Writing the Other | Karen Kao

I grew up reading Louise May Alcott. I still have copies of all her books: dog-eared, broken-backed, and beloved. On the rare occasions when I get sick, it’s a toss-up between Alcott and Jane Austen as comfort reading.

One of Alcott’s books, Eight Cousins, features a white character (Annabel) who marries the “highly satisfactory Chinaman” (Fun See). I remember the scene distinctly but it never affected me particularly until I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s response.

Fun See was still exotically “other,” with his long fingernails and queue, his yellow skin and peculiar manners. That’s me, Kingston thought. She realized that she would never be a March sister. “I felt like I was popped out of her writing,” she said. “Out of American literature.”

Hua Hsu, “The Making of Americans” in The New Yorker, 8/15 June 2020

The Other in the Room

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Maxine Hong Kingston

Somehow, Kingston managed to pop herself back into American literature. She mined her own life and the stories she heard as a child to create The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. Published in the 1970s, it became the lodestone for the Asian immigrant experience. Over the course of her long life, Kingston has influenced writers as disparate as Junot Díaz, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Ocean Vuong.

Did Kingston somehow foresee the #OwnVoices movement? The movement launched in 2015 on Twitter. The initial idea was to promote YA fiction starring diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group. This devolved into hairsplitting debates on identity. Then, somehow, #OwnVoices was no longer about promoting fiction but rather who gets to write it. Stories about marginalized people should be written by authors of the same identity group.

Since then, the movement has boomeranged. Publishers will now reject authors and authors will self-cancel novels when their characters or settings or plot points do not exactly mirror the personal back story of the author.

As The Woman Warrior is memoir, you would think Kingston would be safe. Instead, Asian-American writers accused her of airing the community’s dirty laundry. Forty years later, critics hurl the same complaint at Jenny Zhang. Apparently, there is not a single version of authenticity.

The Other as Fetish

Earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey chose American Dirt for her influential book club. 142 writers wrote her an open letter to change her mind.

In the informed opinions of many, many Mexican American and Latinx immigrant writers, American Dirt has not been imagined well nor responsibly, nor has it been effectively researched. The book is widely and strongly believed to be exploitative, oversimplified, and ill-informed, too often erring on the side of trauma fetishization and sensationalization of migration and of Mexican life and culture.

Dear Oprah Winfrey: 142 Writers Ask You to Reconsider American Dirt, Literary Hub, 29 Jan 2020

The purpose of this letter was neither to attack Cummins nor to censor her work. It was to urge Winfrey not to give it her imprimatur. The White House was already demonizing Mexican immigrants. This was no time to push more stereotypes.

In her author’s note to American Dirt, Cummins expressed her intention to depict migrants as fellow human beings, rather than criminals or a helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass. The writers of the open letter responded: We, ourselves, are not faceless, nor are we voiceless.

The Voiceless Other

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a writer and academic. He is the author, among others, of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer. In 2018, he won a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called the genius award. Nguyen doesn’t think of himself as a genius. He doesn’t want to be hyped as the next voice for the voiceless. Who exactly are we talking about?

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen

That’s the problem with being called a voice for the voiceless, whose exceptional status is related to what we call genius. We would rather deal with a solo voice than a chorus, or a cacophony, of voices. And in praising today’s voice for the voiceless, we would just as soon forget, or not even know about, all the other voices for the voiceless that came before.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Don’t Call Me a Genius” in The New York Times, 14 Apr 2018

For many years, Sherman Alexie was the nation’s most prominent Native-American author. He hated the title. On the one hand, Alexie was asked to opine on all things Native-American. On the other hand, he was expected to stay well within the boundaries of the Dances with Wolves kind of Indian readers expected.

To Celeste Ng, being the designated minority flavor of the month is a zero-sum game in US publishing.

[W]ho’s going to be the next Jhumpa Lahiri? Who’s going to be the next Amy Tan? Like there can be only one, and you can only get there by dethroning the person who’s at the top.

Celeste Ng as interviewed by Nicole Lamy, “A novelist who champions her fellow writers” in The International New York Times, 9 Jan 2019

Crafting the Other

American Dirt came up in my writing workshop a few weeks ago. Some of my students are beginners. Others have been writing secretly or not so secretly for years. None aspires to be the next Jeanine Cummins. They understand what the 142 writers are saying to Oprah.

[W]hen writing about experiences that are not our own, especially when writing about the experiences of marginalized people, still more especially when these lived experiences are heavily politicized, oppressed, threatened, and disbelieved—when this is the case, the writer’s duty to imagine well, responsibly, and with complexity becomes even more critical.

Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Junot Diaz

Junot Díaz meets aspiring writers at his readings and workshops. They are often writers of color struggling to express their own voices and experiences in the context of a Masters of Fine Arts program.

I remember one young MFA’r describing how a fellow writer (white) went through his story and erased all the ‘big’ words

Junot Díaz, “MFA vs POC” in The New Yorker, 30 Apr 2014

My students wouldn’t do that. They Zoom into class from Bielefeld and Zurich, Amsterdam and Boston. They hail from Italy, the UK and Brazil. Most of them have lived in multiple countries. They know what it means to be the Other.

To my students, I say: you can do it. Do your research. Craft complex characters. Immerse yourself in their world and worldview. Worried whether your depiction of the other will do them justice? Read their works. Hear their voices in all their multitude and inconsistency.

“Pay attention to what people are saying, not just with your ears but with your heart.” […] When you do that, “we can […] become another person. It’s magic.”

Maxine Hong Kingston


Note: Writing the Other was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.


Peter Leyland said…
Hi Karen

I read a recent interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen by Ashish Ghadiali in The Observer. It was about his second novel, The Committed. Clearly he's someone I need to be aware of in my role as Literature tutor. Thanks for the reminder.
Eden Baylee said…
Great post Karen,

A lot of issues to consider when writing in today's climate if you're going to depict marginalized, people of colour in ways that don't represent them.

Griselda Heppel said…
You make a number of important points here. Writers have a responsibility to research deeply into experiences they themselves haven't lived, and create their fiction with the greatest possible sensitivity.

I don't agree that the 142 people who wrote to Oprah about American Dirt were not attacking Cummins - from the strong criticisms they made of her book they definitely were. They have every right to their opinion but you can't say negative things about people and their works and not be attacking them. Critics have done this from time immemorial after all.

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