Vol. 9: Author Kristiana Kahakauwila on the Arrow Over Her Head
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 is author Kristiana Kahakauwila, who will be leading a Muse session on Hermit Crabs: Using Form to Inspire Narrative Prose.
To the boys in my last undergraduate workshop: I should have realized that this workshop would be different when you all sat together, on one side of the room. You created a semi-circle that threatened to consume the three of us female students. You assumed you were the best read, the most stylistically astute. Perhaps you were. But the way you bullied us, dismissed us, silenced us, made fun of us, rolled your eyes at us; the way you diminished our work in critiques, laughed at us during workshop — if that had been my first workshop, I would have never taken another.
To the white man in my first graduate workshop: You are wrong. That does happen in real life. I don’t care if your dad/stepmom/godparent/cousin is a doctor/lawyer/senator/consultant, this does happen. I know because it happened to me.
To the white woman who ran that workshop: I’ve been teaching for several years now. I’ve been faced with similar situations, where students say, “This could never happen in real life.” What they’re really saying is, “This never happened to me.” A comment such as that is always laced with ignorance, frequently with privilege, often with condescension. I have yet to hear a student say “This could never happen in real life” when the characters are white or upper-middle class or vampires.
There are a variety of appropriate responses that a workshop leader may take. My tact is usually to point out that real life and fiction life are different. Far wilder things happen in real life than in fiction life. A critique can be made around the story in terms of intent, seeding of information, structure — craft elements, in other words, that aid any story’s clarity, that elucidate any narrative’s heart. But never is a critique based on “but that has never happened to me” useful to a writer. It shows a deficiency on the part of the editor, and neither encourages a return to the story nor offers a pathway to its revision.
After all these years I’m still mad at you, the white woman who ran that workshop. I’ve long forgiven my workshop peer who made those comments. But you: You should have known better because you were more experienced. Because you were the instructor, the guide. Because you are a woman. And maybe I expected a woman to understand what was happening in that room.
To the indigenous man I dated in graduate school: Remember, that one time, when you got pissed off and I said no one meant anything by that comment? I’m sorry. They did.
To the self writing this list: You’re thinking about race as much as gender in these first letters. Do you think gender is at play more often than race? As often? Or are the two impossible for you to tease apart, despite the years you’ve spent trying to tease your bi-racial self apart?
To the self looking at college photos (as a way of procrastinating writing this list): Yes, in the photos you are pale. Your college friends sometimes joke they didn’t really know what you looked like until years later, when you were living in Hawai'i. You wonder, did you pass as white when you were in school? Did people think you were white all that time you thought you were brown?
Your mother, to reassure you, says, "People aren’t responding to the color of your skin. They’re just responding to the foreignness of your name." As usual, your mother has made things better-worse.
To the white poet at my first residency: You said, “There is too much going on in this story.” I have long puzzled over this comment. To start, we weren’t workshopping, we were sitting down for dinner, so why presume that you could, at that time, critique my piece? But more than that, what was too much? The myriad characters and peopling? The complex themes? The non-linear logic? I took you seriously and trimmed a couple of themes, a few allusions. It did tighten the story. But I left the rest in place. Would you like it now? Probably not. There is still too much going on. The thing about Hawaiian families is, there’s usually a lot going on.
To the Asian-American poet at my first residency: You said the story made you cry. You said you wanted to keep a copy. You said you recognized the dad, the mom, the grandmother, the uncle, the cousin. You restored me with your love, your generosity, your understanding. I saw you at a conference last week and all those feelings of reassurance, tenderness, understanding, and safety came flooding back. How fortunate I am that you exist. How fortunate I am that your work exists. When I read it I recognize the dad, the mom, the grandmother, the uncle, the cousin. Mostly, wonderfully, I recognize you.
