If Your Book Presumes an Entirely White World, It’s Not Universal
Why Writing and Reading About Race is a Privilege, Not a Burden
Over the past handful of years, any number of essays have appeared decrying the overwhelming whiteness of publishing. Interviews with frustrated editors, roundtable discussions on cultural appropriation and essays on what it means to avoid prioritizing white male writers’ work have ignited new conversations about race and literary fiction and highlighted issues that have gone ignored by the industry for a very long time.
I’m grateful for any effort to broaden dialogue about blackness and literature, but often, in the discussions that pop up around these initiatives, the reading of books by black authors winds up being presented as a should. Editors should build more diverse rosters. White readers should read books about black people. Writers of color should focus on telling our own stories. I find that should with all its attendant pedantry (“you should eat your vegetables”) unsettling.
The ability to incorporate race into one’s fiction is a privilege not a burden. It’s the refusal to write about race that’s the handicap. If the universality of a novel’s narrative has to do with a shared moral code between the writer and the reader (and I think it does), then it’s fair to say that a novel succeeds or fails in its investigation of that moral code. Race underlies every inch of America’s moral code, and the introduction of race into a fictional narrative allows writers to complicate that narrative in ways that might not otherwise be possible. It’s unfortunate that some writers avoid doing so, either out of a mistaken assumption that being white means being raceless, or out of a desire to distance themselves from conversations about race altogether. This mode of thinking is detrimental not only to those writers’ own work but to the state of the literary novel as a whole.
As Toni Morrison put it years ago in an interview with the Times, “I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither . . . it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.” Blackness is a tool that makes fiction more universal, not less. Writers who accept the fact that no one exists outside the network of cultural, ethnic and racial relations that make up the world can engage more fully with their chosen subjects. Readers of these writers’ work will find themselves exposed to more honestly conceived fictional spaces. It’s here, in its ability to take on controversial subjects that touch everyone, that literary fiction carries the potential to expand beyond its current niche status and speak to the world.
Take, for example, Danzy Senna’s New People, in which a biracial woman finds herself alienated from her perfect multi-cultural life in 1990s New York. The crisis that sets the plot in action is an attraction on the part of the engaged narrator, Maria Pierce, to a black poet acquaintance, to whom she is drawn by an almost supernatural pull. Senna, herself biracial, uses blackness in New People to deepen the well-trod territory of the adultery novel. She aligns the narrator’s relationship to her own biracial identity with her gravitation towards the poet. New People is a book about race, but in its investigation of race, it becomes about something else.
“Writers who accept the fact that no one exists outside the network of cultural, ethnic, and racial relations that make up the world can engage more fully with their chosen subjects.”
The object of Maria’s desire has dark skin, loves the right music, knows who he is, and doesn’t seem to question any of it. She idealizes the poet’s perceived self-confidence and contrasts his cool persona with the manic self-styling of her fiancé, Khalil, and future sister-in-law, Lisa. Everyone around her, aside from the poet, seems to be performing a version of themselves, something Maria suspects she’s doing as well. Outwardly, she’s an upwardly mobile academic completing her dissertation on Jonestown. Internally, she senses an emptiness that she hopes the poet will fill. The idea of being drawn to an unattainable person who is, in the end, nothing but a stand-in for our own desires, could not be more universal. In writing a book that foregrounds race, Senna has written a book about love, about self-loathing and about reconciliation—all universal subjects the last time I checked.
New People also weaves a spell that calls to mind Shirley Jackson as much as it does Victor LaValle or Toni Morrison. (This is not to suggest that comparisons to celebrated mainstream white writers are something black writers should strive for, but that we do ourselves a disservice by pretending black writers and white writers exist in unrelated literary cultural contexts.) Moments like the one in which Maria impersonates a babysitter in the poet’s building and finds herself, improbably, trapped in a stranger’s filthy apartment watching that stranger’s baby, add an eeriness to the book that made me want to see what would happen if Senna tried her hand at true horror or speculative fiction.
I felt similarly about Senna’s underrated Symptomatic, an elegant Twilight Zone episode in novel form. In her collection of short stories, You Are Free, Senna also examines what it means to exist at the intersection of two cultures. She approaches this examination in such a dizzying, surreal, refracted way that we never know exactly where her narrators’ sympathies lie, or even whether the people whose lives we are following are sane. Even her most realistic narratives become ghost stories or stories about doubles, by taking on the relationships between the women her narrators wish they could be and the women they are.
