Three Commandments for Writing About Race
September 14, 2016 § 3 Comments
A Craft Essay by Xu Xi 許素細 to accompany our Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization:
Race, unlike a monotheistic god, no longer has a singular ancestry. There are those who like to think it still has, but that paradigm shifted centuries ago. Thus the first biblical commandment, about a god liberating people from bondage can apply to freedom from a singular notion of race, and, by extension, to writing about race, freeing yourself from the “problem” of race.
There’s a race problem we need to write about and it goes something like this: I’m better than you because I’m the superior race, regardless of how I live. C.Y. Lee 黎錦揚 forgot about race (and even his natural language Chinese) when he first showed up in the U.S. in 1943 as an aspiring playwright. When no one would stage his play with Chinese characters, he heeded advice to try a novel and wrote The Flower Drum Song, about people in San Francisco’s Chinatown, turning life as he witnessed it into art. His book is funny, ironic, heartbreaking. His early success with mainstream America did not endear him to perceived anti-Orientalist sentiments in subsequent years. But in today’s global, hybrid world, Lee’s stories of Chinese life in the U.S., about people living a separate racial reality who somehow survived, endures.
So here’s my first commandment:
Stop writing about race and write about how people live instead.
By contrast, the multi-racial, transnational existence of many centers around race, which in the U.S. pings against religious and national identities. The third biblical commandment tells believers not to take their supreme deity’s name in vain. When it comes to race, however, just what is supreme? As a teenager, I loved The Supremes’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” because it pinged against the notion of barriers.
It’s simplistic to muddle race with religion and nation, even if muddled detractors insist on supreme deification. Neela Vaswani’s memoir, You Have Given Me A Country, sublimates all three into a center through what a reviewer describes as her “big hearted” approach. We are increasingly products of multiplicity arising from the racial muddle that is our world. Vaswani particularizes her background of an Irish-Catholic mother and Sindhi-Indian father in a cross-genre memoir that is historical, factual, metaphorical. My favorite sentence that opens the book — “I pledge allegiance to the in between.”
Which brings me to my second commandment:
In writing about race, never take the truth in vain.
And finally, the question of false witness against neighbors. In writing creative nonfiction about race, we who care most about race are both observer and witness. The human condition of the 21st century has made uneasy neighbors of many races who are still learning to speak to each other. Writing about race is uncomfortable, especially if what we have to say about our “neighbors” is ugly, not pretty. Yet if we don’t, we do a great disservice to our art.
Let’s consider a writer who crossed borders and wrote about another uncomfortable subject, sex. In 1953, Vladimir Nabokov completed Lolita, his first English language novel. He had difficulty publishing it, was even advised to use a pseudonym which he, happily, decided against. One editor suggested he turn “Lolita into a twelve-year old lad” to be “seduced by Humbert, a farmer” and to write this in “short, strong, ‘realistic’ sentences (‘We all act crazy . . . I guess God acts crazy’)!
In his essay “On A Book Titled Lolita,” Nabokov says it took him “some forty years to invent Russia and Western Europe” and that writing this novel was “the task of inventing America.” But the story is also about a pedophile, a reason the book met resistance. “My creature Humbert,” says Nabokov, “is a foreigner and an anarchist, and there are many things, besides nymphets, in which I disagree with him.” Yet this did not prevent him from fully inhabiting Humbert’s skin.
“That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true. But after all we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents, not English public school boys who after a night of homosexual romps have to endure the paradox of reading the Ancients in expurgated versions.”
Nabokov would not compromise, which is why Lolita remains one of the more important, perennially controversial, canonical works of literature.
My third and final commandment:
Never, ever bear false witness against yourself in what you observe of race, regardless.
Xu Xi 許素細 is author of ten books, most recently the novels That Man In Our Lives and Habit of a Foreign Sky, a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize; the story collection Access Thirteen Tales. She has also edited four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English.