"Reparative Writing Should Be Risky": Jess Row talks to Dariel Suarez
Author of A Kind of Solitude and GrubStreet’s Director of Core Programs and Faculty, Dariel Suarez, recently interviewed author Jess Row about his new book White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination, a collection of essays on whiteness in American fiction and culture from the end of the civil rights movement to the present.
The two writers discussed the role of political expression in art, where conversations about race within artistic circles are headed in this country, what reparative writing looks like, and more.
Dariel Suarez: The obvious place to start for me has to do with the impetus to write essays like the ones in White Flights. What prompted your initial interest in interrogating the role (and often the absence) of race as a topic in contemporary white American literature? You mention early on in the book that white Americans “consciously or unconsciously retreated from the “subject” of race, while writers of color did not.” What made you want to explore this contrast?
Jess Row: I came to this project out of a deep sense of dissatisfaction with contemporary American fiction, and fiction by white writers in particular. I simply felt (and still feel) that by failing to contend with race as a subject, and the existence of people of color as part of the everyday fabric of American life, white writers are making themselves irrelevant, boring, and tendentious—or, in some cases, making themselves interesting by inventing new ways to be antisocial or narcissistic. But instead of attacking these writers head-on, I realized what I really needed to do is write a kind of cultural/literary history of white Americans over the last forty years, to explore how we got to this predicament in the first place.
DS: As someone who grew up in another country exposed to international literature that was socio-political in nature, it surprised me when as a student of creative writing in the U.S. I was essentially told that socio-political themes had no place in fiction. Narratives had to be intimate and personal, I was told, and to have politics in your writing was essentially unartistic. As I began to read contemporary white American voices, I realized that indeed socio-political topics were absent from most of the award-winning, renowned fiction I was coming across. You mention in White Flights, that “many contemporary American writers believe…that the point of art is to evade and/or transcend the realm of the political,” and that “very little contemporary American art or writing of any kind produces public discussion, let alone reaction from state authorities or people in positions of power.” There’s danger in this, I think, having lived under a communist dictatorship myself, where political expression through art has been suppressed. Could you expand on why this is an important observation and what it means for the state of contemporary writing in the U.S.?
JR: Whenever the question of politics and fiction comes up, I always try to emphasize that all fiction writers engage with social and political questions in their work consciously or unconsciously or both, because it's just not possible to produce art outside the social, political, and economic conditions of one's own time. No matter how intimate or hermetic the art, it's always expressing the nature of its time in one way or another. This is true of every writer usually held up as a model of non-political or apolitical fiction—it's true of Alice Munro, Joy Williams, Raymond Carver, William Trevor, Marilynne Robinson, Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, Deborah Eisenberg, Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, et al. In many cases, the sociopolitical context is submerged or emerges indirectly, but it's always there. The real and criminal failure is the failure of many writing teachers, in MFA programs and elsewhere, to take these writers seriously and engage with their work in a critical and rigorous way. If you're under the illusion that, for example, you can teach Alice Munro without taking her seriously as a feminist and a chronicler of second wave feminism, then you're literally not looking at the text in front of you.
DS: In the book, you propose the term “reparative writing,” and describe it as “writing that invokes the spirit of actual reparations” and, from what I can interpret, that explores the relationship between race or racism and the white psyche, or more specifically, white suffering. I like to think of it as writing that instead of ignoring the connections between whiteness and the reality of race in America, it actually faces this complicated reality and history head on. How do you see “reparative writing” manifesting in practice? What would that look like, in more concrete terms?
JR: This may sound like a glib answer, but if you're wondering what reparative writing looks like to me, my novel Your Face in Mine is the example I would point to. (I didn't say it quite so baldly in White Flights because it seemed wrong to say: "JUST READ MY OTHER BOOK." But in fact the two books are closely interrelated in this way.) The other thing I would say is: for white writers, reparative writing should be risky. This doesn't mean it should be calculated to cause offense or provoke people or create scandals. But it does mean that it should involve writing and even doing things that make you uncomfortable and exposed.
