the circular runner

is writing fantastical fiction only for the rich (and white)?

In humor, life, observations, politics, teaching & education, writers & books, writing on February 19, 2012 at 11:26 am

Joe Ponepinto recently wrote a post where he asked if writing</a was becoming something that only people of means did. I highly recommend that post, so much so, that I'm giving you an out. Here's the link to his blog.

If you’re still with me, then I would like to take a slightly different tack on Joe’s question. I want to know if the kind of writing I like to do, something that some might call speculative or fantastical or magical realism, is just for white, rich people. If you’re confused about the labels I’m using, think Twilight Zone. If you’re getting pissy about my question, read on.

The reason I’m asking connects with Joe’s concerns. He wondered if a person struggling financially could afford the time and money involved in trying to break in as a writer. And if not, he feels that there will be lost voices, lost experiences, because the only people who will break through will all be too similar. I agree with that. But let’s say that struggling writer is a person of color, and let’s say that struggling writer somehow finds a way to keep producing, what then? Should she write fantastical stories or should she focus on stories about her upbringing in order to bring attention to questions of social justice?

Before I answer that question for myself, let me tell you where this question comes from. I grew up poor. I spend my non-writing professional life in the projects teaching young men and women how to pass their GED. I love them and think of them as family, but I never tell them what I do when I am not teaching them. I am just Gabe or for some who really can’t bother to remember, I am “teacher.” I have no idea what my students think of me. I’m sure most of them don’t think of me at all, but if they do, they probably think I liked math since math is what I usually focus on with them. Last year, in order to make money for the program, I ran a couple performances to raise funds for materials and whatnot, and I invited poets and writers to come out and read–an evening of poetry and music for at-risk youth–I hate the term, but it gets butts in seats. The event was successful. I found a lot of talented artists. The writers, especially, were amazing and generous. A lot of them worked with the “community.” Many of them were social workers or case managers or had taught writing in prisons. Their writing, for the most part, spoke to what it was like to be black or Latino or Asian. Race and culture, culture and race, and for a few, class was also thrown in since if you’re going to talk about inequality, class is a natural tie-in.

I do not know why race and class don’t enter into my own work. I’m interested in culture, but when I write, culture is not necessarily politicized as I feel it is with a lot of writers of color. I’ve thought about this a lot lately. I’ve wondered why it is that I don’t write as maybe I “should”, considering my upbringing. I also wonder why it is that I think I SHOULD write anything. Artists don’t usually deal with questions of duty. But there is a part of me that does–it’s the part of me that grew up poor, I think.

Listening to the poets read their work last fall, I almost felt guilty. Here, these people were edifying the young people in the audience; through words and stories, they were being role-models. Of course, there was some posturing, some overly enunciated Spanish words peppered into their work for effect, some hip-hopped rhythm in their delivery that the material didn’t always require, but on the other hand, they were sharing stuff that mattered to the young people in the audience–to my students.

As the organizer of the event, I had an out. I didn’t need to share my stuff, but even if I wasn’t hosting, the truth is I wouldn’t have felt comfortable sharing my stories about young women growing flowers in their stomachs or bears and pigs rowing after Noah’s ark (two recent stories I like). I love the kinds of stories I tell, don’t get me wrong. As a writer, I am proud of the surreal and lyrical tradition of writers like Borges, Rushdie and Etgar Keret, etc.. But surrounded by my own, by my GED kids and by my community-serving colleagues, I pull back and hide that part of myself.

There’s fear and insecurity, I know. And I’m probably giving short shrift to some of my kids who might appreciate the kind of fairy tale/fables I create, but I’m scared that someone might come up to me after I read and ask me the question I’m asking all of you: do Latinos (or any minority) write that kind of shit? Isn’t that white-people stuff?

To bring it back around to Joe’s concern that money is a barrier to hearing different voices, you can see I might be a victim of the problem he brings up. The artists of color who make it often write about being marginalized, about living on the hyphen, etc. There are exceptions, but it’s not always easy to find them. And really, when I read, I don’t want to pick up a book just because the writer’s name ends with -EZ or because her picture shows that she’s X.

And yet…and yet even if you believe that stories are important, as I do, you still might not see how a story about a man who makes women itch when he falls in love with them (another story of mine) is doing anyone any good. Who is that story for? What is its purpose? If you are struggling to keep your kids fed and warm or safe from a bullet, can you be fantastical? Can you afford to stop and listen to a story of any sort? And if you can, don’t you want to hear a story about someone living through something similar? Does the poor person tell her child fairy tales, or does she fight to teach her child what’s up, as my mother taught me?

Somehow, in my case, the lesson didn’t stick. Or maybe it did. Maybe she taught me to be who I am regardless of what others think. As a storyteller and as a person, I do think there’s more to this world than meets the eye. Take that where you will. I believe in mystery, you can call it magic,–and I’d like to think that that mystery can exist even in dilapidated old buildings and fairy tales can edify in their own way. That’s what I think when I’m being strong and confident, which obviously is not always the cas

  1. A great post and a very interesting take on this subject. I also grew up on the lower end of the economic spectrum, although my sisters and I didn’t want for much (perhaps we didn’t know what was out there to want). Yet I also enjoy slipping magical realism into my work on a regular basis. I suspect that my childhood culture, and subcultures in America in general, have a lot to do with what writers write. I’ve never been pressured to represent or defend my cultural or racial background, and have never felt the need to do so. Apart from a few minor childhood incidents in the ’60s, I’ve never felt part of a marginalized group. Therefore, I may be predisposed towards letting my imagination run beyond the issues and concerns of the physical world.

    I wouldn’t think to speak for members of another culture, but maybe there’s something to that. There’s a possibility an essay we have coming up in the Los Angeles Review, where I’m an editor, will address the issue from the African American viewpoint. Mitchell Douglas, an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and whose book, “Cooling Board,” was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in 2011, will be analyzing several volumes of poetry by African American authors. I have asked him, as part of the piece, to consider the black poet/writer’s responsibility to their culture. The essay is due to come out until fall 2012, but I’m eagerly anticipating it.

  2. This is an issue I can’t say I’ve ever thought much about, but you bring up some terrific points. For a writer to break in these days, a blog, a presence on Twitter and lots of backscratching is necessary. I barely have time for it all, but what about those people who don’t have time at all but still have things to say? While it is easier to get published than ever before, getting published also means a lot less than it once did. Everything is so market driven and you’ve got me really thinking about the long term effects of that. Kudos.

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