In 2017, I took my first creative nonfiction workshop with a reputed author, editor, and teacher of creative writing in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world. Soon after our workshop began, a white American woman read aloud her story of international travels and multiple heartbreaks with foreign men, each paragraph of her essay ending with the narrator forgiving herself for people with foreign accents. Once done, she burst into tears, and our white instructor announced: the story was finally getting good, it was getting personal. In the room, I noticed I was the only obvious person of color who also had a foreign accent. Unlike others, I couldn’t empathize with the white woman’s story because I was too aware of everyday news where my people—brown people in Trump’s America—were getting harassed or killed for having foreign accents.
When it was my turn to offer feedback in workshop, I asked our group: “Could this narrator be xenophobic?” To this, our instructor looked at me as if I’d dropped from Mars. The white woman looked so distressed that I didn’t have the heart to say aloud what I was thinking: Sorry for your loss, but your essay would do better by exploring why you serial-date foreigners instead of informing us what scumbags they are. On returning home, I emailed our instructor and shared my discomfort about the woman’s story, wondering why her work was being praised for excellence in workshop. My instructor defended a writer’s job to honor the deepest exploration of her individual self over a collective responsibility in art-making. In other words, as long as Becky was engaging in an honest exploration of herself, it didn’t matter if her essay erased or stereotyped people like me. My instructor even insinuated that by voicing my discomfort with the story’s racial unconscious, I was trapping white writers into tired accusations of cultural appropriation. I never returned to that workshop. Having been to a fair share of predominantly white writing workshops, I found my instructor’s defense of artistic freedom, divorced from political responsibility, to be frustrating, ethically reckless, and all too familiar.
2017 revitalized debates on the personal essay in a world of North American literati. Maybe because, with the rise of Donald Trump, the long venerated line separating a sacred humanity of the vertical self from the profane, ephemeral world of History and Politics in art-making finally blurred for a world of North American literati.
Consider Jia Tolentino who declared last May in The New Yorker that “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” In her piece, she limited the personal essay to “a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay” published by North American online magazines like xoJane, Jezebel, Salon, and Gawker, yet gave her reader no reason why she was limiting a centuries-old literary tradition to an absurdly narrow body of work. Most essayists or essay editors she cited to argue for or against the essay were white (or light-skinned and white-passing, since race is a construct like gender, ethnicity, nationality, or sexuality), Judeo-Christian or North American, when not all of the above—Emily Gould, Cat Marnell, Sarah Hepola, Laura Bennett, Carrie Frye, Silvia Killingsworth, among others. The content through which Tolentino discussed the essay underscored a female body in its apolitical glory or infamy—sexual relationships, body type and image, vaginas dealing with lost tampons or cat hair, etc. If feminist writing was Tolentino’s hidden agenda, her piece made a good case for an earlier wave of (white) feminism, hopelessly passé in 2018, unless you ask pussy hat lovers.
Tolentino located the boom in ultra-confessional essays to around 2008 and the genre’s death to 2015, Trumpian times when “the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact.” While the old school of unrestrained self-disclosure in writing would feel too “navel-gazey” vis-à-vis a newer kind of post-November 2016 essays that “center on systemic rather than personal trauma,” Tolentino ended her piece with a nostalgia for her ideal of the essay or deep first-person verticals. She concluded: “I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason. I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.” (Italics, my emphasis)
Tolentino wasn’t the only one last year to confess a love for style over identity-speak in personal essays. Soon after her publication, one Merve Emre published “Two Paths for the Personal Essay” in the Boston Review with a subheading reserved for Google Search: “The personal essay is not dead, but has it traded politics for style?” (Italics, my emphasis)
By the first path, Emre referred to a “certain breed of personal essayist at work today,” represented in her piece by a North American essayist of color, Durga Chew-Bose, and her debut collection of essays, Too Much and Not the Mood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). These essays had nothing to offer Emre other than “peacocking” of or “mindfulness” toward the narrator’s “complex selfhood.” And here I thought that mindfulness and a peacocking of the question, Who am I?, was the defining trait of personal essays.
In slandering “identity politics” à la Chew-Bose, Emre conveniently dismissed an entire canon of critically acclaimed essayists of color like Salman Rushdie, James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Audre Lorde, Zadie Smith, Gloria Anzaldua, Amitava Kumar, and Roxane Gay whose essays have consistently explored their intersectional identity or an expansive notion of the self in relation to white Western power.
As the second path or a better political and ethical art, Emre offered us “style”—a (white male) style of unsentimental writing, exemplified in her preferred canon of essayists via white, Western, Judeo-Christian women too: Mary Gaitskill, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion. While Emre eviscerated Chew-Bose for her failure to be a “sensitive ethical thinker” because the latter’s work reminded us that one can never fully know oneself or others, she lavishly praised Gaitskill’s essays that were “so circumspect in the claims to self-knowledge.”
