Jess Row and Timothy Yu on Learning From Writers Who Write About Race
Part Two, with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In the second half of a special two-part episode (part one is here), novelist and critic Jess Row and poet and critic Tim Yu talk to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about writing about whiteness in America. Who gets to participate in cultural criticism, and why? Who gets reviewed by and compared to whom, and why? How can white writers render and challenge their communities’ part in the country’s history of racism? Row and Yu also share their responses to Bob Hicok’s recent Utne Reader essay about diversity in poetry.
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Readings for the Episode:
White Flights by Jess Row · Your Face in Mine by Jess Row · “What Are White Writers For”? by Jess Row, The New Republic, Sept. 30, 2016 · “Native Sons: A straight white American man on loving James Baldwin and learning to write about race” by Jess Row, Guernica, Aug. 13, 2013 · “The Case of the ‘Disappearing Poet’: Why did a white poet see the success of writers of color as a signal his own demise?” by Tim Yu, The New Republic, Aug. 7, 2019 · “White Poets Want Chinese Culture Without Chinese People Calving Trillin’s ‘Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet’: is the latest in a long artistic tradition” by Tim Yu, The New Republic, April 8, 2016 · 100 Chinese Silences by Tim Yu · The King of Kings County by Whitney Terrell · The Huntsman by Whitney Terrell
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo · “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo · “Who Gets to Write What?” by Kaitlyn Greenidge, The New York Times, Sept. 24, 2016 · “The Authentic Outsider: Bill Cheng, Anthony Marra, and the freedom to write what you don’t know,” by V.V. Ganeshananthan · “The Dominance of the White Male Critic: Conversations about our monuments, museums, screens and stages have the same blind spots as our political discourse,” by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang, The New York Times, July 5, 2019 · “The Promise of American Poetry,” by Bob Hicok, Utne Reader, Summer 2019 (originally appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2018) · When will a white man say what Ta-Nehisi Coates said?, The Week · The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron · “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” by Calvin Trillin, The New Yorker, March 28, 2016 · Orientalism by Edward Said · Mapping Prejudice · Candidate Says City in Michigan Should Be Kept White ‘As Much as Possible’, By Derrick Bryson Taylor, The New York Times, Aug. 24, 2019 · Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2010 by Kevin Fox Gotham · Citizen by Claudia Rankin · The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison · Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the literary imagination by Toni Morrison · White People by Allan Gurganus · Literary Color Lines: On Inclusion in Publishing Fiction/Non/Fiction #8: Dhonielle Clayton and Ayesha Pande Talk Sensitivity Reading January 11, 2018 · Lionel Shriver sees fallout from her dismissive comments about diversity in publishing
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So Timothy, you’re a full-time critic and literary scholar, as opposed to Jess who says that fiction is his “first language.” And the majority of critics are white. And as another recent piece in The New York Times pointed out, that’s a problem. One of the great pleasures of your piece is having a white writer read closely by a critic of color, who brings that knowledge and history to bear on on the arguments that Hicok presents. To expand on my point about the way that Anthony Marra and Bill Chang were profiled, I’m curious about what you think about the way that criticism is affected by those demographics, and the way the books about race are reviewed and curated generally.
Tim Yu: Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting question. And in fact, it’s also a question that was one of the central questions that was being talked about at the Asian American Literature Festival, not necessarily on the stage, but actually in the conversations I was having with other poets, other editors, other scholars. They were saying things like, well, you know, when Asian American writers publish books, who’s reviewing them? Who’s getting to talk about them? Are there Asian American critics out there who can do the kind of work of looking at these books, explaining what’s going on in them, giving some kind of context to them, but also being able to engage some of this discourse around race, around whiteness, that are activated by essays like Hicok’s?
So I think that is still very much the case that certainly for Asian American writers—and the situation is more complex for African American writers—I think that one thing you often hear among Asian American writers is thinking about, oh, there are these African American writers out there who—even if there’s only a few of them—who have that kind of cultural position where they can mark out cultural space, they can function as cultural critics, and there aren’t really Asian American critics out there who are able to do that in the same way. I do think that inflects all of the conversations that we’ve had, because, sure, there’s what’s going on in the academy, but there isn’t, in a lot of cases, that middle ground of critics who can go out there and make the case to a more general reading public of what’s going on literature, how should we be thinking about race, and as you say, to actually read what white writers are saying, from the perspective of a writer of color.
So one thing that has, I think, made a big difference is social media. When something like this happens, a lot of the time, the first way in which we hear about Asian American responses to it is because Asian Americans start dragging it on Twitter. So I think that’s one way in which Asian American writers at least have been trying to elbow their way into the conversation. But still, at the level of who are the critics who get to write about these kinds of things, I agree that it’s still primarily white gatekeepers who are getting to do that.
