Jess Row and Timothy Yu on Whiteness and Writing About Race
In the first half of a special two-part episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, novelist and critic Jess Row and poet and critic Tim Yu talk to hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about writing about whiteness in America. How can white writers render their communities’ part in the country’s history of racism, and challenge them as readers?
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Readings for the episode:
White Flights by Jess Row · Your Face in Mine by Jess Row · “What Are White Writers For”? by Jess Row, The New Republic, Sept. 30, 2016 · “Native Sons: A straight white American man on loving James Baldwin and learning to write about race” by Jess Row, Guernica, Aug. 13, 2013 · “The Case of the ‘Disappearing Poet’: Why did a white poet see the success of writers of color as a signal his own demise?” by Tim Yu, The New Republic, Aug. 7, 2019 · “White Poets Want Chinese Culture Without Chinese People Calving Trillin’s ‘Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet’: is the latest in a long artistic tradition” by Tim Yu, The New Republic, April 8, 2016 · 100 Chinese Silences by Tim Yu · The King of Kings County by Whitney Terrell · The Huntsman by Whitney Terrell
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo · “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo · “Who Gets To Write What?” by Kaitlun Greenidge, The New York Times, Sept. 14, 2016 · “The Authentic Outsider: Bill Cheng, Anthony Marra, and the freedom to write what you don’t know,” by V.V. Ganeshananthan · “The Dominance of the White Male Critic: Conversations about our monuments, museums, screens and stages have the same blind spots as our political discourse,” by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang, The New York Times, July 5, 2019 · “The Promise of American Poetry,” by Bob Hicok, Utne Reader, Summer 2019 (originally appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2018) · “When will a white man say what Ta-Nehisi Coates said?” by Peter Birkenhead, The Week, June 20, 2019 · The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron · “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” by Calvin Trillin, The New Yorker, March 28, 2016 · Orientalism by Edward Said · Mapping Prejudice
* From the episode:
Part I: Whitney Terrell
Whitney Terrell: J.C. Nichols was heavily involved in politics and he was head of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers. And so he would export this idea. I remember when I figured this out—I had spent most of my life wondering why downtown was empty, and why everyone I knew was moving out into the suburbs, and nobody had any . . . “Oh, just that’s kind of the way it is, I don’t know . . .” My grandparents remembered when downtown was vibrant, there were streetcars, Union Station was there and vibrant—and it was closed for most of my life, although it’s reopened now. And I was talking to an aunt, Libby Snyder, a great-aunt of mine, who’s an H.L. Mencken fan. She had a huge H.L. Mencken collection, she was a reader, and I talked to her about this. And she went back into the back room of her house and came out with the abstract to her house, which shows all the deeds of the house over time. And she showed me that language.
I was in the middle of writing what would be The King of Kings County. I thought it was going to be like a mob novel. And I saw that, and I realized, like, Oh, these guys were the mob. And nobody had ever said a word about that to me in my entire life. And it’s important to note that I knew the Nichols family. My aunt was married to Miller Nichols, who’s the son of J.C. Nichols. So I knew them. I knew their kids. Some of the kids of other branches of the family were in high school with me. Nobody ever said a word about this. And yet, it was obviously an incredibly important thing. So crazy, the amount of silence and erasure that was around that.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I wonder how many novels begin because the writers feel like they were lied to in some way.
WT: Was that true for you?
VVG: Yes. [laughs] I think that’s a different episode. One of the things I really appreciated about your novel is—essentially, what we’re talking about here is . . . We’re talking about policy, right? We’re talking about the law and policy and systems. And we’re told fiction isn’t meant to be didactic. And certainly that’s true. But this isn’t exactly morally ambiguous. It’s actually pretty plainly terrible. And of course, it has a range of effects on a range of people over time. Your novel is such an interesting and unusual dramatization of the consequences of systemic racism. And one of the responses that you often get if you’re talking about racism is, Oh, I’m not racist, or whoever you’re talking to says, but that person’s not racist. That’s an individual response. And then to explain that prejudice might be individual, but racism is systemic, which is also actually a problem of art—how do you dramatize the collective? How has this affected the communities facing discrimination, and also the people perpetrating it?
So much of what has worked in capitalism has been exploitation by race.
So this, your book seems to me really unusual, as an attempt in a novel to reckon with collective white responsibility in the history of white crimes against communities of color in America, and for me, the heart of this episode, and, and part of why it was so interesting to read your book is, I wonder
why that is unusual, and what kind of audience that self-critique has among white readers. Because that’s something I’m becoming intensely interested in, in today’s America, if there’s no disincentive for bullying of all kinds, except for its corrosive effects on well, your fricking soul, how does one talk to bullies and dictators and supremacists? And I don’t know, I mean, I don’t know them—the Nichols family? And what what tradition of self-critique—you’re talking about hearing this information for the first time—what tradition of self-critique does the white American community have? And in that vein, I thought you might start by reading for us from
The King of Kings County and maybe telling us a little bit about it. It’s fascinating to know that it began as a mob novel, because it does strike me as a book that’s very interested in self-critique.