Fortunately, there was more to Emre’s piece than a self-contradictory logic or persistent ethno-racial bias. One such rare moment was when she reminded her reader that unsentimental writing in her cherished white canon was a “carefully constructed aesthetic and ethical strategy that perceived the limits of empathy after World War II.” Here, we glimpse an awareness to what is understood as commonplace in our post-postmodern literary world, the notion that every text is context. I wondered here why Emre didn’t linger a bit longer on the most elementary assumption of literary criticism, that any aesthetic is a construct. Maybe because, if she had, she would have to confront her own racial bias, one that hallows an aesthetic emerging from a white Eurocentric history of fascism to be superior to the one emerging from a nonwhite history of immigrant writers in the West who navigate xenophobia and neofascism on a regular basis, more so in Trump’s America.
When did our literary world become so destitute that critics cannot hold two or multiple paths to the essay in a fruitful dialogue with each other? Instead, they must juxtapose disparate historic contexts and perpetuate a dog-tired hierarchy in Art and Literature? Since over two centuries of intellectual, cultural and political domination by a white West over its colored Rest—Palestinian-American public intellectual Edward Said would remind us through his groundbreaking book, Culture and Imperialism (1993), that is as topical today as it was a quarter of a century ago when first published.
My pet peeve with critics like Tolentino and Emre isn’t that they empower white supremacy in our literary world with zero subtlety. Many would affirm that white supremacy is the norm within a world of North American letters, the biggest gatekeeper of the “literary” across a global Anglophone world too. Consider, for instance, the current American publication industry that is 86% white at executive levels of decision-making. 90% of the books reviewed by the New York Times are also by white writers, as a 2012 study by Roxane Gay has shown. Even when the 2016 VIDA count on Women in the Literary Arts showed a higher percentage of women’s voices in American publications, an overwhelming majority of them were still Caucasian. Besides, ethno-racial statistics on the editorial makeup of our country’s most prestigious literary magazines, publication houses, core faculty or directors of creative writing programs or directors and administrative decision-makers for reputed writing conferences, residencies, retreats and literary awards, all await an official documentation, even if we can foresee what those numbers would look like.
Tolentino and Emre’s appraisal of “good literature” in some of America’s most prestigious homes to personal essays are in many ways reflective of our literary establishment’s status quo. What baffles me about our young critics is that they pontificate on a genre defined by self-awareness and self-implication while showing no awareness to their own position as lighter-skinned critics in an imperial West who are evaluating “art” in rather universalizing terms from the silent assumptions of their narrow history and geography.
In defense of a North American literati, one might argue that Tolentino and Emre are rare cases of acute critical myopia. After all, they are young, relatively less experienced and walking that early road to lit-crit.
Let’s consider then works by established literary critics like Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (1994) and Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative (2001), often taught in American creative writing communities as bibles to the personal essay. And surely, the aforementioned books offer an insightful commentary on creative nonfiction that I personally enjoyed learning from. Like Tolentino, Emre, or countless American books on the “art” or “craft” of creative writing though, both Lopate and Gornick’s books are equally persistent in offering an understanding of the personal essay via a predominantly Euro-American, Judeo-Christian canon. Citing James Baldwin or a couple of non-Western, non-Judeo-Christian writers doesn’t make their work cosmopolitan; rather, it makes a tokenist gesture toward literary diversity in our world.
What struck me further about Gornick’s book is that despite her reputation as a radical feminist within a certain literary circle, I don’t remember a single woman of color that gained spotlight or even a passing mention in her discussion on the art of the personal narrative. This jars because transnational feminists of color have a long, rich tradition of essay writing that has resisted white male assumptions of the form in the Americas itself (more on this soon).
At least, Lopate’s anthology shows an awareness of alternative legacies to the essay that go beyond a Euro-American framework. In his introduction, for instance, Lopate explains his rationale toward selecting essays for his anthology by acknowledging that he avoided women- and recent African essayists for being too polemical; he chose to further avoid “mystical traditions” of East and West including Native America for being uninspired by the “ego” or the “individual.” While he repeatedly emphasized the essay’s highly flexible or experimental form, he also rationalized the inclusion of a couple of Asian writers in his anthology, not because they showed serious literary merit, but because they were “too charming.” Finally, his introduction acknowledged that his canon of the personal essay was informed by what he loved and a certain masculine arrogance: “The personal essay, for all its protestations of littleness and marginality, in fact leans on a tone of easy, gentlemanly, ‘natural’ authority which comes from being in the world—the tone precisely most difficult for women, especially those raised traditionally, to assert.”
On a less despondent note, not all of North American literati suffers from acute critical myopia or a Euro-American provincialism. Fortunately, we have editors and critics who are actively promoting a counterculture of anti-establishment views, often via smaller or niche publications and university presses.
Consider, for instance, Susan Shapiro’s response to Tolentino, “Taking It Personally: A Feminist Defense of The First-Person Essay,” published last year in the Jewish Daily, forward.com. Here, Shapiro decried Tolentino’s “myopic and disingenuous” literary criticism and reminded the reader that Tolentino’s “boom” was “barely a blip on the radar, ephemeral insignificant modern conduits of an oft-scared art,” one that lacked perspectives on “populist style of slave narratives, Holocaust testimonials, war confessions, and writers like Mark Twain, Simone de Beauvoir and Maya Angelou.”
