Vol. 10: Authors Patricia Park and Maya Lang Confront Assumptions
Recently, the New York Times published an article called “What It’s Really Like to Work in Hollywood (If you’re not a straight white man),” a collection of stories from actors, directors, producers, and other film professionals who are consistently marginalized and underrepresented in a white male-dominated industry. To draw attention to similar issues in publishing, an industry with a dramatic disparity in racial demographics, we're collecting stories from writers, agents, and editors of color about what it's like to work and publish in an industry historically dominated by white people.
In advance of the Writers of Color Roundtable event at GrubStreet's Muse and the Marketplace conference on Friday, April 29, we’re kicking off the conversation with #Muse16 presenters. In this installment are authors Patricia Park and Maya Lang, who will be leading Muse sessions on The Author as Publicist: Strategies from the Real World of Book Publicity and Rewind, Fast Forward, Pause, Play: Negotiating Time in Fiction, respectively.
What was your experience as a writer of color in an MFA program/other workshop environment?
The director of my MFA program once asked me why my American characters (who happened to be of Korean ancestry) spoke such "assimilated English." In another workshop critique, a classmate said she wanted me "to bring more kimchi" to my essays, and she did not mean literally.
What challenges had you faced working with/in the publishing industry?
An editor at a major publishing house told me he believed the trend of ethnic literature was over. I think it was his well-meaning way of discouraging me from pursuing my novel, Re Jane.
My publisher put together marketing materials that made certain assumptions about me as a minority author. I was described as someone who felt "excluded" while in graduate school, and there was a line about "the way wealthy, white families" made me feel while growing up. The problem? None of it was true.
What stung when I saw these descriptions—what angered me—was the casualness with which assumptions were made. My debut novel is about class and privilege and the sort of "faking it" that occurs around James Joyce's Ulysses. The assumption here was that my only glimpse into that world had to be from the outside, as a brown-skinned minority.
I figured in the months leading up to publication that I would be seen as an insider. I have a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. I used to speak at academic conferences and teach the Western cannon, all while living in Manhattan. My former life, in many ways, was the world I was satirizing. It never occurred to me I would get positioned on its outside. How naive of me.
Did I feel left out in graduate school? Not really. Had "Ulysses been used by [my] peers to make [me] feel excluded," as asserted by my publisher? Not one bit. The very idea made me laugh. What did they imagine, a group of mean girls chasing me around the halls while holding copies of Joyce aloft? If anything, grad school was a natural fit. I was surrounded by people who loved books.
The person who wrote up this fanciful description of my life might be surprised to know that my family is Brahmin. I suppose if I had to source my interest in class and privilege, it would be the guilt that came from having had servants and wealth. I went to a fancy New England boarding school and prestigious liberal arts college, all on my parents' dime. I share these things not as a boast but against the assumptions that so easily get made — that I must have been a scholarship student, that I must have felt left out.
I've never written or spoken about my background. Truthfully, I feel biography is largely irrelevant when it comes to fiction. I want to be judged by the words on the page. I think this is all any writer wants. Yet reading my publisher's presumptuous descriptions of my life made me wonder if this is an impossibility — if minority authors will always be seen as writing from a certain position. My publisher described my (made-up) back story as a "nice 'takeaway' to the book." It's not difficult to read between those lines, to imagine the cocktail party pitch: A brown girl who felt left out writes a novel about Ulysses. But I was never that girl.
The worst part? I never confronted my publisher. I should have, but I didn't want to seem uncooperative or like the shrill type who's difficult to work with. I told myself I should pick my battles. I told myself that my publisher's "nice 'take away'" might result in sales. I told myself I should be grateful.
Even now, I struggled with whether to share this story. There is always the fear when speaking up of seeming petty or thin-skinned. What if future publishers read this and conclude I'm a handful? What if I should just remain silent? Yet, ultimately, the reason I write fiction is to get at certain truths. While I don't particularly care about my own background, I won't let it be twisted into a "nice 'take away'" that fits with expectations: brown = poor and excluded. Our world is more complicated than that. This, after all, is why I write fiction, not to comply with expectations but to capture the world as I see it, as a place where we should assume nothing.
Patricia Park is the author of the debut novel Re Jane, a modern-day interpretation of Jane Eyre, named a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice. She graduated from Swarthmore College and received her MFA from Boston University. She has written for the New York Times, The Guardian, Salon, and The Daily Beast, and has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, WBUR, and others. A former publicist with the Random House Publishing Group, she has worked with numerous New York Times-bestselling authors, including Amy Tan, Anne Perry, and the late Harvey Pekar.
Maya Lang’s debut novel, The Sixteenth of June, was long listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. She received the 2012 Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Award in Fiction, and was a finalist for Glimmer Train‘s Short Story Award for New Writers. Lang has appeared on television and radio, and been a guest speaker at conferences, college campuses, and literary festivals. A graduate of Swarthmore College, she earned her M.A. from NYU and Ph.D. from SUNY Stony Brook in Comparative Literature. She is the first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants and lives in New York. She is currently at work on her second novel.