June 17, 2013

Writing Against Expectations: An Open Letter

Today’s blog post comes from LaTanya McQueen. 

Recently, I went back and read ZZ Packer’s short story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.” At the beginning the protagonist Dina is participating in a series of college orientation games among a group of her mostly white peers. Packer does a lot to show the difference between Dina and the rest of the group. The one other black person is overly enthusiastic and appeasing. He too, it’s assumed, is vastly different than the people she’s grown up with in her neighborhood of Baltimore.

Dina and the rest of the group play a game in which each member explains what inanimate object they’d want to be and why. Making an already uncomfortable situation worse, Dinah says that the object she wants to be is a revolver.

What interests me most about this scene are the lines that come afterward. “Until that moment I’d been good in all the ways that were meant to matter. I was an honor roll student—though I’d learned long ago not to mention it in the part of Baltimore where I lived. Suddenly, I was hard-bitten and recalcitrant.”

I once brought this story in one of my workshops to talk about. I remember a guy in my workshop getting upset over it. “I’m tired of this sort of thing,” he’d said, further explaining that he’d read enough stories of racism. He felt put-off and irritated by the story. I was young then and didn’t know how to stand up for myself. If I had, I’d have told him that he’d had a superficial reading of the story. The issues concerning it involve more than just race. Up until now Dinah’s learned to fit into whatever box necessary. She’s been a good student, but pretends otherwise elsewhere to fit in with her neighborhood. As her psychiatrist tells her, she offers up stories to people, not those that belong to her or even those she wants to tell. She dishes these stories out like ice cream, using them to pretend to be what others have come to expect.  At its heart this is a story of identity–of being forced to navigate a world which continues to label you. Her anger, I believe, came from finally deciding she’d had enough.

I thought of this story again while reading an essay that was published on The Nervous Breakdown a couple of weeks ago. The essay attempts to talk about issues regarding writing about race in MFA programs and in publishing. There were several concerns that got lost within that essay that I hope to point out here. The first—can a person write a story across their race? What does it mean if a white male wrote a story about blacks in a urban ghetto? What would it mean if I, a black female, wrote a story about white hipsters in New York? Do we look at the stories differently knowing the writer is of a different cultural background? Should it even matter?

This is what I’ve told myself consistently over and over again—be so good that the reader never questions otherwise, that there’s never a moment of doubt in the believability of the author’s voice. Write a good story and it won’t matter if you’re a minority, or female, or whatever other marginalized group you fit into. The story will always transcend all of these markers.

But then I read articles like this:  This is just one of many that discuss the disparities in publishing. I read these articles and I am left to wonder—is the story enough?

As much as I’d like to believe that I am simply a writer, and no matter how hard I may fight against the addition of other labels, I know that the culture we live in doesn’t currently allow that. As a woman and a minority, anything I write is automatically going to be associated with those labels because in our culture there is that tendency to label, to put into groups, to differentiate—these are ethnic stories, these are women writers—because somehow it’s hard for us to even consider the possibility that we could relate to the situations in these stories, that we could ever identify with the characters in them.

Sometimes it seems as if we get so caught up in the difference that it gets in the way of the story. I long for the time when there are no white or black or brown, male or female, stories. When we don’t have to differentiate, to put into boxes. When there are just stories about people, about experiences—heartache and loss, happiness and regret. Our lives may be different, but at their core, the experiences are the same, and that is what I feel an imperative to tell.

LaTanya McQueen’s stories have been published in New Orleans Review, The North American Review, Fourteen Hills, Nimrod, Potomac Review, and others. She received her MFA from Emerson College and is currently in the PhD program at the University of Missouri.

About Alison Balaskovits

Alison A. Balaskovits is a Ph.D. student in Fiction at the University of Missouri and the Social Media Editor of the Missouri Review. You can follow her on twitter @aabalaskovits or at aabalaskovits.com

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