All of my favorite writers are white men. This is somewhat disturbing to me, but not enough that I’m ashamed to say it. After all, the literary tradition of the entire western world has been dominated—as have all other facets of the culture—by white men. There are questions of access: whose voices get to be heard? Who is seen? Who is taken seriously, under what terms? Who will be admitted to the publisher’s office, and what do they have to look/sound/be like to get there?
For a moment, let’s ignore all of the factors of oppression that can prevent one from ever becoming a writer to begin with—poverty of wealth and resources, work, disenfranchisement, trauma, etc. Instead, let’s take an archetypal, mythical writer—someone whose craft is masterful, whose analyses are brilliant and profound, whose observations are enlightening, whose characters come alive, whose stories have all the power of the human experience, all the emotions, triumphs, tragedies, joys, and humor. This is the writer who is capable of writing a body of work that will speak to my soul, and fill my mind with new ideas, new ways of looking at the world.
Now, if our writer is a woman, or black, or indigenous, or latino, the odds of them ever even having the opportunity to publish said work are slim. The default voice of this culture is “white man,” so first you have the problem of publishers and readers simply not being able to hear that voice; it doesn’t resonate with them; it’s alien; it brings thoughts they are uncomfortable with, presented in a way they don’t like or don’t understand.
Writing is active. It’s intended to affect the world, to enter the imagination, to touch the heart. Women are not supposed to act on the world; they are supposed to look good, keep house, get fucked, and make babies. Black people are not supposed to act on the world; they are supposed to labor as chattel slaves and prisoners, entertain whites, and through their existence provide a physical manifestation of the european id—be the savages, the criminals, the evil, the primitive, the body, the wild, the inferior, bottom of the social and genetic barrel. Indigenous people are not supposed to act on the world; they are supposed to disappear and die, leaving behind the romantic and magical energy of a conquered and forgotten people. Latinos are not supposed to act on the world; they’re supposed to labor, invisibly.
For nonwhite folks, literary genres are alien, they come from an alien culture. To write at all is to write in the voice of the oppressor. I would never advocate or sign up for some illusory purity of cultures; human cultures have always been syncretic, have always adopted new ways from interaction with other cultures—erotic blending of memes, stories, artifacts, imagination and expression. In cultures that are able to meet on more or less equal terms, there is pollination and exchange; when interaction comes through invasion and conquest, well that’s a different horse. In dealing specifically with western europeans, there is a unique psychopathy to their culture, a will to power-over and destroy that is unmatched—and un-aspired-to—by any other culture in the history of, well, ever. Everything these folks do is suspect.
The written word itself is a piece of sorcery that begins with pyramid/domination culture. It takes on authority that replaces the cultural role of song and storytelling. If it’s written, it must be true, it must have happened; writing is the voice of humans divorced and alienated from the rhythms and flow of the earth and the rest of her children. History begins with written record; everything before that is a muddy prequel, unknown, unconsidered, and inconsequential. Codified grammar and vocabulary, etched in the stone of words, means that language is no longer free to grow and shift and change, as a free river does. Instead, it is dam(n)med, the sides paved with concrete, a sewer not a creek. You would need explosives to change it. Explosives, or the power of another language, another culture, another way of being.
All of my favorite writers are white men, but all of my favorite poets are black. We just don’t call them poets. We call them rappers, banish them to the pulp world of gutter trash folk-art. But a poet by any other name…
All of my favorite storytellers are black or indigenous. Many of them are women. You’ll never see them in print. Their stories came in the smoke of a kitchen fire, or a blunt, and dispersed into the air. They live in my memories and in my spirit. No text can ever do them justice.
These white men who are my favorite prose writers, their works all share certain things in common that appeal to me. Their words make sense of the world I find myself in. I think it takes someone who comes from a culture to be able to fully grasp, analyze, and express the heart of that culture, in both praise and critique. The writers I’m thinking of are people who move on the fringes of this culture; they are rebels, deviants, traitors to the imperial cause, isolated, and unknown to the culture at large. They are from europe, or have lived abroad, or have been adopted by people in other cultures, touched by powers that are beyond the simple mechanical world of western imperialism. They are not the Demon White Man running a bank or pumping out murder mystery novels.
And yet, they’re still white men, which means I must thoroughly filter their words and ideas for poison and bullshit. It’s always there. A turn of phrase, a blindspot, a bold entitlement, a free walk over someone’s couch in muddy boots. Some of the fiction writers have a love for High Tech bordering on the erotic and perverse, which I find completely disgusting. The non-fiction writers can’t seem to escape a certain smarmy, smart-ass arrogance, like they were looking down at the masses from over their spectacles of rebellious genius, wondering when the apes were going to finally grow into real people. Deviance does not come prepackaged with humility. Then of course, there is their utilitarian exoticism of nonwhite people; we can always serve to demonstrate their points, to lead them into wisdom, to provide seasoning and color for their rebellious impulses. Yet, they have the voice, which means the story continues to be theirs. The narrative revolves around them and their experience.