I am thinking about the “political” writing, one that is usually held at a lower standard than the Western canon. Roxane Gay and Ocean Vuong writes about this, both in luminous ways. Vuong writes “They will tell you that to be political is to be merely angry, and therefore artless, depthless, “raw,” and empty. They will speak of the political with embarrassment, as if speaking of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.” And “They will tell you that great writing “breaks free” from the political, thereby “transcending” the barriers of difference, uniting people toward universal truths.” I am thinking about the critics who told Toni Morrison that she needed to write about white people, that to truly confront the conflicts that African Americans face, she has to confront her fear of writing white characters. It is not a surprise that we chose to elevate books that aren’t about marginalized people, books that deal with middle-class cis white Americans, because historically, these are the literary works that the “academy of scholars” have elevated. That we grow so accustomed to stories of the privileged being the stories that are elevated, we draw the connection that these stories are what defines art, and not the other way around. I am thinking about when George Orwell said that “all issues are political issues,” and to an extent, all writing is political writing. To criticize a book about, say, an immigrant family by saying that it is too political, the word twisted to mean: this isn’t art, this family’s troubles isn’t . To claim that Shakespeare is universal and Toni Morrison is not is to an act of privilege and contradiction. Following the logic of such critics, Toni Morrison’s work isn’t universal because she writes about black people. This criticism is based on the assumption, or rather, the toxic and harmful belief that only stories about white people are relevant, are important, are worthy of awards and appraises. The idea of universality is a powerful one and important one in terms of storytelling, but one that is often wrongly used to suppress works by marginalized authors.
I grew up reading books about white people, with the exception of Cho Chang in Harry Potter (who, thanks to J.K., has a “Chinese name” that is only Chinese to white people). As a child in China, I thought this the norm, because America is only the land of the immigrants in theory, and not in any other social, economic, or literary context. In that manner, I wrote stories about white people, despite being a Chinese person who later came to the States to study. It wasn’t until two years ago that my writing teacher pointed this fact out did I started thinking about why. Being white in literature becomes the norm in which we judge a book’s standards by, and to that extent, to judge the existence of every other marginalized person. To dismiss a book for being too “political” is the easy way out, it’s to avoid thinking about the foundations of our literature. To deem a book not “universal” is to erase the existence of anyone who is non-white, to deny their pains and struggles of their validity.
We have come far in terms of elevating the voices of marginalized groups. Let us not stop here.
In support of the Black Lives Matter movement, here is a list of anti-racist books that you can read.