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The Limit Does Not Exist
Thoughts from a year of stupid takes on reading.
As a white writer of speculative fiction, I have to deal first with the racist futures that have already been so potently imagined and disseminated into the minds of men and women before embarking on the project of imagining a new world.
There’s been much discussion this year about how to read for an antiracist education: should you read from a well-meaning but narrowly focused anti-racist reading lists, or perhaps the banal white fragility that provides lots of guilt assuaging and little real exploration. Add to this the controversy over American Dirt, and I’ve been thinking that one thing missing from this conversation is a willingness on the part of white readers & writers to push outside our own fragile national construct of whiteness and read those from other countries.
The most introspective and incisive writing about whiteness that I’ve read comes from Mexican authors (and couple) Valeria Luiselli and Álvaro Enrigue. Beyond being gifted writers, there is a whole history of colonialism and creolization and violence behind why this is the case, much of which Enrigue explores in Sudden Death, a fractured novel that delves into the dark place of conquistadors in Mexican identity. Yet white readers are not told to read these writers to better understand ourselves, but rather to understand “the other”.
I didn’t really start to understand the global implications of my whiteness until I started reading these authors. In Lost Children Archive, Luiselli writes a semi-autobiographical story of a family like hers who look white to the business owners and motel neighbors they encounter in the southwestern United States until they open their mouths. Her characters are simultaneously lamenting the fate of thousands of migrants lost to the deserts and the cruelty of border patrol, while trying to find their way out of the labyrinth of mistaken identity, violence, and racism that is the desert of the white American soul. When Jeannine Cummins chose to put on brown face in American Dirt, instead of wrestling as Luiselli does with the whiteness she has, that was the ultimate cop out to me.
Phrasing this as an either/or—as in the now infamous Harper’s letter, in which many famous writers proposed that intellectual freedom was at stake because they’d been asked at one point or another to reconsider their right to inhabit all characters and perspectives they choose to—is incorrect. It’s also fucking boring. In reality, this oversight is what stifles creativity, is what stifles the creation of works that actually GO THERE in favor of milquetoast stories by white writers trying to write the most authentic POC characters they can.
And now? As we face the results of an election in which 60 million people voted for a future of white supremacy, fascism, and racism? We’ll see what kind of stupidity liberals get up to under Biden, and how quickly delusions of censorship from the left and the right approach a shared farcical limit.
What I’m Reading
When feeling frustrated by the long list of names attached to the Harper’s letter, I return toThe Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, an anthology put together in 2015 by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda. The wide range of contributors is a nice reminder that there are people out there invested in thinking more critically about race and ethics in fiction, and Rankine and Loffreda’s introduction has been a lodestar for me ever since I first read it:
“[A] white writer’s work could also think about, expose, that racial dynamic. That what white artists might do is not imaginatively inhabit the other because that is their right as artists, but instead embody and examine the interior landscape that wishes to speak of rights, that wishes to move freely and unbounded across time, space, and lines of power, that wishes to inhabit whomever it chooses. Or that wishes to absent from view whomever it chooses.”
No promises are made here that the work produced in this line will be good or successful, but the emphasis on process is at least a start. I wonder sometimes how often white writers will be called to ‘start’ this project, until it’s safe to say we’ve failed to take it up.
What I Wish I Was Reading
I’m besieged by overdue library books that I’m not nearly close to finishing. I keep starting and abandoning reading projects, like trying to read the entire catalogue of certain writers and then losing my appetite quickly. Is there a reading project or agenda you’ve set during covid that you’d care to share with me? Even if it’s a slow-going one, I’d love to hear it.
Scholar and editor Alan Pelaez Lopez invites submissions of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction by queer and trans Afro-Latinx writers on memory, care, and futurity for a forthcoming anthology. Deadline December 1.
Root Work Journal is accepting submissions of writing in many different genres and forms for a special issue titled NAVIGATING THE OCEAN: On the surreal legacy of Black Life & Resistance in the 21st Century.
Damaged Goods Press accepts chapbooks and full-length collections of both poetry and prose by queer and trans writers on a rolling basis.
There’s a lot more of you here now than when I started this newsletter! If you have a call for submissions that you think people who read this would be interested in, please let me know.
My book A Natural History of Transition, is available for preorder through Metonymy Press.
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