VVG: Most of the books I’ve been asked to review have been connected to South Asia in some way. And sometimes we don’t even talk about what are the demographics of editors. And sometimes there can be things like perceived expertise, or a misunderstanding of what a book is about. I can think of at least one occasion in which I was asked to review a book and thought it was a great book, and then later realized that I had possibly been asked to review that book because of what the editor thought my expertise was, which was actually quite different. And the book was by a writer of color. It seems to me—and I would love for someone to confirm or deny this—that debut writers of color tend to be reviewed by other writers of color with one or two books out. To be reviewed by a staff critic is a mark of a certain kind of hierarchy. Staff critics seem to me, more than freelance critics, to be white. Even if you look at reportage, that women are likely to write about things like reproductive rights. It is great to bring that history to bear on criticism. I also wonder if we could maybe be doing a better job of challenging the way that white people read. Because shouldn’t that also—they’re missing stuff.
Whitney Terrell: The other side of this from my perspective, Sugi, and I love it that you bring this up—
VVG: —As a white person!
TY: Speaking as a white person—
WT: Speaking as a white person who’s had books reviewed, right, is that I’ve written three novels. All of them have dealt with race in some way or another, including my war novel, The Good Lieutenant, which has Iraqi characters in it. And I have been reviewed by a writer of color exactly one time.
WT: I would prefer for that not to be the case, because I feel like white critics who read The King of Kings County, that 2005 book we’ve been talking about—not one of them—I was happy for the reviews, the reviews were all good, okay—but not one of them discussed what the book was about.
Jess Row: Yeah. This is an experience I’ve had too.
WT: Okay, I was gonna ask you, if that’s what happened with you, Jess, for Your Face in Mine.
Jess Row: With Your Face in Mine and also with White Flights, I’ve had reviewers who are people of color and reviewers who are white. And I’m thankful for all the reviews for sure, but definitely in both cases, it’s interesting to see what people focus on and what they do not focus on in the reviews. Sometimes I have felt like this reviewer was trying to essentially avoid what the book was really about. Not that often, but it definitely has happened. I would also say that one of the things that’s been most notable for me is, I’ve now been out on the road twice, with books about race, very explicitly books about race, and something that comes up a lot in conversations with other white writers at literary festivals, or at AWP, the Associated Writing Program convention, or in other places like that is this constant refrain of, “You’re so brave, and I wish I had that kind of courage.” And, “I would never be able to do that.” And also, “Better you than me.”
WT: Speaking of conversations that white writers have amongst themselves, like Sugi was asking about.
VVG: That’s what you guys are doing!
WT: That happens all the time to me.
JR: All the time. And it’s very painful. It’s very painful, because it speaks to the power of a certain received wisdom. This is something we’ve talked about before. I think Tim brought up the question of artistic paralysis. And I think that there is a really profound artistic paralysis among white American writers when it comes to race.
One thing that I try to persuade people to do all the time is to look at white writers and writers of color in parallel.
WT: That includes critics, because the thing that I noticed about x about the reviews for The King of Kings County, say, which I went back and looked at—I was only compared to white writers. So Cheever, Updike, Ann Beattie, Anne Tyler, those were the comparisons. Saying, this is a book like that. But my book was attempting to deconstruct what those writers did. I did not want to be like them. I didn’t want to be in that group.
VVG: Yeah, when we were talking about this episode, I was saying to Whit, that, you know, Whit and I trained with some of the same teachers, and we read a lot of the same things. And we’re interested in a lot of the same subjects, which I think is one of the reasons we’re hosting a podcast together, and yet I can’t imagine a review comparing the two of us.
WT: Why can’t that happen? Why can’t white writers be thought of in terms of the work of writers of color? There’s this segregation in comparison that happens.
JR: I published an essay about that very subject when Your Face in Mine came out five years ago. It’s called “Native Sons.” It’s in Guernica and it’s about my struggle with this question. And my identification with James Baldwin primarily, and how difficult and tricky it is for white writers to name nonwhite writers as major influences. It’s a largely unexplored subject. One thing that I try to persuade people to do all the time is to look at different writers in parallel. So for example, Poets and Writers asked me to suggest a bunch of further reading books about White Flights. And two of the books I suggested are Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, because those books are parallel stories in many ways, about Detroit in the 20th century, from a Greek American point of view, which is an assimilating-into-whiteness point of view, and from an African American point of view. And the stark difference between them is something that is so revelatory, and yet that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It happens very infrequently.