Senna is a master of mood and atmosphere, of the detail just off enough to tell the reader something isn’t right. She’s at her best when writing about subtle wrongness and all the ways we disappoint ourselves, in spite of our best intentions. New People is a book about a biracial female character in a white-dominated world, and it’s also about a woman trying to come to terms with what it means to be a wife and mother when she’s not sure she wants to be either of those things (at least not with the person to whom she is engaged). The final, desperate act that closes the book suggests Maria may have lost her mind completely. The decision she makes then has as much to do with her ambivalence as it does with the paralysis we all experience when confronted with the myriad directions in which, at any given point, our lives could go.
One reason I think seeking diversity in fiction tends to be presented as an action on par with eating one’s cultural vegetables—as a duty, rather than a privilege—is that some readers believe books about race must be political, and that political novels are, by nature, boring, didactic and preachy. Put more simply: white readers assume that books by black people will make them feel bad. Something I think about a lot in this context is Helen Oyeyemi’s response, in March 2016, to an interviewer for Broadly who asked whether Oyeyemi’s decision to focus on black female characters was a political act. “That’s basically like saying that my life, the very life that I’m living, and my body are political,” she says, “sometimes I think I’m just living.”
What Oyeyemi alludes to here—and what she is speaking out against—is the fact that when white writers write from life, their books tend to be taken as universal, whereas books about black characters tend to be taken as statements made on behalf of a racial or ethnic group. Consider Jeffrey Eugenides vs. Zadie Smith, Kelly Link vs. Oyeyemi or Tana French vs. Attica Locke. These pairs of authors have all found audiences in the same genres—literary realism, speculative fiction and mystery, respectively—but writers like Smith, Oyeyemi and Locke might, until recently, have found themselves lumped together on the same shelf at libraries and bookstores, while it’s considerably more rare to see writers like Eugenides, Link and French mentioned in the same context.
What all of this suggests to me is that white readers and editors still find black characters unknowable. Our stories can’t possibly be your stories because we can’t possibly experience the world the way you experience the world. White faces reflect—white readers can project their own emotions on to white characters, and so more easily navigate a fictional world through those characters’ eyes—whereas black faces absorb—our darker skin turns our entire lives into a mystery. This is something some black writers manage to convince themselves of as well, even though it isn’t true. Every life is political and every life is art. Literary novels about black people don’t have to serve as homework for well-meaning activists just as they don’t have to stand as political statements for the black community as a whole. Literary fiction featuring the life experiences of a black woman can be pitched, marketed and read as universal, because (news flash) everyone in the universe isn’t white.
“Put more simply: white readers assume that books by black people will make them feel bad.”
I’m a black woman, but I’m also a writer, and because I’m a writer, I read. I buy books, I attend readings, I ask questions, and I talk about new work. I also teach fiction to students who will grow up and ideally do the same. But I feel locked out of books written by white people who assume black people will never read them, and increasingly I’m choosing not to read, buy, or teach books that presume an entirely white world. This is not just because I’m starting to find homogenous worldviews unconscionable, but also because these novels don’t reflect the perspectives of my students, and in fact, they often fail to hold their interest. At the summer creative writing program where I taught this past July, almost half my students were non-white and many participants were queer, non-binary, or trans. The program hadn’t made a special effort to reach out to people from underrepresented groups: That’s what a room full of young creative writing students looks like in 2017.
Writers and editors ignore this evolution of the reading and writing public at their peril. What Senna achieves with the dark strangeness of New People is a kind of unfettered honesty, an authenticity that wouldn’t have been possible if she’d adhered to tired notions of respectability politics, or if she’d avoided tackling questions of race altogether. The book, as a result, has been called “precise and devastating,” by Parul Seghal in the Times, “slick and highly enjoyable” by Doreen St. Felix for the newyorker.com and “mordantly funny,” by Joy Press in New York. Something the enthusiastic response to New People suggests to me is that in the future, the opinions of those who choose to ignore the importance of race when it comes to literary fiction might not matter much at all.
Writers fearful of incorporating culture and ethnicity into their fiction should take heart: Writing about race doesn’t have to be scary. Writing black characters isn’t a matter of trying to inhabit the personalities of people you don’t know anything about, or with whom you’ve never spent any time. It’s simply a matter of acknowledging that non-white people exist in the world, that we might read your work, that we might even be worth speaking to, and that we are an element of the universal human condition—are, in fact, central to it, like everyone else.