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Dear young woman of color who likes to write, →


Dear young woman of color who likes to write,

I too am young, so this is as much addressed to me as it is you. It is with you that I am trying to figure this all out.

It was probably obvious to you from the moment you set out to write that training yourself to not be diffident is, as women of color, as much a part of the practice of writing as the actual writing. It is a matter of making your voice louder than the voice of the proverbial white man inside you—the voice that says your writing is trivial; that you should feel bad about not making belletristic art; that you will never be Great. The cumulative space he and his system of reality take up in the world is proportionate to the loudness of his voice inside your head. Who is this white man? He is merely a stand-in for power, and we all have a relationship with power.

There are many things you can expect to encounter. In white circles you may feel profoundly misunderstood. You may be loved for your portrayals of reckless girlhood or even your rigorous engagement with communization theory but not, say, your interest in prison literature and the black radical tradition, or the nuances of your understanding of girlhood, all the ways in which it is racialized. Your literary heroes may not be the heroes of the ones who claim you as kin. You will become extremely adept at occupying spaces where you don’t quite belong, and while people may marvel at your grace and intellectual dexterity—you will dream of a space expansive enough to hold every part of you, a space where you won’t have to bracket the things that matter most to you for the sake of others’ comfort. Some people will tell you that to talk about your experiences or how you are positioned in the world is nothing more than vulgar identity politics, which should be avoided at all costs. It probably goes without say that this can often be a clever way to recenter the white experience.

Though I don’t want to make you paranoid, it’s probably true that at some point you will encounter white women who view you as cultural capital and will try to use you to validate their projects. They want to include you, but only on their terms. If you are queer, straight women may be even more eager to befriend you because your sexuality makes you less threatening (i.e. you will not compete with them for male attention and validation, and therefore are not a rival). You may feel sincerely thankful for what they give you—adoration, publishing opportunities. But remember, you’ve giving them more than they are giving you in the form of your value as cultural and institutional capital. Having a “down” woman of color around and on your side is the best defense against the charge of racism. You may feel disgusted when you learn friendship is never just friendship in a world where everyone is trying to get ahead—that even in the small press writing world, human relationships have been reduced to professional advancement. You may be down on yourself for having been naïve enough to believe that it was all about building a nourishing creative community, for being eager and giving yourself and your work away for nothing. Your concerns were never perennial, your dramas were never central—or at least they were never as interesting as the tumultuous romantic lives of the white people around you. 

When you finally become aware of the ugly inner workings of this symbolic economy—nothing will seem real. At this point you will have to decide if you want to play the game or preserve your integrity. I have no doubt that you could be an excellent player—that you may have already mastered the discourse, have all the proper reference-points and be proficient in dealing with white topics. You may have set out to develop fluency in this discourse unaware that in mastering the discourse—which is really much more like a habit of being—you are, in some way, validating it, even if you chose to reject it by writing a million angry tracts decrying the stupidity of these beloved books and political treatises. In some ways the choice is between remaining in close proximity to loci of power or resigning yourself to a nugatory existence and—if you are a lesbian—making a place for yourself in the world without having access to the material, symbolic, and psychic capital possessed by white men. You are worried that you are nothing without your white friends and on this may, on some level, be true. Their recognition might mean everything to you. It is possible that your core sense of self-worth is bound up with their approval, and not having their love fills you with pain. You may feel trapped in the terrible contradiction of both needing them and wanting to run away so as to extricate yourself from their value system—to create space for your projects, your interests—in other words, to become the protagonist of your own life. 

Wounded people act out and so might you. You will be tempted to wield your victim status against those you resent for being more popular, having more publications, for winning at the game you claim to reject. You want to become them; you want to destroy them. You want the power they possess because the only power you have is to create a morality out of not having power, to talk shit about their ways of having power as though you are somehow purer or more innocent. You think that the more you hate those who have power the less ensnared you are in their way of doing and being in the world. But this just isn’t true. You covet what you can’t have and so you devote your time to trying to make those who do have power feel bad or guilty about having it. They’re never going to listen, and the closer you get to the centers of power you cannot access, the more infuriated you feel. 

And you pray that nobody notices that the underlying motivation for battling these people is the desire for a few crumbs of recognition, or, if you can’t get that, the desire to wreck their blithe and jolly rise to literary stardom (and perhaps to even make a career out of calling white people out). Besides, if anyone suggested that your political interventions are motivated by anything other than “good” politics and rectitude you could just call them racist. They probably are. And you probably have a right to derail their shit, their “careers,” especially when they are at your expense or built up using your emotional and material labor. The violence you feel when you recognize your life has been truncated is real. But there are also very real ways in which resentment can disfigure and mutate your spirit. If you get stuck in this reactive mode you risk developing a dialectical dependency on the “white man” (or woman), a dependency that will prevent you from growing and use up all your creative energy. The more you hate people for winning the game, the more you will believe in the game yourself. In making the game “real” you reinforce an individualist value-system based, implicitly, on the idea that making others feel inferior or stupid indicates your literature is “good” (in other words, a framework whereby artistic genius is predicated on making people feel like shit). 

The main advice I would give young women of color who are also writers: protect your souls at all costs. A little bit of righteous anger is psychologically necessary and can make life more bearable, but don’t let the compulsion to speak these self-serving truths turn you into a caricature of yourself. You’re more dynamic than that. If no one else sees this, I do. Give yourself permission to be weird. It sucks that white people have a monopoly on weirdness, while we are always forced to exist on a “rational” wavelength by virtue of always having to explain the conditions of our lives, or because we are so use to making space for and accommodating other people’s realities that we don’t know how to insert our own. 

My friend Joohyun just got on the train. When she saw me she started laughing and said, “Why are you still on the tube?” We left the same place, but I left much earlier and so she was surprised to see me on the train, typing on my iPad. I said, “I am trying to write a speech about being a woman of color who writes. I thought writing it on the tube would give my writing…a sense of motion.”

Excerpted from Jackie Wang’s “Alien Daughters Walk Into the Sun”.