VVG: I was one of Frank Conroy’s students and, and he would talk about meeting sense and clarity. And I appreciate those pillars, and I teach from them too. But it does also suggest this notion that in reading, one should be comfortable and have perfect understanding. And so much of what I have gained as a reader has been from a position of being uncomfortable and not understanding and being forced to guess and being wrong, and then correcting myself. And that has been my mode of reading. I think it’s a really interesting artistic problem to try to figure out—how would I teach that kind of reading, being okay with being uncomfortable, to my readers, if that was who my readers were, and if I were in that community? In some ways, I have parallel problems, with the way that some Sri Lankan politics play out. But it’s not the same thing, because it’s a different tradition. So if you’ve got this set of people who think that everything should be clear and easy for them, and that psychological fiction is the mode of working, and that everything is intensely individual, and separated from history in this way—how can the art move to create a different tradition or evolve a tradition of reading?
JR: Right? Just to make another Iowa connection, Marilynne Robinson is a major presence in my book, because she’s a white writer who in her later novels has dealt with race, in a way that’s open, but yet also very profoundly closed, because she’s writing about Iowa in the middle of the 20th century. And she’s writing about the history of John Brown in Iowa almost a century before. And these descendants, these white descendants of anti-slavery campaigners who fought with John Brown, but what she’s also writing about, and what she doesn’t name directly, or names only in in a very kind of marginal way, is the fact that Iowa in the mid-20th century, was a profoundly and violently segregated place. And her underlying ethos, her Calvinist ethos, which she, is very, very explicit about and has written about in great detail, has to do with a version of extreme American individualism and the separateness of the individual. And what I write about in her novels is that essentially, her belief in the separateness of individuals literally creates space, an empty space that prevents her from writing about racism explicitly, that it essentially prevents her from grappling with it accurately and explicitly.
Writers of color have to be able to think about how to occupy whiteness, because they confront it on a daily basis.
WT: Sugi, to follow up on Jess’s question in terms of trying to talk to people about how to think collectively—it’s not something that I ever thought of explicitly until you brought it up. So I can’t really say that I’ve got a practice for that. I mean, I think you try to write the books, and go out on the road and explain them to the best of your ability. I do want to mention that I think Jess’s book does a great job of critiquing writers who have avoided this subject, but there are white writers who have done a good job. And there are some that I would mention. Russell Banks is somebody that I thought, in his work, maybe not perfectly, but always was alive to that issue. If you look at Continental Drift and novels like that, and you mentioned in your book Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. There’s some other, less well known writers who are my contemporaries, who write in this area, like Joanna Luloff, or Tom Piazza, Josh Barkan. Zach Lazar, Rilla Askew, who’s a Midwesterner. So I would just say that there are people out there who are doing this. Russell never won a major prize, and some of the people that I’ve just listed there listeners might not know, which is unfortunate, because I think they’re good writers. Sometimes you pay a price for that in your career.
JR: Whitney’s exactly right. And there are so many writers to point to. One example that really stands out for me is Allan Gurganus’s collection of short stories called White People, that came out in the 1990s.
VVG: I love that so much.
JR: It’s just absolutely extraordinary book. It’s extremely funny and extremely painful. And the level of self-consciousness about mid-century Southern whiteness in that book is really extraordinary. And I think it, it perhaps got left behind. I think Gurganus was as explicit as he could be by calling the book White People. He couldn’t possibly make it any plainer. And yet the fact that he was viewed as a humorist, a little bit in the vein of Garrison Keillor, still causes a lot of people to miss how incisive he is, and how distinctive his writing is.To white writers who are afraid to write about race, I say, Okay, you’ll be uncomfortable. Be prepared.
VVG: Yeah, he’s amazing. I had a hilarious conversation with a friend a couple years ago. And she said, I have this dream of writing a collection—this was a person of color—I could dream of writing a collection of stories called White People. And I was like, I’ve gotta tell you, someone has beaten you to this, and you should really read it.
WT: The last thing that I would mention is that I also when reading think about how to write my work, read a lot of writers of color, who write either they’re only writing about characters who are of color, but also who write about multivoiced works from different racial points of view. Marlon James is good at that, Zadie Smith was somebody who I read for that. Anthony Grooms who’s a good writer, who’s based in Georgia does that, Phong Nguyen who teaches at the University of Missouri, who’s a friend of mine does that, Susan Choi does that there’s a lot of writers who I learned a lot from in terms of writing across racial barriers.
JR: I would just add people like Monique Truong, Reginald McKnight, Martha Southgate, John Edgar Wideman, Reginald McKnight, he published a book of short stories called White Boys.
