JANUARY 25, 2021
I’M IN A creative writing PhD program. I’m a fiction editor at a literary journal for people of color. I’ve planned POC-centered events and consulted with a POC press. I have attended the right conferences, where I met the right people and organized for racial justice. Yet once in a while, despite it all, I feel like a fraud.
Here’s a sad daydream. One day, my acquaintances will cross paths. At the hotel bar, let’s say. I’ll come up somehow in their conversation. Swirling a martini olive, someone will ask, “How do we all know Brian? What has he even written?”
I haven’t published fiction yet. I’ve invested more time in other people’s work than my own. The reasons are endless. Many stem from a sense of unworthiness. Then there’s white supremacy.
This essay maps out the terrain of racial struggle in the literary world. At the start of the pandemic, I emailed friends, colleagues, and mentors, all POC, to ask two questions about their literary lives. What is a recurring situation that’s destabilizing and hard to navigate? What guidance would you offer a fellow person of color for navigating such situations? I weave my anecdotes with their responses to build an organic framework.
I offer my experiences as exemplary — not because I’m exceptional but because racism is predictable. White supremacy can be dumb like that.
I write this essay to affirm those of us who struggle to balance our writing with our other work for racial justice. Perfectionism and workaholism have various sources, not the least of which is structural racism. And the next time shit goes down — in workshop, on Twitter — I hope this chorus offers some solace. Most of all, I explain how it feels to move through the pipeline as it stands so that we can imagine something more generous and encompassing. Accessing opportunity shouldn’t require excellence already.
When I enter white spaces, I circle up with the other people of color. Since I’m an East Asian man, I signal pretty quickly that I’m not the kind of Asian person who gets along with white people. I did this at one of my first writing conferences. It took place at a secluded college campus. The opening reception was literally in the big house across the street. All of it looked a lot like Get Out.
It’s also how I coped at my PhD program’s reception for admitted students. After the professors read off everyone’s bios — so many MFA degrees and publication credits — I circled up again, warding off shame and imposter syndrome.
Literature is “defined by […] a whole socialization process firmly in the domain of whiteness,” says Vanessa Villarreal, author of the 2017 poetry collection Beast Meridian. “Writers who lack this socialization […] encounter this recurring moment of deep alienation.” But when we’re together, instead of feeling out of place, we center us. Something as elemental as overlapping worldviews can truly feel abundant.
Even then, I’m almost always the only Asian American man. I’ve internalized this pattern and come to feel like an accident. That’s when I fall for white reality and fear. That’s what the writing world mingles like, workshops like, writes sentences like, gets book deals like: whiteness after whiteness after whiteness.
Under this spell, I’ve never questioned the Clifford Garstang ranking of literary magazines. Like Claire Calderón, writer and curator, I’ve bought into the idea that literature is hierarchical. I’ve believed that acceptance by a prestigious journal would, as Calderón puts it, “advance me along the path of my development as a ‘real writer.’”
These assumptions are hard to shake. When most agents, editors, and critics are white, their judgment determines legitimacy. So, if Ploughshares — number one by Sir Garstang’s measure — turns down my story, I’ll quickly believe that my work is no good. And if Bread Loaf rejects my application again to serve and sing for white people, I’ll write myself off as unworthy, unreal.
Well, so is the infamous waiter program, finally retired.
The thing to do with blinding whiteness is to throw some shade on it. Calderón again: “Now I understand how subjective that prestige is. […] I have also seen the devastatingly boring, mostly white, straight staff many of these publications have and the painfully limited scope of their reading lists.”
I seek acceptance by white institutions and dedicate myself to POC-run orgs. It’s a contradiction, I admit. As Chris Terry, author of the 2019 novel Black Card, says, “We have to build our own communities, because the world was not built for us. It’s more work. It always is. But when you get done building it, that world is yours.”
I choose and create POC spaces so I can write the work I want to write and say the things I want to say without censoring or explaining myself. As Tayari Jones, author of the 2018 novel An American Marriage, says: “Having grown up in a segregated world, I knew there were benefits to it. I never worried about white people. I didn’t have to be strong to resist their gaze.”
