How to Unlearn Everything, 2019
People don’t often know their blind spots until they do a simple audit of their bookshelf. When I go to literary parties at editors’ homes, I experience the shelves upon shelves of white writers like a rebuke. Most of what has survived to us thus far is literature written by white male writers. The last three decades especially have seen a struggle to revive the books we’ve lost—books by women, people of color, and queer writers—and to then try and write out of that recuperation a new tradition. But most of us writing now were not educated by that expanded canon.
I teach roughly seven writing workshops a year, and have since 1996. For the 24 years I’ve been teaching creative writing, the stories I see have predominantly been about white people, or characters that mysteriously don’t have any declared ethnicity or race at all. This is true no matter the number of students of color in the class, and no matter the amount of writing I assign by writers of color, and even, to my surprise, no matter the declared radical politics of the students. In general, the beginner fiction that writers produce is what they think a story looks like. Those stories are often not really stories—they are ways of performing their relationship to power. They are stories that let them feel connected to the dominant culture. There was one day last year when two queer Korean-American students both submitted stories about queer Korean-American characters, and it felt like the dawn of a new era.
This brings me to the flip side of this question of how to write about the other, a question for the rest of us who aren’t white men: How do we write our own literature? I am thinking of when I interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin and she told me she had to teach herself to write as a woman. Or my own first stories, when I did much the same as these students. In the 1980s, I had to learn how to write myself and people like me onto the page. My own life on the page felt impossible to explain in any detail when I was a student writer. I had to ask myself why I was embarrassed to mention that I was Asian-American, much less to center it in a story. Strangely, it took finding writers like Mavis Gallant and Gregor Von Rezzori, whose works described characters who had lived among several cultures, as they were writing about Europeans. Reading about someone who was of Austrian and French heritage may not feel like a mix of cultures, but I unexpectedly found permission there—white writers teaching me how to write mixed-race Asian-American characters like me.