Xu Xi: “The Writing Race”
Let’s talk about race. This is not an easy subject, especially for writers in America, where race is the thing to deny you care about as you desperately try to climb the writerly ladder of fame. Let’s talk about desperation, which all MFA (and beyond) writers have, even the cockiest, most talented, and most successful ones who have just been signed by a top agent or major publisher, or sold an option for film rights (which means by the time you’re twenty-nine you’re already yesterday’s news). Just focus on your writing, we MFA faculty tell our students, write whatever you want, the market be damned. It’s not about being a fill-in-the-blank, race-gender-whatever writer, but about being a good writer, an excellent writer. You can be Asian and write like Baldwin, or White and write like Malcolm X, or Black and write like Hijuelos, or Latino and write like Fitzgerald. Yes, yes, yes, the chorus sighs, it’s all about the work.
And then, there’s the real world.
We writers, we all belong to the writing race. Meanwhile, we run the race that keeps us in the game. It’s a bit like being a hamster on a wheel, running in place, fed by your owner outside the cage. The color of your fur is not the issue, since it does vary, and can be black, grey, honey, white, brown, yellow, red, or a mix, depending on the species.
The real world, however, especially the English language publishing world, is not entirely color blind. And that, as some Americans will say, is just the honest truth.
Some years earlier, I helped establish the first Asia-based low-residency MFA, staffed with a faculty that was biased in favor of Asia. They were ethnically Asian, or wrote about Asia, lived/had lived in Asia, or were acculturated Asian. This in turn meant we attracted students of the same ilk. Now in our fifth year—despite the challenge of surviving an Asian university world that has no idea that MFAs in writing exist—it still feels like the right thing to have done, regardless of what the program’s fate might be in the long run (when we will all be dead, anyway). You have to open access to that grand writing life as you’ve been privileged to know it, because you owe it to your world. Your students will both love and hate you for it, but never mind, that’s the crumbling cookie of the writer’s life, a trail worthy of Hansel and Gretel or the Chinese starvation cookie story and other once upon-a-times. Call it evolution, the natural order of things, but don’t we all need to locate and populate our tribe?
Here’s what this little slice of race-language-culture writing looks like: many, many nationalities; an international perspective on literature and life; bi-, tri-, multi-lingualism as the “native tongue”; multiple Englishes (there’s more to our language’s difference than merely America’s tomaytoe-tomahto a la Cole Porter); many ethnicities and combinations of same. It was the world I came from that didn’t exist in my otherwise excellent (and lily white) MFA at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst circa 1981. Díaz’s experience shows that even a decade later, little difference has been made.
The writing race is also, I believe, about locating your literary village in order to write about who you are and aren’t, because what you are not is just as important as what you are. That village, like most villages, is multi-faceted, except that you, The Individual Writer (capitalized a la Pooh), are the only one to really name all those facets. So let’s say you’re an American of paternal Chinese ancestry, second generation, whose mother is Caribbean, first generation, and you were born in Jamaica, grew up in Arizona, but were moved to Guangzhou at the age of ten, only to find yourself unceremoniously later dumped in the middle of Michigan for your MFA. What then? Other than the fact of writing in some kind of American English (but your linguistic heritage depends on your parents’ Englishes as well), and what you might have been reading in Guangzhou as a teenager, well, the literary villages of your world could be a tad confused. And we still haven’t discussed what you look like, or where you chose to go to college, and what that all did to you. It really is no less complicated than the writer who is White American of forgotten ancestry, raised in suburban Milwaukee, whose father is closeted gay and whose mother is (may she rest in peace) not really her mother, etc.
So if I want to write like James Baldwin or Cole Porter or A.A. Milne I damn well will, although without Maxine Hong Kingston, Doris Lessing, Marguerite Duras, Eileen Chang et al where the hell would I be? What the publishing world will do with what I write, well, that’s the story of all who belong to this writing race.