Jones wrote her first novel about the Atlanta child murders from within the circle, as Saidiya Hartman would say. “As far as I knew, the world knew. This made the tone and shape of my work different.” By her fourth novel, “I was well formed as an artist.”
As an East Asian American who grew up in a wealthy white suburb, I’ve struggled to unlearn so many isms. When I decided to pursue writing as an adult, I refused to go back to whiteness — even if I was getting in on a white man’s game.
I didn’t do an MFA. My master’s is in urban public education. Trained in ethnic studies pedagogy, I make space to unlearn whiteness. Most writing workshops do the opposite. They discipline writers of color into caring for the white gaze.
In workshops, I am often the first if not the only person trying to talk about the white gaze and the racial imaginary — even when the teacher and most of the students are POC. Starting these conversations hasn’t gotten easier. To this day, I can hear my own heart any time I’m about to say something real.
Sometimes it’s too much. Early in the pandemic, I was in an online workshop. Out of 11 people, three of us were POC. After a summary of my story, the instructor asked me: did we get anything wrong?
Well, no one had said the facts: the protagonist is a queer Asian American man, and the two other characters are white and Dominican. For me, everything turns on power and positionality. The colorblind description of my work felt like a skinning of the story. But in that moment, shivering because of nerves and summer A/C, I went with the flow. No, I said to the instructor. That was great.
Much like whiteness, literary fiction goes unmarked. The genre privileges “economy” and “efficiency.” It asserts a particular taste as universal. So let’s provincialize whiteness by examining what it deems excessive.
Alexandra Watson, executive editor of Apogee Journal, gets a note often about her writing: “you’re doing too much with the characters’ identities.” But complexity isn’t the problem exactly. For “literary gatekeepers,” Watson says, “race is the axis which especially feels like ‘too much.’”
Why? If a work resonates with people of color but a white person doesn’t get it, he might have to consider the possibility that his worldview isn’t universal after all. Such decentering is epistemological and deeply threatening. This is why writing that’s aware of racism gets called “too much”: it makes white people feel that they’re not enough.
Muriel Leung, author of the poetry collection Bone Confetti (2016), hears that she writes too much about race. People, often white, also tell her she doesn’t write about race enough. How does she make sense of this contradiction? Increasingly, Leung observes, writers of color are writing about racism in ways “that can’t be easily delineated, parsed, or reconciled.” Such formal innovation “reveals what is true about race, which is that it is not palatable or easy to consume.”
Sometimes I fear my work is illegible. Then there are good days, and regardless of who gets it, I think it’s very good.
“[A]bove all, you have to write to please yourself,” says Cathy Linh Che, author of the 2014 poetry collection Split. “[Y]ou have to put in the time to love and appreciate your own writing — and have faith that the work will find its audience without you having to compromise yourself.”
The thing is, the pressure to compromise comes for us all the time. Natalia Sylvester, author of the 2020 novel Running, names “all the seemingly small ‘corrections’ we are tasked with bringing up […] to really stay true to our vision.” Refusing editorial suggestions to include border-crossing scenes. Pushing back on exotifying book covers. Correcting a book review that referred to characters as “illegal immigrants.”
“[E]very instance of this creates so much doubt and is both emotionally and mentally draining to navigate,” Sylvester says. As the first or only person bringing up an issue, you’re never sure whether anyone else will agree it’s a problem. This, in turn, can make you feel like the problem. In the online workshop, I felt this so acutely. My white peers repeatedly refused to engage with race in one another’s work even as they touted reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and paid lip service to boulevards painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
My partner and I have a running joke. If I really want that Big Five publishing deal, I tell him, I better learn to get along with white people.
That’s the paradox, isn’t it? The writers of color heralded as “essential new voices” mine a space that is outside whiteness. Yet they appeal sufficiently to the gaze. It seems like a sweet spot: do your own thing and still feel seen. How do we get there?
Ploi Pirapokin, writer and editor, offers this pivotal lesson: “[L]earn quickly that whiteness has its own styles, aesthetic, and conventions. […] In order to be understood or taken seriously, you do not have to succumb to writing or reading what does not reflect your astonishments.”
