Writers of Color Finally At the Center of the Conversation
GrubStreet's Writers of Color group was formed to create a forum for and build community among writers who are underrepresented in the publishing industry. Head of Faculty and Curriculum Dariel Suarez reflects on the group's recent session, "Who Gets to Write What?", a moderated discussion on cultural appropriation. Click here for more information about GrubStreet's Writers of Color Group.
On Thursday, October 20th, I attended a Writers of Color Group discussion for the first time at GrubStreet. I was pleasantly surprised at the large number of attendees, many of whom were already chatting before the event began. Although I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, I was aware that the discussion would center on the topic of cultural appropriation—partly sparked by Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, where she stated, while wearing a sombrero, that she hoped the notion of cultural appropriation was “a passing fad.”
The initial portion of the evening was dedicated to sharing personal responses to Shriver’s speech. The moderators kicked things off by specifying that people of color would be the first to speak. The white members of the audience would take mainly a listening role. As a way to invite the rest of us to talk, the moderators then offered their emotional responses, some of which included anger and shock, despite the view that Shriver had raised some points worthy of further analysis.
Immediately, an audience member brought up how using someone else’s experience for your own gain and then defending said choice without any sensitivity is a recipe for trouble. Another attendee expressed her appreciation of Shriver’s desire to talk about issues of cultural appropriation, but indicated how her acerbic delivery undercut her intentions, making her seem defensive and narrow-minded instead of willing to genuinely engage in discourse. This was echoed later when someone else pointed out that a keynote speech might not be the proper forum to launch an attack on what Shriver perceives to be an overly sensitive readership, especially considering she had been asked to talk about community and inclusivity. She didn’t even acknowledge the history of cultural exploitation, this person noted. She chose instead to rely on theatrics and inflammatory language just because a critic hadn’t responded positively to elements of her most recent novel.
Some members of the audience expressed that it should be clear writers have the right to explore cultures and races different from their own. In the specific case of her most recent novel, The Mandibles, if Shriver had artistically justified her decision to depict a black woman with dementia, dragged around on a leash by her white husband, or if she had acknowledged in her speech the problematic history behind the mistreatment of black bodies, then maybe she wouldn’t have received such criticism. And although writers should have the freedom to choose what story they want to tell, they have a responsibility as artists not to perpetuate stereotypes, and to discuss these topics respectfully. Other attendees stated that if a writer is intrigued by an aspect of a race or culture enough to include it in their work, it should be clear in the work itself why that aspect was selected. More importantly, it should be written with empathy and nuance.
Toward the end of the sharing portion, an attendee said she agreed with Shriver’s view that we shouldn’t limit an artist’s voice. However, it was her tone that kept the public at large from having a more layered conversation. Had she addressed the question of cultural appropriation the right way, we might not even need to dedicate a meeting to it.
In addition to the writers of color in the room sharing different views of Shriver’s speech, I was glad that people felt encouraged to express themselves honestly. One of the benefits of this group, I realized in real time, is the creation of an open-minded space for the kinds of voices that are often silenced, ignored, or misconstrued when whiteness is at the center of the conversation. It felt like an opportunity for writers of color to vent, meditate, and agree or disagree without fear of judgment or misunderstanding.
So I was very excited when we were split into smaller groups for the second portion of the evening. The white attendees were asked to form their own gathering, allowing for the people of color in the audience to continue the conversation among ourselves. We were given questions to consider, not just about Shriver’s speech, but about our own work as well. I appreciated the transition from a broader topic to examples of our own obstacles and struggles. It gave members of each group a chance to reflect and recognize, in more nuanced ways, both the overlaps and differences in our writing. I believe this is something often overlooked by the predominantly white literary world: we writers of color—even within our own race or culture—are not all the same. We have different viewpoints, approaches, and experiences, and our writing may at times be in contradiction. The Writers of Color group, it seemed to me, was inviting us to embrace our differences as much as we might our common threads.
Following the smaller group dialogue, speakers from each section shared with the entire audience what they had discussed. One of them presented the idea that when we write minority characters, we sometimes have the unfair burden of making these characters representative of a larger population, because there are so few minority characters in the mainstream literary world. If we had enough characters of color, this speaker said, not only would it be easier to avoid stereotypes, but the onus to represent broader groups would also be, in essence, eliminated. Another speaker said that Shriver’s view of fiction as fake and therefore not to be taken seriously was misguided. Fiction as a genre does not excuse the writing from having to be impactful. In one of my favorite moments of the night, this speaker added, and I’m paraphrasing: it’s a special thing to be a writer, to have a readership for your work, so you should take it seriously.
A third speaker focused on Shriver’s claim that “Asian” and “gay” are not identities, a statement that, the speaker’s group felt, demonstrated that Shriver’s perspective appeared to come from someone who hasn’t had to deeply consider and assert her identity, fight for it, or justify it. Identity, the speaker appended, is not a prop. As I heard this, I couldn’t help thinking of Shriver donning a sombrero during her speech, an act that felt offensively condescending and dismissive to me. Inspired by what others had contributed, I made the argument that Shriver shifted the conversation to hide her own artistic failure, and that no one is saying authors shouldn’t have the freedom to write about anything they want. They must simply do it well.
The final portion of the night was dedicated to allowing the white members of the audience to share their thoughts, and for the entire crowd to respond to the question, “What is one thing you can do to help move this conversation forward?” A white attendee said that as soon as she got home, she was going to stack all of her books on the floor and separate them by the author’s race, to evaluate her choices going forward. Another person noted that reading mostly white male authors has made most of us comfortable writing about white males, so maybe reading more diverse characters can give us a better grasp on how to portray these kinds of characters. There was a consensus that if writers of color don’t write their stories, white writers will continue to dictate how these races and cultures are treated in fiction. Therefore, it is imperative for us to do a good job in our work, so that readers don’t rely so heavily on a white lens.
The Writers of Color Group is, in my opinion, a bold and necessary endeavor. It is trying to shift the center of the conversation so that it focuses on the kinds of issues, questions, and goals that writers of color have. It is asking white writers to take a step back and mainly listen, and for them to see the people at these meetings not as emblematic of larger groups, but as individual voices among many. Personally, I see these gatherings not only as a space to push back against the unfortunate mistreatment and neglect of minorities in the literary world, but to explore useful ways in which our voices can become a natural part of the larger literary conversation in America.
Dariel Suarez is a Cuban-born writer who immigrated to the United States with his family in 1997, during the economic crisis known as The Special Period. His story collection, A Kind of Solitude, was selected as the winner of the 2017 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and is forthcoming from Willow Springs Books. Dariel is the Director of Core Programs and Faculty at GrubStreet and one of City of Boston’s inaugural Artist Fellows. His writing has received honors or awards from The Caribbean Writer, Glimmer Train, and Nimrod International’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, and the Massachusetts Arts Council. His prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, North American Review, Third Coast, and Southern Humanities Review, among others. Dariel holds an M.F.A. in Fiction from Boston University.See other articles by Dariel Suarez