, fighting bitterly over the few ethnic
slots in major journals. Nobody will take a chance on a book that doesnt fit into an established
category, and everyone on every side would tear that book to pieces out of self-interest,
misunderstanding, identity politics or ideological opposition. Things close down, fracture and
fragment. Little is possible. Less is tried.
Authority is elusive, contingent on factors as slippery as experience and observation.
Heres how Jim Shepard frames the problem:

The first worry writers have has to do with the issue of authority: as in, where do I get
off writing about that? Well, heres the good and the bad news: where do you get off
writing about anything? Where do you get off writing about someone of a different
gender? A different person? Where do you get off writing about yourself, from twenty
years ago? Writers shouldnt lose sight of the essential chutzpah involved in trying to
imagine any other kind of sensibility.

Of course, Mr. Shepard isnt speaking directly about racebut he ought to be, because
the questions are essentially the same: how does anyone have the chutzpah at all? Who can
ficitionalize history they didnt live through? How can a woman presume to write from the point
of view of a man, let alone vice versa? When applied to race, these questions are functionally
the same. Does Mr. Obama, for example, know anything of the lives of black children who live
in rural poverty in Mississippi, as different as his life has been from that experience? Do I know
of the experience of a Jewish immigrant or practicing Jew, or even what it means to be a
Japanese-Hawaiian in Hawaii, raised as I was in Oregon? What gives anyone the right to claim
the authority to write at all?
I accept Flannery OConnors dictum that conviction without experience makes for
harshness. Regarding black fourth graders in Indianola, Mississippi, who speak in the general
Delta idiom with the AAVE of black communities in that region, I seek only to write their
particular experience. For the two years I taught in Indianola, I spent 8-10 hours a day, five
days a week listening to them tell their stories and share the particulars of their lives in and out of
the classroom. I dont claim to know the lives of 'black people', or even of black adults in the
Delta, but I know the kids I taught at Carver-Upper Elementary. I know their voices, their need,
the texture of their daily lives, better than I know of lives of any 'white' person of any class in
any region.
After the rejection by the black editor, I fought back, insisting they erred in rejecting my
story--if the work failed aesthetically or formally, that was fine, but race should be left out of it:
on the written page, I argued, craft constitutes representation. The editor wrote back to explain
that they were open to stories including dialect that depicted a broad range of the black
experience, that anyone could write about anything. I liked the position, but felt it was
intended to pacify more than anything once raised, the question of race and authority lingers.
Roxane Gay, a black writer and contributor to HTMLGIANT, wrote a piece for Luna Park last
year concerning her own struggle with race and the literary:
When I do write about race, I dont write the typical black narrative. Sometimes, I write
about Haiti (because Im Haitian American) and sometimes I write about the black
boarding school experience and the experience of being black in academia because
thats my black narrative I often avoid writing about race because people seem to only
want to read about race when it satisfies their shallow expectations. This is a frustration I
am certain is common to all writers of color. There is a lot of unwillingness to
acknowledge the multiplicities of experience.
There, in a couple lines, is the entire quandary: the desire from readers and critics for the
typical black narrative that will satisfy expectations, and the complexity of authenticityMs.
Gay could on the basis of phenotype make an easier claim to authority in my dialect material
than I could, even though it is thoroughly out of her actual experience. The market eschews the
particular for the representative, the actually authentic for the familiar.
I don't suggest that we should open the gates, and encourage anyone to write and talk
black, that it should ever be appropriate to fetishize the black experience and AAVE dialect as
entertainment. But I think there's a serious risk in the position I've encountered at panels at the
Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, where I once heard a well-published
black writer make fun of a white graduate student for asking a question about the speech of a
minor character in their novel-in-progress before suggesting that no writer should ever represent
a black person except a black person like...herself. This declaration was met with thunderous
applause. Such a position segregates black literature, is self-marginalizing. It refuses to allow
representation to be particular and complex. It divides on the basis of past division, insists on a
demarcation predicated on a construction of identity that is unresponsive to the present. In
reacting against the status quo, it inadvertantly affirms it.
The status quo afflicts me, then, from both sides, and I fear that because of its
representation of race, my novel will never gain consideration. Black writers want a wider
consideration of their own multiple backgrounds, but cling to the limited opportunities available.
Editors are eager for familiar constructions of race, narratives that readers can recognize and so
distance themselves from-- they are concerned with the commercial, which is their right. My
plight is a shame not because Im a writer of earthshaking merit, but because my work
complicates the question of narrative authority and race in ways that may be transgressive, but
are also substantive. My protagonist wants to tell a story about the poor black Southern children
he delivers to safety. Instead, he does more harm than good, and finds that rather than
solipsistically controlling these childrens stories, he is complicit in their suffering. The dialect
chapters ironize the teachers story and complicate his narrative authority by revealing the
limitation of what he knows. They render what Roxane Gay called a multiplicity of experience
to make the world of the story larger, to suggest that narrative is myriad, and so necessarily
inadequateonly overlap, refraction, and absence indicate the whole.
Narratives purpose is not to mediate or recreate or make moral. Flannery OConnor
famously said in a letter to Betty Hester, {M}ore than ever now, it seems the Kingdom of
Heaven must be taken by violence, or not at all. In A Good Man is Hard to Find, readers are
presented with a terrible, bland, obnoxious family that they cant help but wish would be taken
out and shotand so we become complicit when they are, altered by their suffering just as The
Misfit is: we participate in it, and cannot escape our own involvement. The story includes us by
implicating us in its worldit is not that we see the truth about the world in the story, but that
the story forces us to see ourselves. Every story fails in representation if it is concerned with
being representative. Every narrative reinscribes the problematic past in terms of the present.
Even writing attempted humbly, with a mastery of craft and an excess of lived experience,
cannot be equal to the world. The aestheticizing impulse is fundamental to narrative: to order
and make beautiful. Yet what narrative is adequate to human suffering? What are the aesthetics
of Vietnam or Hiroshima? What meaning should be made from the Holocaust, or the recent
tragedy in Haiti? Narrative is not exculpatory, nor should it be.
The only way to grapple with the irresolvable is to recognize that we are culpable for
what we say and how we say it. That does not mean we shouldnt consider the difficult or
contested unless we seek an art less easy, we will fight the same battles, encounter the same
barriers. And so I hope we have the courage to earn authority rather than assert it, to attempt
knowing that though were likely to fail, we have a responsibility to try.