I’ve been collecting for a few years now— essays, think pieces, responses, blog posts, podcasts, toolkits and maps that relate in some way to diversity, identity, ethnicity and race. Often, I find them shared by a loose network of writers and teachers and journalists who self-identify as people of colour, minorities, immigrants or first generation. It might seem obsessive– why read so much about these topics? Why force myself to parse the ways in which race is discussed and not discussed, the ways discrimination and cultural insensitivity and micro-aggressions take place in the passive?
As always, the answer is not a simple or straightforward one. I read about these issues because I want to feel like I’m not just imagining things, that I’m not being oversensitive. When scholars and writers of colour powerfully pull apart and deconstruct instances of racism that are so often dismissed and minimized, they give shape and space to my unspoken shock and pain. I read these topics for strategies on how to mitigate my own anger and depression, how to conduct a meaningful discussion and how to draw courage from others’ outspoken critiques. I read because my own experience as a Chinese-Canadian is limited and I want to learn about the variations of subjugation and embodiment for other cultures who experience marginalization. I read to offer support and solidarity to racialized others. I read helplessly, and helpfully. Yes, sometimes it is emotionally wearying. Sometimes I want to dim the volume and take refuge in a season of The Americans and the newest Nigel Slater cookbook. But it’s always there, the conversations about race that aren’t just about race– they’re also about who we are as subjects and as global citizens.
What does it mean, then to read the year through the eye-needle of race? To be attuned in that way, so that literary controversies are not isolated, but form a pattern of how as English-speaking cultural thinkers we view belonging, citizenship, culture and outsiderness. Here, then follows a calendar of reading alongside race in regards to writing and publishing in 2016.
In January, a US children’s book publisher, Lee & Low, conducted a survey on “Diversity in Publishing” in 2015. Molly McArdle collected responses from editors and publishing professionals in “‘You Will Be Tokenized’: Speaking Out about the State of Diversity in Publishing” in Brooklyn Magazine and Oscar Villalon wrote an urgent call-to-action in LitHub.
The situation for writers of colour do not appear better across the Atlantic, as in April, BBC Books reports on how non-white writers are shunned in the books industry:
Bakare-Yusuf comments: “Western publishing is out of step with a real world that is very mixed, global and diverse. Publishing is civilisation-building. Sometimes, builders of civilisation can forget to innovate, to experiment and to feel the pulse of what’s going on around them.
In the same month, US writer Esther Wang asks us to move beyond the stereotype of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ in the stories we tell about China.
April also saw the publication in The New Yorker of Calvin Trillin’s satiric poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet”, in the voice of a speaker who lists the fluctuating popularity of various Chinese regional cuisines. Timothy Yu responds in the New Republic with his essay, “White Poets Want Chinese Culture Without Chinese People” and 14 poets speak back with poems of their own on the Asian Americans Writers Workshop’s The Margins post “We’re in the Room, Calvin Trillin.” Celeste Ng and Karissa Chen engage with the poem on Twitter and it can be read in full on Storify.
In May, Canadian poet Sachiko Murakami began the site Writing So Hard featuring numerous diverse writers who speak out about the challenges of writing, mental and emotional health, gender, activism and how these and many other topics are interwoven and inseparable from the writing life.
In July, Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta writes on Vidaweb.com of the “The Invisible Latina Intellectual.”
September in Brisbane saw Lionel Shriver putting on a sombrero during her keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival to espouse her hope that cultural appropriation is just a ‘passing fad.’ Yassmin Abdel-Magiel critiques Shriver’s position in The Medium with “I Walked out of the Brisbane Writers Festival Keynote Address. This is Why.” and Suki Kim also responds in The New Republic with “What Happened in Brisbane.”
Also of interest is Suki Kim’s 2014 nonfiction work, Without You, There Is No Us, an undercover reporting of North Korea during the time she worked there as an English teacher. She spoke on NPR about how her work was mislabelled a memoir rather than as a work of investigative nonfiction.
In October, Montreal-based writer Klara Du Plessis curated a month on The Puritan’s Town Crier blog on Writing in English from a Multilingual Perspective. Pieces contributed include Ndinda Kioko’s “Writing the Good English”; “English and Aboriginal Ethnic Identity”by Kalina Newmark, James Stanford and Nacole Walker; “Hypenated Fluency” by Jihyun Rosel Kim and many more.
In November, Michelle Chihara writes about the fall-out of the Japanese internment in Trump’s America in a moving personal essay, “Neighbors,” in the LA Review of Books. Lelia Lee reflects in Ricepaper Magazine on a new CBC show that portrays a Korean-Canadian family, “Kim’s Convenience From a Critical Race Perspective.”
Long before the end of the year, I and most of my community were feeling utterly worn out by the various affronts to identity politics in publishing, writing and social media. Thank goodness for Jael Richardson, director and founder of the FOLD who offers a series of effective columns on Open Book Toronto including “The Burden of Positivity” and “Six Tips For the Tired Activist.”
Just when we’d thought that 2016 had exhausted its reel of identity-related controversies, comes the questioning over the indigenous identity of Canadian writer Joseph Boyden. While some over-the-top claims have been made, it’s a necessary ongoing conversation about who can speak for whom, and how systemic oppression is reinforced by those who claim an identity. Thus far, I think the most thoughtful and useful orientations have been offered by Hayden King, who asks “Joseph Boyden, Where Are You From?”; also from The Globe and Mail, Denise Balkissoon on “Why the facts behind Joseph Boyden’s fiction matter” and Teika Newton just yesterday on National Observer who observes, “Boyden may yet end up being a catalyst for anti-racist learning.” I have no doubt that more opportunities to learn will emerge in the new year.
Whew. In the following weeks I will endeavour to post the links and pieces that relate to topics outside of literature and publishing, such as education and affirmative action, Black Lives Matter at the Toronto Pride Parade, Canadian reacting for and against the settlement of Syrian refugees, intersectionality and inter-race solidarity and many more invigorating topics. Please share any links and pieces that can help to further discussions around identity and diversity in the comments below or to my Twitter @alittleprint.
It’s a scary, gut-churning and humbling thing, to read about instances of racism, trauma and pain. I don’t have some any platitudes about how to feel good about this kind of learning because I myself don’t feel good, but neither am I proponent of guilt and unnecessary grief. It’s been a senseless year in a senseless world, and all I can do is look up across the table and see my own confusion reflected with grace and strength in the faces that surround me.