Cancellation or Consequences? Meredith Talusan and Matt Gallagher on Accountability in Literature
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell
In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan are joined by award-winning author and journalist Meredith Talusan and acclaimed writer Matt Gallagher. Talusan reads from her memoir Fairest, and talks about representation in literature, the intersections of their identity as an Asian and transgender woman, and why transphobia is a recurring theme in conversations about problematic faves. Then, Gallagher shares his take on “canceling” problematic authors, and discusses his recent Intercept article about the new film Cherry, which is adapted from Nico Walker’s autobiographical novel. In the piece, Gallagher parses ethical storytelling and how the American romanticization of crime can depend on the perpetrator’s identity. He also reads from his most recent novel, Empire City.
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A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, Harper’s Magazine · Artists and Writers Warn of an ‘Intolerant Climate.’ Reaction Is Swift. by Jennifer Schuessler and Elizabeth A. Harris, New York Times · She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found It Racist. Now She Plans to Publish. by Alexandra Alter, New York Times · How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans by Sophie Lewis, New York Times · Francis Hodgson Burnett · Roald Dahl · Ezra Pound · Enid Blyton · Another Country by James Baldwin · The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett · Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad · An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Chinua Achebe · “On Stalin” by W.E.B. Du Bois · The Woman Warrior: A Memoir of Girlhood Amongst Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston · The Mikado by W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan · Miss Saigon by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil · Madame Butterfly by Puccini · M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang · Cathy Park Hong · Julie Otsuka · The Lover by Marguerite Duras · Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl · Perspective | So you’re being held accountable? That’s not ‘cancel culture.’ by Margaret Sullivan
With Meredith Talusan
V.V. Ganeshananthan: You write about, in Fairest, the privilege of passing as white, and about the power of being seen as a woman in that moment. Can you talk a little bit about how we write about and imagine Asian women and the recent uptick in violence?
Meredith Talusan: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I am in this unique position of being Asian, having grown up in the Philippines surrounded by Asian people in an Asian family, and yet at the same time being regularly perceived as white and being perceived as a particular kind of white woman, a blonde white woman. Blondness being also associated with a particular kind of privilege and innocence. I do think that one of the things that really stuck with me about the incidences of anti-Asian violence is how white gaze represents Asian people. People talk a lot about Asian women being over sexualized, which is also the case for Black women, which is also the case for trans women. One of the things that, throughout my life, I’ve come to see and be really privy to is the shift in men’s behaviors towards me when they find out that I’m trans, when they find out that I’m Asian. I can literally see, in their faces and their expressions, the symbolic weight of their associations around trans women. [We’re] automatically assumed to be more sexually adventurous, or Asian women being more exotic and being privy to sexual practices that are not known to white men.
That’s been something really present for me in terms of seeing the ways in which the victims of the shooting were literally erased. There’s an assumption of passivity, especially of working class Asian women who are potentially sex workers. There’s this sense of, “No, like, these people aren’t important. They’re race isn’t important, their deaths aren’t important. Let’s focus on the fact that this white guy had a bad day and that he’s a sex addict.” I feel like literature is an extension of that. Miss Saigon really jumps out at me as a representation and Madame Butterfly by Puccini and M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, and all of the variations of that trope. That is a representation of whitened gaze. The Asian woman is a passive creature that is just hoping to be chosen, hoping for the love of this white man who would then take care of all of her needs. In Miss Saigon, the white man is presented as innocent, as a victim of circumstance rather than what is much more typical of white men in that position which is a person who exoticizes Asian women and then leaves them and doesn’t care about the consequences.
VVG: As you’re talking I was realizing, I don’t know how this book didn’t occur to me before, but I was thinking about Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, as canonical exotification—if that’s even a phrase that I want to invent. And I remember seeing on Twitter recently someone was advertising Madame Butterfly, and I felt a little bit like, “read the room.” Maybe not the time.
MT: Right. One of the things that’s been really wonderful is the way there’s been such a plethora of recent Asian American literature and Asian American fiction. We have Woman Warrior, Cathy Park Hong, and Julie Otsuka. We have all of these ways in which we have represented ourselves, yet we also need to ask about larger mainstream representation and the fact that these tropes are still so present in our culture.
Whitney Terrell: I noticed R.O. Kwon, who’s been on our show before, she had a guy comment on one of her tweets saying that this is not a racist incident, it’s about sex trafficking. But the point that you’re making here is that these two things are intertwined.
MT: Yes, because that is how you become racist.
WT: Right! You can’t say that they’re separated. To say that is exactly on point of the problem here.
MT: Yeah. This is a really typical experience for me as both an Asian person and a trans person. When cis women say, “I don’t have a problem with you being trans. I have a problem with you being assertive.” I tell people, trans women are not socialized in the same ways cis women are—so is it possible that you’re viewing my assertiveness through the lens of your knowledge about my trans identity? In the cultural climate we’re in, not that many people will say, “I’m racist against Asian people and these are my motives.” You can always obscure your motivations using “behaviors.” We’ve had this conversation and continue to have these conversations about Black people and the use of the term urban and the use of coded words to describe people’s behaviors.
The specific parlor that he targeted was called Young’s Asian Massage Parlor. It’s very frustrating because it’s a really common way in which white people deflect charges of racism. By saying, “No, I’m not racist, I am merely judging somebody through a racist trope. I’m not judging them because they’re Asian; I’m judging them because they do X and X and X and Y.”