DS: You do a wonderful job of balancing your personal experiences, critical analysis of some well-known works of American literature, and psychological, sociological, and philosophical texts to inform a lot of your arguments. How important was it for you to include the personal, artistic, and academic in these essays? How did you choose some of the literary texts you use as examples, including works by respected authors such as Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Ford, and David Foster Wallace?
JR: Thank you! To answer the first question: I wanted to interweave the personal, artistic, and academic because I knew that was the only way the book could feel like an honest representation of my thinking. I was very much inspired by writers like Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, José Muñoz, Fred Moten, and Wayne Koestenbaum, whose books incorporate all three elements; those are the books I'm always most excited to read.
Second question: I focused on writers who have been major influences on my own work and/or major figures in white American literature over the last 40 years; I was also interested in drawing out racialized thinking in writers who are very seldom treated in that way, like Annie Dillard. There were so many writers I had to leave out and would have liked to focus on—Ann Beattie, for example.
DS: There are a couple of passages in “White Out,” the last essay in the book, that I found refreshingly honest and direct because they seem rare coming from a white writer. You allude to the “invisible capital” many white families have in contrast to black families, the disparity between them, and how this is ignored when mentioning achievements by or opportunities for white people in the arts and otherwise (in fact, you use yourself as an example here). You also say that “white people do not know how to let white supremacy die without feeling they themselves are dying.” Could you elaborate a bit more as to why you decided to state these things? What kind of impact do you think avoiding the question of privilege has had on the relationship between race and artistic opportunities in America?
JR: I did a lot of that writing at the very end of the process of writing the book, and I felt I wanted to be very direct, in the conclusion, about the crisis American writers find ourselves in at the moment. There's been such a wonderful emergence of people of color in the literary world over the last decade, from the most visible positions (Poet Laureate, head of the National Book Foundation, head of the Iowa Writers Workshop) to the ranks of so-called emerging writers publishing their first book and winning attention and accolades. Yet the publishing industry and the power hierarchies of most literary institutions (academic, nonprofit, and otherwise) remain extremely white. I think it's time for white writers who consider themselves anti-racist to ask themselves very hard questions about whether they really believe in systematic change, and I do not mean exclusively in terms of personal sacrifice ("I'm giving up _____ so that a POC can have it")—I'm talking about the kinds of structural changes that alter these institutions from the bottom up, or create new institutions if the old ones are no longer acceptable.
DS: Where do you see conversations about race going within artistic circles in this country? What role do you think writers and educators can play in moving the conversation forward and having creative writing spaces be more genuinely productive and inclusive?
JR: Here's one change over the last decade that I think is a very good thing: younger writers, who previously had almost no say in how things are run in the literary world, now have a much stronger voice, and making serious strides in holding literary institutions accountable. For example: the Bread Loaf Writers Conference announced just a few weeks ago that it's ending the decades-long practice of employing scholarship students as waiters in the dining hall, a practice that many students have found demeaning. The pressure to make that change came about through young writers, particularly people of color and women of color, coming together online and in-person to demand better conditions. That spirit of literary activism and iconoclasm is a 180-degree change from the very polite, conservative, and sleepy world of American literature I discovered in the 1990s and early 2000s, when my own career began. So a lot of what I'm doing is listening to younger and more radical writers and absorbing their perspectives. Do I always agree with the changes they want? Definitely not. But I'm grateful that people like me, who run classrooms and reading series and judge awards and write recommendation letters, etc, feel a new sense of accountability. I think that's extremely healthy.
Dariel Suarez was born and raised in Havana, Cuba, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 at age fourteen. He is the author of the novel The Playwright’s House (Red Hen Press) and the story collection A Kind of Solitude (Willow Springs Books), winner of the International Latino Book Award for Best Collection of Short Stories. Dariel is an inaugural City of Boston Artist Fellow and the Education Director at GrubStreet. His work has received the First Lady Cecile de Jongh Literary Prize and will be anthologized in this year’s Best American Essays. His prose has also appeared in numerous publications, including The Threepenny Review, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Michigan Quarterly Review, Literary Hub, and The Caribbean Writer. Dariel earned his MFA in Fiction at Boston University and currently resides in the Boston area.See other articles by Dariel Suarez