A few months ago, Claire Vaye Watkins’ courageous piece, On Pandering was published on the web site for the literary magazine Tin House. I watched as it blew up on my social media feed, shared by so many fellow writers, especially women writers. In fact, by the time I tried to log on to read the piece a few hours later, the site had crashed due to the volume of traffic. The overwhelming response alongside my own conflicted reaction was strangely reminiscent of what I had experienced a few months ago when I heard Watkins deliver her lecture (then subtitled How to Write Like a Man) while participating at the same magazine’s summer writing workshop.
It was a truth-telling session tinged with a spiritual aura, in part because her talk was delivered in a campus chapel. Her piece deals with her own struggle to find and value her own voice as a white woman writer in the face of age-old and pervasive patriarchy and misogyny in literature. She not only took on the old white men, living and dead, whose works and voices have dominated the literary establishment. She took on the alleged misogynist behavior of a relatively well-known white male writer and editor towards her.
I was familiar with both the writing and reputation of the male writer in question. I had heard about his erratic behavior so I didn’t doubt her account. If anything, I was impressed by her candor and courageousness, given how small and interconnected the literary world often seems. But I also knew that he had created The Rumpus, one of the most progressive literary web sites, which had the prescience to bring on board Cheryl Strayed, as an empathetic literary advice columnist, and Roxane Gay, as a nonfiction editor and contributor, several years ago, before they both went on to become two of today’s most popular and respected feminist voices. At that time, Gay was one of few women of color editors on the masthead of a literary magazine, a trend that continues today. It is also important to note that the masthead of the magazine that published Watkins isn’t racially diverse
As a woman of color writer, I sat in the pews taking it all in, her words punctuated alternately by gasps, laughter, and claps from the audience, the majority of which was white women writers. I wanted to feel the same ribald enthusiasm as they did but couldn’t. And I was frustrated at myself for this. Watkins ended her talk with the fiery manifesto – “let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better” – the whole room burst into thunderous applause and hoots and hollers. I felt compelled to rise to my feet and clap even though I couldn’t shake the feeling that the celebration belonged more to the other women in the room than to myself. Essentially, the woman half of me cheered the takedown of patriarchy, but the person of color half felt incidental to the celebration.
I have grown used to reading the work of white feminist writers who reference their own experiences and the experiences of other white feminists and extrapolate it to represent the entire feminist experience with no caveats for class or race. However, in her piece, Watkins referenced experiences of writers of color, including one that made her aware of her “invisible cloak of white privilege.” But at my core, I sensed a certain hollowness in these references – as if these people’s significance and relevance were tied solely to their identities and how they related to Watkins’ identity. Watkins evoked their identity and experiences to make a point about her relative privilege as a white female writer but didn’t delve any further below her cloak and even admitted, “I want to unsee it, make it invisible again, and usually I do, because it feels better. I have that privilege. Others don’t.”
While Watkins honesty about her discomfort at her own privilege is to be lauded, it also gets to the heart of one of the fundamental problems with the piece and many people’s reaction to it: when a white woman writes about the experiences of people of color especially in relation to her own, acknowledging her privilege, she is usually heralded as courageous and compassionate. However, when a person of color writes about their experiences relative to the mainstream population, it is often viewed solely as a grievance.
Women writers have long struggled to have their writing valued, even resorting to writing under a male nom de plume, effectively sacrificing their female identity for their writer identity – the two being mutually exclusive, at the time. Watkins’ piece illustrates that even today, the pervasive force of patriarchy in literature still shapes the perspectives and voices of women writers until and unless they examine the explicit and implicit patriarchical influences on their work, and decide to stop pandering to them. Do they gravitate to reading mostly male writers or do they unconsciously emulate the style of only male writers?
However, white women writers have a significant advantage over women writers of color when it comes to being published: according to a recent demographic survey of the publishing sector, the majority of people working in publishing, at every level, are white and female, making it much more likely that they relate to and value writing from fellow white women. Now that this survey has made visible this long suspected trend, will it continue to go collectively unseen and uncorrected so that the majority of the field can feel better?
On Pandering also reminded me of workshop experiences where white writers would include people of color as pivotal characters and yet they would remain nameless or devoid of physical description. In this way they were walking contradictions, critical plot devices who never quite achieved any humanity because they were merely built around identities rather than personal characteristics. Ultimately, Watkins only recognizes the burdens and marginalization that come with the identity of writers of color, but not the unique empowerment they receive when they harness those burdens, as she eventually does at the end of her piece. Their primary purpose in her piece is to illustrate her privilege and the privilege of her fellow white writers.
Meanwhile, in her takedown of the white male canon, Watkins erects in its place a white female canon, albeit a hip, updated one, filled with female punk rock stars and comedians who published memoirs last year – Patti Smith, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Sally Mann, and Amy Poehler. But last year was also the year that punk muse, Grace Jones, and intrepid comedian, Mindy Kaling, wrote their own memoirs. This replacement of one list with another made me think that her call to burn down the canon is akin to creating a new Burning Man Festival, as undiverse as the one we have now.
It was only when I sat down to talk to other writers of color about Watkins’ talk that everyone was buzzing about, that I was able to parse out my feelings. The other writers also expressed a nagging dissatisfaction with the talk, a feeling that it didn’t quite speak to them. I remember saying that I thought the lecture represented progress because it referenced the experiences of people of color, even if the references were hollow. I went on to note that five years ago, it was unlikely that the lecture would have included any references to people of color.