With Matt Gallagher
Whitney Terrell: We’re doing a show on problematic faves. I want to unpack this concept because, in certain ways, you are a problematic writer, Matt, by which I mean, your writing—from your original blog about the war in Iraq, which you wrote while in uniform, to your new novel, Empire City—was problematic for the Bush administration and remains problematic for the good old military industrial complex. Writers are supposed to be problematic in that way. So what’s the difference between good problematic and bad problematic?
Matt Gallagher: Ah, great question. Jumping right into the deep end. For me—and this is just how I think about it, it’s certainly not a universal answer—I know when I want to sit down with a book I want to feel challenged in some way. I don’t want to feel exactly the same as I did before I entered that book. I want to wrestle with the ideas or the characters or themes or the notions, and be changed a little bit by the end of it. If I’ve sat down for 300 pages only to have all my preconceived notions reinforced, why did I spend all that time doing that? As a writer, that’s the kind of literature that I’m hoping to put down for my readers to experience. Not to say that they’re going to get exactly what I intended out of it. They’re going to have their own worldview and ideas, but something that transforms a little bit.
WT: I mean, that’s the old dictum—speaking of a problematic writer, Ezra Pound—”make it new.” We’re all trying to do that, to push understanding in some way.
MG: I think so. The bad problematic—is it just reinforcing easy stereotypes, even if it’s sleekly packaged? Is it playing into popular wisdom and calling itself literature? I think that can happen. I think a central part of this conversation is the weird overlapping that can happen between an author’s biography and their actual work. I don’t think those things can be neatly untangled, nor should they be. On the other side of it, though, there is a danger of projecting that biography onto their work in a way that doesn’t make sense.
WT: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. If something directly racist is in the work, but had been overlooked, like with the Dr. Seuss thing, it seems obvious to me, that in the work, we have to reevaluate that writer in some ways. And at minimum, I think it makes perfect sense to not publish those books anymore, because they’re not saying they’re going to not publish the rest of his work. I think his work needs to be understood in context with “Okay, he did these things, but also he did this.” But, what if a writer is known for having a lot of affairs that were consensual? Does that affect the way that they write?
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Are you thinking of anyone in particular?
WT: I’m thinking of, basically, every writer from the 70s and 80s. When I try to explain to my students, yeah, they’re writing a lot about having affairs. It seemed like people did that a lot back then, and my students are all like, “They’re bad! This is bad! This character is bad! We can’t discuss this!” I find that interesting.
VVG: I require so much more particularity in how I think about that because not all affairs are alike, I suppose. While there are power dynamics in all of them, I would be curious to hear your students have that conversation.
WT: We were reading James Baldwin’s book Another Country, and the main character is an African American guy who has an affair with a white woman, and then physically abuses her. I think that Baldwin doesn’t want you to totally separate from that character. He wants you to take him seriously and think about what systemic racism has done to him in the way that he’s having this relationship, but my students really just wanted to cancel him. He wasn’t somebody that they wanted to morally consider. Now, this is different than thinking about the author’s life, but that’s an example that I was thinking about recently.
VVG: And maybe you were getting also a little bit to the question of what cancellation even means. Does cancelled for your students mean don’t teach it or don’t read it at all? My own problematic faves, I read them, perhaps, but I read them alone. I talk about them with other people for whom they are also problematic faves and we’re like, ahhh, problematic! I think for me, it’s probably Roald Dahl. I’m a child of the Commonwealth, the former Commonwealth. There’s this set of colonial literature that so many of us knew. So many people have Enid Blyton on their shelf, or The Secret Garden. All the Francis Hodgson Burnett is laden with references to “and then he went to India and he got the yellow fever, but my ayah helped me.” And you’re like, “Oh, God!” How many of these depictions are there? The Pondicherry detour in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where all of a sudden you’re with an Indian prince for a chapter and he wants a chocolate palace built. That was actually how I learned what Pondicherry was. So there are all of these South Asian stereotypes all over a lot of the literature that I grew up with and really loved. Dahl was really formative for me. I can’t chuck him. I have to contend with the ways in which he was formative for me. Are there writers like that who were formative for you guys?
MG: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s interesting. We’re looking towards old writers long dead for this conversation, because we benefit from time. We can see how interpretations of their work have changed over the years. Should we not read W.E.B. Du Bois just because he wrote a glowing obituary of Stalin? Of course we should still read him. Does that impact the transformative experience I had in college when I first read Black reconstruction in America? It doesn’t. Does it influence how I think about Du Bois and one major piece of the conversation in American Letters? Oh yeah, it does. A problematic fav personal to me that I was thinking about is Joseph Conrad. Lord Jim is top drawer for me. Hugely influential. It’s a book about failure and living with failure. It’s a book that explores the chasms between moral courage and physical courage. It’s a book that has inspired many a young person to go off and try to be something in the world. It’s also a pretty racist book, particularly in the second half when Jim gets to the island in the South Seas. How do I perfectly reconcile those things? I don’t think I have, and I think that’s part of this. It’s an “and,” it’s not “either/or.” Conrad should be read and studied and critiqued. You’ve finished Conrad? You should pick up Achebe’s essay that points out all the many racist characters that his books are filled with. It doesn’t mean Conrad should just go away. I don’t find that to be a solution to anything.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope, Raine Briscoe, Olivia Legaspi, Josh Moncure, and Cydia White.