Soon thereafter, Soraya Roberts joined the debate and wrote an essay for the Canadian publication, thewalrus.ca, titled “The Personal Essay Isn’t Dead. It’s Just No Longer White.” Here, Roberts called Emre’s argument in the Boston Review to be “flat” for comparing confessional writing by white women with non-confessional ones à la Chew-Bose, one that resonated mostly with “white academics.” Roberts commented on the genre’s “historical whiteness” and reminded us how women essayists of color like Roxane Gay, Samantha Irby and Scaachi Koul were “resurrecting” the essay through “the current hybridized form of intersectional essays, in which writers of various races, sexualities, genders, and abilities blend criticism, personal essay, and reportage—what better way to reflect their multi-faceted lives?”
While I agreed often with Roberts’s views, I also wondered: Are contemporary women essayists of color resurrecting a literary genre that is defined by white standards? Or are they simply walking a path of their own, away from the white gaze? In other words, could women essayists of color be continuing their own robust literary legacy, one that has seldom centered around unsentimental writing or first-person verticals of the individual self? Literary scholars Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres and Elizabeth Mittman would surely think so.
In their groundbreaking anthology, The Politics of The Essay: Feminist Perspectives (Indiana University Press, 1993), Joeres and Mittman explored a thriving legacy of essay-writing over the last two centuries by women of color, including African-American and Latin-American ones, many of whom used first-person narratives as a conscious tool of socio-political reform. Commenting further on a recent North American legacy of works by June Jordan, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde, Joeres & Mittman noted: “As a genre, it [the essay] has emerged in white, Western privilege. It is presumed male: studied, authoritative. In form, it tends to be rambling, contemplative, remote, lacking urgency and fire. If the essay had a color, it would be pewter. Yet these essays by Jordan, Lorde, and Walker are obsidian and crimson, heat and lightning. They strike to the bone. They spark and inflame.” (197)
The biggest strength of Joeres and Mittman’s anthology was a consistent exploration of how an alternative canon of transnational women essayists innovated at the level of craft, moving away from white male “style” of unsentimental or “pewter” writing to highlight another kind of “personal,” one that wasn’t the isolated Emersonian individual but a broader conception of the self where the “centrality of others in the formation of the self” was crucial.
And yet, the transformation of a white male essayistic legacy with its origins in an aristocratic world à la Michel de Montaigne is far from an exclusively feminine territory. As I’ve suggested earlier, a vast body of essays by contemporary writers of color has often operated beyond a white nationalist framework to explore the question “Who Am I?” in relationship to “Who are we?” In other words, variations on the play between a narrow and a broader notion of the self have repeatedly informed the condition of the postcolonial migrant and his hyphenated, fragmented self in Salman Rushdie’s collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands (1991), the celebration of queer Chicanx identity via the multiple cadences of Spanglish in Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands (1987), the becoming of a working class Latina writer in Sandra Cisneros’s A House of My Own (2015), or the affirmation of a heterogeneous black identity through global travels in Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things (2016).
Chinese American writer Gish Jen has further explored an expansive, non-Western notion of the personal, the communal or the “flexi-self” as opposed to a restricted, white, Western notion of the self in global art and storytelling in her 2017 book, The Girl with the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap. According to Jen, the fiercely individualist self of Western art and storytelling—one with a pronounced separation from its surroundings or community, or what Jenn calls the “avocado-pit”—is far from a universal concept. An avocado-pit self is most rampant in WEIRD (Wealthy, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Developed) America, even if we find its avatars in varying degrees across the planet. Jen further reminds us how unlike WEIRD America, East Asian cultures have an allergy to the first-person “singular” which may explain why Chinese autobiographies have often been written in the third person, echoing here in many ways, Lopate’s rationale toward excluding non-Western, non-Judeo-Christian writers from his anthology too. To me, it’s no coincidence that Jen’s book found a home with Knopf whose editor-in-chief, Sonny Mehta, is of Asian descent; it’s a conversation I’ve had with the author elsewhere on race, power and storytelling too.
What I’ve shared above is simply a teaser to various aesthetic possibilities residing in the personal essay. A closer look at creative nonfiction by transnational writers across the globe, including those I’ve mentioned above, will show how the essay, true to its core, has always played with multiple manifestations of the self. Needless to say, the first step to noticing this rich literary legacy is to look beyond one’s navel.
NAMRATA PODDAR writes fiction, nonfiction, and serves as Interviews Editor for Kweli where she curates a series titled “Race, Power and Storytelling.” Her work has appeared in Longreads, The Margins, Transition, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, The Progressive, CounterPunch, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. Her debut collection of stories, Ladies Special Homebound was a finalist for Feminist Press’s 2018 Louise Meriwether First Book Prize and is forthcoming from Speaking Tiger. She holds a Ph.D. in French literature from the University of Pennsylvania, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures from UCLA and MFA in fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. More of her work at www.namratapoddar.com and tweets @poddar_namrata.