To the agent who signed me: Is it because you’re from Germany that you fell in love with stories about language and indigineity, the distancing effect of American culture and the pain of diaspora? You are a white male. Yet, you read my work as if you are the best part of my own voice, always pushing me to sound more like myself. Sometimes you send me emails about the surf at Far Rockaway, and I imagine you on the subway with your surfboard, wearing a 6-mil wetsuit amidst the business suits. What makes you one of the best allies of my work? Is it the part of you that misses your birthplace? The part that surfs in December in New York? The part that reads world literature more often than American literature? Whatever it is, thank you.
To my black male student at our white Pacific Northwest university: I don’t know if I did you any good. Workshopping your pieces always left me exhausted. Not your writing — the one about the multi-racial boy who is faceless was brilliant — but the extra vigilance I had to bring to peer critique. Sometimes I failed to elevate the conversation — then were you left with any useful feedback, much less a retention of your love for writing?
Sometimes my corrections of your peers had an exhausted tone, my frustration with their white reading revealing itself plainly. And then, did they blame you for that?
I kept my door open. You came to chat every couple of days. Too often I had to end those conversations early — I had meetings or deadlines to meet. But other times we relaxed, I closed the door, we talked about the strangeness of living in a white-washed town. I admitted to you once that my boyfriend noticed how, when I first moved here, people stared when I walked down the street. He told me, “They’re just not used to seeing someone so beautiful.” You laughed. You got the punchline. Sweet of him to replace “dark” with “beautiful.”
“Do clerks follow you in grocery stores here?” you asked. “I’m a woman,” I replied. We laughed again, then got serious. It wasn’t that funny. I wonder, is it because I’m a woman that I appear less threatening or because these days I’m fairer skinned?
The endless cloud-cover does wonders for blending in.
To my colleagues at that university in the Pacific Northwest: Let’s start here: I love you guys. No, really. I love you! You’re so good to me, so supportive. You think I’m the best thing since Spam. But I have to level: I am not looking forward to returning after my yearlong leave. It is HARD to be the only person of color in the classroom. When I talk about race, the students stare at me like I’ve told them aliens landed. If there’s one or two students of color in the classroom — because it’s never more than two — I am afraid the others are staring them. I fear that when I lecture on marked and unmarked characters, language, acculturation, unacknowledged prejudice, stereotypes, history — like, the whole darn history of this country/ever — I’m putting a big arrow over these two students’ heads. I go back to wishing I was the sole POC in the room. At least then the arrow could stay over me.
Our students are great at talking about gender and sexuality. They are deeply sensitive to economic privilege. But they are ignorant at best, resentful at most, when it comes to anything that has to do with black and brown bodies or histories.
I muddle through. I have two fellow colleagues of color in the department. No, wait, make that one. The university failed to retain the other.
To the white women at that academic conference: Stop talking about the emotional work of what you teach. I get that The Fault in Our Stars is about cancer, and cancer is sad. I feel sad about cancer. But cancer is an easy enemy. You know what’s not an easy enemy? Covert racism. White privilege. Fear of non-whites. Exoticism. Gender bias in academia. The extra emotional work I do as faculty of color — and the fact that this isn’t recognized as part of my service. Assumptions about tokenism. (No, I’m not on fellowship this year because I write about brown people stuff. I’m on leave because I’m awesome.) The fact that I have to remind myself I’m awesome and not just brown.
To my “Rainbow Coalition” in Boston: Thank you. Thank you for being tough. Thank you for being honest. Thank you for modeling to me how to move through the world in your own beautiful bodies. Thank you for offering to mentor. Thank you for listening to my thoughts. Thank you for your laughter. Thank you for helping me feel big when I felt really really small. Thank you for sharing with me how you teach. Thank you for those times you’ve said, "No, you are not crazy, that really happened how you think it happened." Thank you for a year of restoration, and as I get ready to leave the safe space of our weekly lunches and impromptu cocktail parties and dinners and general being-together-ness, I’m scared not to have you right there. But, like, I’ve got you on speed-dial, okay?
Kristiana Kahakauwila is a 2015-16 Fellow at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study and an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University. Her debut, This is Paradise: Stories, was a selection of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program. At present she is working on a historical novel, a multigenerational family saga set against the fight for water and native rights on the Hawaiian island of Maui.