TY: I’m certainly not the first person to observe this. But writers of color have to have this skill. Writers of color have to be able to think about how to occupy whiteness, because they confront it on a daily basis. They cannot not think about their own subject position, vis a vis whiteness, it’s just not possible as a person of color in the United States. And so if you want to say that—to go back to Bob Hicok for a second—if you want to say that at some level that gives writers of color almost an advantage, in the sense that they have to have that ability of empathy to be able to inhabit this other subject position, and that we are at a moment where white writers can look at that, and learn from that in really important ways. The other thing I wanted to say, though, was that back to the question about people saying to you, you know, you’re really brave, or I couldn’t have done this, I’m going to be attacked if I do this . . . I think about Asian American writers. Asian American writers shred each other all the time.
VVG: Yes we do. Yes we do.
TY: Maybe we don’t do it openly, but you know, we’ll be like, Oh, my gosh, you know, that book, you know, can you believe etc, you know, we’re doing that all the time. We’re always criticizing other Asian American writers, we’re always critiquing what other Asian American writers have done. People I think, have to get used to the idea that, you know, white writers, if they venture into this into this realm, which they should, they are going to be critiqued and that’s okay. It’s funny thinking back to the reviewing conversation, you know, a couple of reviews of my book of poetry, 100 Chinese Silences are like, Oh, you know, this book is so angry. So I’m like, Really? I thought it was funny.
JR: Can I just say, it’s one of the funniest books of poetry I think I’ve ever read.
White Americans seem to act as if interracial life can be an object for our disinterested contemplation, rather than something Americans all participate in.
TY: But the sense that it can only be grasped by some leaders in that frame of like, Oh, it’s this angry man of color. Which, to me is, knowing myself very comical, but that’s okay. That’s part of how my work is going to be read. And I understand and accept that. And I think that again, thinking about the perspective of a white writer who’s afraid to go into these kinds of spaces, it’s like, Okay, well, you know, be prepared, it’s going to be uncomfortable. And I say that to my students all the time. This is from the perspective of somebody who teaches classes in American literature, but also classes in ethnic studies to primarily white students who are scared to talk about race. It’s like, okay, I know you’re scared, I know that you don’t want to say the wrong thing, etc. Okay, you’re here to be uncomfortable. And we have to say those things. And hopefully, by the end of the semester, they’ve gotten to the point where they can say, all right, even if these conversations are extremely uncomfortable, I at least feel like I can participate in them in a way that I couldn’t before. And so that, I think, is a step that a lot of not just writers, but people need to be able to step into that space.
VVG: So Tim, you mention the way that Asian American writers—and I feel like the fraught the term Asian American is like a whole ’nother episode—But you mentioned the way that Asian American writers like Beth Nguyen responded to Trillin’s essay, that’s an affirmation of who’s in the room today, going back to Hickok’s dismay. And Jess, in your book, you critique the way that white Americans seem to act, and I quote, as if interracial life can be an object for our disinterested contemplation, rather than something Americans all participate in. So as we’ve discussed quite a bit on this podcast, we are living in an insane hellscape, which is not a new hellscape, when it comes to the way far too many white Americans and our president think, act and talk about their fellow Americans of color—anyone deemed not white. And yet, if everybody is at the same time participating in interracial life, in one way or another, what does that mean for writers? White writers, yes. But really, just all of us? And what are the opportunities presented by that, that were that we could be taking advantage of?
TY: One thing that’s really interesting to me is that Bob Hicok’s essay, which sparked this whole response from me, the seed of it really is in there. And one thing I say at the end of my response is that, what if Hicok could move from seeing this as a kind of death, to seeing this as a rebirth, a new set of opportunities for him to engage with a new set of writers and to learn something from them? And that he—and I think many other white Americans—have made the first step of recognizing that change has happened, and it’s irreversible. And it’s probably even a good thing, right?
I mean, Hicok, at least has gotten there. And the challenge, and I think this is the challenge that all writers are facing right now is, what is that next step? Right, okay, we’ve recognized the change has occurred. And maybe we even recognize that it’s a good thing. If you don’t think it’s a good thing, well, then that’s a that’s another set of conversations. But if you recognize that it’s a good thing, then you have the opportunity to step into that space. In some cases, especially in the case of Hicok, it may mean saying, okay, let’s take a cue from what writers of color are doing.
In his essay, Hicok talks a lot about admiring Martin Luther King and learning so much from King in the way that I think a lot of white liberals do. Okay, but what would it mean to much more radically say, Well, I’m really going to follow the leadership of people of color in politics in writing and learn from them, rather than be so centered in what is my place? What happens now that I’ve lost my centrality? Okay, take a step back and learn from the writers that you are saying you admire. So I think there’s a there is a huge opportunity there because the landscape has changed, those voices are out there. It’s just a question of how we’re going to listen to them.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF staff.