To navigate the writing world as a woman of color writer is a complicated thing – sometimes you find conflict in the very space that you found community, you find pain in the very individual you found inspiration. Just a few weeks ago I was reading the latest issue of a literary magazine that includes work by a few writer friends. I turned the pages savoring their work and was thrilled to also discover brilliant work by writers and poets I didn’t know of before. Then I turned the page and felt a jolt of recognition – it was a poem by Michael Derrick Hudson, the white male poet who assumed the pseudonym of Yi-Fen Chou because he claimed it was a surefire shortcut to publication. I forced myself to read his poem because I wanted to see and understand the poetry that came from a person whose actions I found so objectionable. I didn’t like it. I wasn’t impressed by its structural or thematic elements, but I will always be left with a nagging doubt about whether I gave it a truly fair read.
Two years ago, I was the only person of color in a nonfiction workshop held by the same magazine that published Watkins’ piece. Although I noticed the lack of cultural diversity, I hoped it wouldn’t be a barrier since I was workshopping a biography about an Indian American woman artist overlooked by history. I was told by fellow white women writers that in order for them to immerse themselves in her narrative, I needed to evoke the smell of cow dung and mangoes, which they thought were emblematic of life in India. I was also told to remove all of her quotes but to leave in a quote by James Joyce. And while I’ve seen and heard all manner of critiques in workshop directed at others and myself, even I was surprised by the lack of cultural sensitivity and wondered why no one else was struck by it, including the white female instructor. After the workshop I forced myself to review their critique once again. I realized that it wasn’t that I needed to remove her quotes, which would only further erase her voice from history, but that I needed to do a better job of curating them. In my attempt to prioritize her voice, I was in danger of losing her story. I wasn’t grateful to my fellow writers for this realization, but I did have gratitude for the experience, though offensive, that led me to this understanding.
Outside of this workshop, I was glad to see a lecture on the syllabus entitled Beyond Sympathy; Writing Past the Cliches of Class, Race, and Subculture. It was delivered by a white woman writer and while that, in itself, was not problematic, the lecture was. She seemed to conflate the obstacles, stigmas, and stereotypes of class, sexual identity, and racial and cultural identity with those faced by individuals who cosplay as pirates. I was deeply disappointed and couldn’t help feeling like a meaningful opportunity to explore these issues had been lost, especially given what I was experiencing in my own workshop. During the question and answer period, I summoned the courage to ask a question. “How do we explore and address race and identity stereotypes, if the race and cultural identity of characters aren’t developed? I was stunned by the curt answer that came back to me. “Well, I don’t believe in policing.” I left the lecture stung by its unabashed inadequacy but thankful for the diverse cohort of writing friends I had made who felt the same way. The truth is that the same workshop that felt lacking in its racial diversity and cultural sensitivity is also one that introduced me to inspirational writers of color including Manuel Gonzalez, Major Jackson, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Natalie Diaz.
Just as I felt compelled to stand up and clap in the chapel last summer, I now found myself sharing Watkins’ On Pandering on Facebook noting its importance for calling out pervasive patriarchy and misogyny in literature. And just as before, I felt a bit disingenuous. Thankfully, I stumbled upon social media responses from the likes of Porochista Khakpour, Roxane Gay, and Marlon James, some of the writers of color I most admire for their writing but also for their perspectives on being writers of color. Their responses validated my discomfort with the piece and offered insightful analysis. As an emerging forty-one year old writer, who worked for fifteen years in social change, on issues ranging from homelessness, to health disparities, to racial justice, I shouldn’t need the words of fellow writers of color to validate my own understanding and experience, but I did. The next day, I erased my post and composed a new one explaining why I had removed it and my actual experience and mixed feelings about the piece.
Although I was initially embarrassed about putting up this replacement post, I soon came to feel squared away in my conscience, what Gandhi describes as when your thoughts, words, and actions are all in harmony. Within a short time, I began receiving positive affirmations from several other fellow writers of color, confessing that they had similar misgivings when they read the piece. More and more writers chimed in, thanking me for my honesty and we discussed both its positive points and where it fell short for us.
In the end, I agree partially with the lecturer about policing. The policing I most believe in is self-policing, wherein writers become aware of and engage their blind spots on race. But beyond this, I believe all writers, myself included, must engage what Junot Diaz refers to as the blind spots shaped like ourselves – the ones shaped by all the layers of our identities. And in my writing, I’ve been trying to live up to Watkins’ important call to “use our words and our gazes to make the invisible visible. Let us tell the truth.” Anything else would be pandering.
Kavita Das worked in the social change sector for fifteen years on issues ranging from homelessness to public health disparities to most recently, racial justice and she now focuses on writing about culture, race, social change, feminism, and their intersections. She’s a contributor to NBC News Asian America, The Rumpus, and The Aerogram and her work has been published in The Atlantic, Apogee Journal, Guernica, xoJane, The Margins, Quartz, The Feminist Wire, Colorlines, The Sun, and elsewhere. She’s also at work on a biography about Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer, Lakshmi Shankar, who helped bring Indian music to the West, to be published by Harper Collins India. Kavita lives in her hometown of NYC and in the twitterverse: @kavitamix