Tayari Jones shares her “north star.” It’s advice given early in her career by Nikki Giovanni: “Take care of your Black women readers. White people change their minds all the time. These Black women will take care of you. They will come to your funeral.”
Scholars have made the case that racial trauma plays out like PTSD. In other words, navigating white institutions compares to combat. The research squares with experience. Everything the white gaze does to our writing, it does to us as well. In white spaces, it’s not only our work that’s vulnerable. It’s our personhood.
Once, I was at an exceptionally white writing conference. During lunch, the older white man in my workshop called me by the name of the other Asian American man in our group. When I told him he got the wrong Asian, he proceeded to ask, apropos of nothing, whether I did karate.
Once, Crystal Hana Kim, author of the 2018 novel If You Leave Me, attended a fundraiser as a literary host. An older white woman told Kim about taking a trip to Korea and buying a pair of souvenirs. At the end of the night, the white woman “clasped my hands and said, ‘You are now my third Korean treasure.’”
Lilliam Rivera, author of the 2020 novel Never Look Back, is often the only Latinx person on a conference panel. The questions asked tend to cast her as the Latinx representative. “I feel I’m playing poverty Olympics when I speak on my own experience raised in the housing projects.”
White liberals often ask Jonathan Escoffery, winner of The Paris Review’s 2020 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, to talk about institutional racism. Escoffery will barely scratch the surface when the white moderator decides to change topics. “I’m left wondering, was this a pretend question? Should I, next time, give a pretend answer? Often, I’m left feeling that I was forced to jeopardize my career.”
Danzy Senna, author of the 2017 novel New People, calls all these various labors “Race 101 shit.” It positions us not as artists or even people but as experts on racial victimhood. Audiences ask Senna a specific kind of racist question: “Are you always going to write mixed-race characters?” The implication: the author’s race limits her work. “What they’re asking you to do is to be white. What they’re telling you is that there are not multiple or infinite ways to write about mixed-race characters. […] That is a necessarily freakish, outsider, objectified experience.”
They expect us to be experts on All Things Race. Then they imply the writing is provincial — nothing like Real Art, universal. It’s a fucked-up double bind. The arrangement edges us past what’s human, what’s worthy.
Shit spills over. I workshopped once in a mostly Asian group. The manuscript was from the first draft of my novel. I was pretty new to the whole thing, but I was already used to feeling misunderstood. Because the instructor was also an Asian American man, I went in hopeful that that I wouldn’t need to explain myself for once. That my work would finally make sense to people — “my” people.
The discussion about my work continued into lunch. I felt grilled for my intentions until I wasn’t sure I even had any. The whole time, I wanted the interrogation to end. By the end of the workshop, I felt like the thing that didn’t make any sense.
“Any time you’re writing from a space that hasn’t been written from, expect to do a lot of that work,” Senna says. Those of us rarely represented write to make ourselves seen. In the process, we come face to face with our illegibility. If that isn’t alienation, I don’t know what is.
Senna is somewhere else now. “Whatever the character is I’m writing, I’m always trying to find ways to liberate myself […] creatively write toward things that are oppositional, that are characters that I haven’t seen before.”
Divesting from legibility and recognition, making space for the unfamiliar, the unknown — these choices amount to a kind of freedom.
In light of all this, it’s understandable to feel the need to prove our worth. Me — I bury myself in service, afraid my writing is not enough.
Sara Borjas, author of the collection Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff (2019), is a professor of poetry. The authors on her syllabi are mostly POC, but the students struggle to approach the literature as art. More often, they critique the poets as people, not text. “I had to constantly justify why the lives of people of color were subjects for literature.”
The premise here is that only white lives matter enough to make for literature. It shows up everywhere. Any time competition is involved, suspicion gathers. People of color are the beneficiaries of literary trends! A PC culture! This wrongheadedness is not exclusive to conservatives. The liberal multiculturalism that organizes literary consumption — “It’s API Heritage Month, Read These East Asians” — reinforces the same premises.
