Thoughts on writing from the margins

Opinion by Ethan Chua
May 23, 2017, 2:09 a.m.

This spring quarter, I’ve had the privilege of meeting several successful authors of color and hearing them talk about their work, along with the struggles they face as writers from marginalized communities. As a Chinese-Filipino writer myself, I’m often intimidated by the demands that are leveled at authors of color, who can be expected to not only deliver works of personal authenticity but also to represent entire cultures or races to audiences of vastly different backgrounds. And despite the growing success of POC authors – take, for example, Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose recent novel, “The Sympathizer,” won the Pulitzer Prize – unfair double standards continue to abound in the judgment of their work.

Take the reviews of “Monstress,” the debut short story collection of Filipino-American author Lysley Tenorio, which tend to focus on how accurately Tenorio portrays the range of the “Filipino-American experience.” While many of these reviews are thoughtful and nuanced, they also contribute to the common misconception that authors from mixed-race backgrounds must write stories which faithfully represent the narratives of an entire cultural minority. This remains a harmful double standard – a white American author never be expected to represent the entirety of white America in a single short story collection – and, often, it’s not even the author’s intent. As Tenorio himself says in an interview with Fiction Writers Review, “While Monstress is full of Filipino and Filipino-American characters, I see them first as individuals caught up in weird, sometimes ridiculous, and always (I hope) emotionally complex circumstances that have nothing to do with my own experience as a Filipino American.” Nevertheless, the duty of “cultural representation” continues to be imposed on POC authors, with critics acting as if they have a responsibility to document complex cultural and social histories in the space of a few hundred pages.

In addition, simplistic assumptions of what it means to be of mixed-race can obscure the work an author of color puts into his writing. Often, it’s taken as self-evident that Vietnamese-American authors can write about Vietnam, or that Filipino-American authors can write about the Philippines, as if being of mixed-race means one has a special affinity for writing  different worlds. This assumption is harmful for several reasons – not only is it reductive, treating “Vietnamese-Americanness” or “Filipino-Americanness” as a single experience instead of as a broad mix of identities; but it also obscures the work authors must often put into accessing their ancestries and backgrounds. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel “The Sympathizer” opens with several blistering chapters set in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, but Nguyen himself has hardly any memory of the war, having fled Vietnam with his parents when he was a child. The energy and brutal detail of the novel’s opening have little to do with some mystical connection to Vietnam Nguyen has as a POC, and a lot more to do with Nguyen’s methodical research, his constant visits to Vietnam, and his craft as a writer.

However, the most difficult criticisms levied at writers of color can sometimes come from those who feel POC authors should push back against dominant stereotypes. “We the Animals,” Puerto Rican-American author Justin Torres’s novella, centers around the experience of a poor, dysfunctional Puerto Rican family. One reader of the book noted that “We the Animals … does not erase from the public mindset the image of the all-Macho, ultra libidinous Latin Man. When will we get the heart-wrenching portrayal of a Mexican American kid with professionals as parents and a liberal education?” While Torres was drawing from his own experience in the semi-autobiographical “We the Animals,” the criticism still raises important questions – do authors of color have a duty to depict members of their community in a light that runs counter to dominant narratives? Do they still have that duty if it means writing against their own experience?

On the other hand, while authors of color are still the object of endless unfair criticism, it can also be difficult to talk about authors of color in ways that are justly critical, especially when it’s such a rarity for said authors to find both a wide audience and literary success. Junot Diaz, a Dominican-American writer whose novel “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” won the Pulitzer Prize, continues to be a powerful voice for marginalized writers (take a look at his cutting piece in the New Yorker, which highlights the ways in which diversity is still missing from MFA programs in America). His work is unashamedly Dominican; it never shies from using dialect or from foregrounding the experiences of persons of color; and the man himself continues to be an inspiration to me, a reminder that authors of color can achieve success without compromising their connections to their ancestry and culture. But that success can make it difficult to discuss the ways in which Diaz’s stories relegate women and their voices to the background. The distinction between writing sexist characters and being a sexist author is a topic of its own (here’s one point of view, here’s another); my point, however, is that it’s tricky to even begin conversations around the flaws of authors of color for fear of fueling the racist narratives that oppress them, and for fear of detracting from the rare blessing of their success.

Ultimately, the experience of writers of color is vastly different from those of other writers, and should be acknowledged as such. And we ought to continue having meaningful discussions on how and why we read and criticize their works the way we do.



Contact Ethan Chua at [email protected]


Editor’s note: This post has been updated due to confidentiality concerns of a subject in the previous version.

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