Like Borjas, Dennis Norris II, writer and editor, deals with belittlement by doubling down on craft. “While straight white people are bitching and moaning, invest your energy in doing the work so that when you publish and win all the accolades, no one can deny that the craft is bad-ass.”
They must be right. Beyoncé takes the same approach: “always stay gracious / best revenge is your papers.”
I listen to “Formation” before workshops. I also shield myself with “Shining.” When Beyoncé says, “Hold on,” she elongates the Os. She sinks into them. “Don’t / try to / slow me down.” Given the bravado of this bop, I’ve wondered about the ending. It’s a Dionne Warwick sample that I hear as a question: “Is it good enough?”
I’m a perfectionist, so I’m doomed to answer no. It’s not good enough. It can’t be, no matter how many hours I put in. Perfection is a trap. It sets me up to prove my worth, but here’s what I’m learning: you can’t work your way to enough.
Racism doesn’t disappear on the other side of accomplishment. “They never told me the consequences of being twice as good,” says Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy: An American Memoir (2018). “White folks, particularly white men writers, tend to find pleasure looking down, possibly looking at, but when they have to look up at us, it’s brutal.”
Nor does white supremacy vanish in white people’s absence. I may have protected myself with POC immersion. Nonetheless, I expect myself to do the most: editing, teaching, organizing, and graphic designing all while preparing for PhD exams and revising a novel. Would I feel obligated to do all this if I weren’t a queer Asian American man — the only one, anomaly?
Overcommitting to others at my own expense. Delaying submission of my work until it’s absolutely perfect. Believing I can prioritize myself only once I’ve served everyone else. This is how I’ve set myself up. Am I the only one? When we live in an inequitable world, how do we accept ourselves as enough?
“Yes, you have to work twice as hard and be twice as good, but you don’t have to be perfect,” Vanessa Villarreal says. “Don’t try so hard. Don’t work so hard. Stop holding back. Speak your mind. Never be afraid. See that barrier, that wall, that ceiling? It doesn’t exist.”
I look up the lyrics to “Shining.” Warwick, it turns out, isn’t asking. She’s declaring: “Just because you say things are gonna change — saying something’s wrong isn’t good enough.”
It’s hard not to hear these lyrics as an evergreen read on white liberals. After the summer uprisings, in the pale fire of their fading fervor, I am learning to see myself differently: neither a fraud nor a nuisance but a disruptor — even, I hope, a leader.
I’m used to thinking that if I want to be a real writer, I should be doing the real work of writing. These projects of racial equity and solidarity — they’re a distraction.
I’m an East Asian American man in a PhD program for creative writing. It would be easy to think: if I only work hard enough, I will get that two-book deal.
The model minority myth is supposed to invalidate the Black freedom struggle. In reality, anti-Blackness is gravity in my world. American individualism, which success like mine is supposed to prove, is itself anti-Black. And what illustrates individualism more prestigiously than the illusion of authorship?
The publishing industry would have us think that the work of writers has nothing to do with community. That it’s all about vision and genius, canon and heritage. Fooled by these pillars, I have mistaken writing as a white male project.
The notions of success that I have internalized set the white man’s route as the only way. They naturalize white supremacy. This idea of “making it” has the power to un-make me.
“I’d tell a younger me to not bear the brunt of failure or anti-blackness alone,” Laymon says. “Please don’t fuck up yourself or your partner or your loving relationships because you haven’t figured out how to deal with shame or failure.”
Laymon adds: “Share, with comedy if you can, your shame with a group of creators you love. That weight has killed a lot of us. We need us to live.”
If I may, that is also to say: we need “us” to live. I am because we are. Despite all the signs to the contrary, it is right to live by this premise. When I urge us to save ourselves, it is also to assert this: the very work of community needs validating and celebrating. In the hyper-individualistic enterprise of publishing, organizing might seem like a distraction. That judgment steers us from the truth.
We become authors through communion. It won’t happen for all of us without visions of equity and follow-through on solidarity. When we build for one another, we are not wasting time. We’re making it.