WT: I’d be happy to do that. This is a passage from the end of the book, way late. And it is told from the point of view of Jack Acheson, who begins the book when he’s very young—as a child, watching his father, Alton Acheson, who is an up-and-comer in the real estate business and ends up getting into business with a company called the Bowen Company, which is my fictionalized version of the Nichols Company. There are some other names that are mentioned in here—Bobby Ansi is a mobster. There were really powerful mobsters in the 60s and 70s who were Italian in Kansas City. Their kids were classmates of mine in high school, and so I assumed that this would have also been the case for Jack, who’s much older than I am. And he mentions Elmore Haywood, who is a black real estate guy who was also involved in the racial covenants in blockbusting, because in fact, historically, there were black real estate agents who profited off of this, as unfortunate is that may be.
One other thing—Kings County is essentially Johnson County, Kansas. And Kansas City is a weird state in the sense that there’s a state line road that divides Missouri and Kansas. The downtown of Kansas City is in Missouri and most of the old city is in Missouri, but the new city is in Kansas, in part because it was built after Brown vs Board of Education passed. And people realized that they’ve been teaching everyone that it’s impossible to live in mixed race neighborhoods. That was something that was a project of the Nichols company. And so once schools were going to be desegregated, there was suddenly a market to build in Kansas where there were no black residents, and you would have resegregated the schools, in essence, by doing that, and that’s what happened. So my Kings County is in Kansas.
[reads excerpt from The King of Kings County]
VVG: Thank you. That’s not only such a good dramatization of the way that people talk politics in their towns and homes and argue over them, but also, in a funny way, the way that someone who is writing for their community, with which they maybe don’t agree, the way that that person might actually be sitting just a barstool over. In what ways that reader is just waiting over there to call you on your complicity, also. The scene gets it so much—Jack is virtue-signaling at Mallory, like the biggest lighthouse on the shore, and that’s very familiar too, even as I sympathize with him so deeply, and find him a very compelling character. And the book was published in 2005. What is it like for you to reread and think about that passage as the Trump administration is leveraging both white liberal guilt and white working class anxiety to gain more and more power?
I had not heard the term structural racism when I wrote this book.
WT: That was only 13 years ago, or 14, now. It seems like so many things have changed us. I’ll say a couple things about Jack—you mentioned this in your earlier question, and Jess Row, who we’re going to talk to later, talks some about the way the conservative form of the novel makes it difficult to write about race and racism. Jack is a good guy—what he’s saying there is right, but the fact that he’s right, and as you say, virtue-signaling and angry about it, makes him a terrible character. It’s really hard, right, to write a novel in which you’re pissed off all the time. You have to find some way to loosen and find space in the narrative. And so for me, the first draft this book was 500 pages of Jack looking up all this crap, and it was totally boring, but I had assumed that his father would not tell him what he had done, like all other the other WASPS I knew. And it wasn’t until I invented this character of Alton Atcheson, and who’s one redeeming feature is that, in his commentary on capitalism, which he feels is just basically a system by which you try to cheat other people, he’s totally honest about it. And that made him compelling, despite the horrible things that he does in the book, in a way that Jack oddly isn’t. And that was just a device that I was lucky to happen upon.
VVG: That’s the notion that it’s hard to write a whole novel while being pissed off is certainly very, very, it’s helpful, I’m sure to some of our listeners; it’s certainly helpful to me. And yeah, he is right, like, you know, the criminal who owns and announces his crime, in some ways is more interesting than the character who conceals it.
WT: This is why people are compelled by Trump, and it’s hard for me not to see parallels between Alton Acheson and Trump. Alton’s—first of all, he’s a blonde, big guy who dresses fancy. He dresses more fancy than Trump ever would. But he does know that this is all a confidence game, and race is ineluctably connected to capitalism, in my view. So much of what has worked in capitalism has been exploitation by race. So many fortunes have been built that way. We’re just beginning to grapple with how pervasive that was.
VVG: And is.
WT: Yeah. And so Trump’s the same way—anybody who worked in real estate. Anybody. Was complicit in a system that profited off race.
VVG: I think the older I get, the more I think the two finite resources are, like, the Earth, and time. Right, like if someone takes your time, they take your labor, you can’t get it back. That’s stealing on an epic level. I’m Tamil, and in Tamil we have words for people’s connections to their ancestral places that are like nearly untranslatable. And your description of capitalism, via Alton, I mean,—isn’t that what capitalism is? A terrible way of cheating people as much as possible. It seems like it’s so much of the time.
WT: Yeah. I mean, there’s an early scene in the book where Alton goes through, like—Well, look, Tom Durant built the rail, the Union Pacific Railroad across Iowa and it curves so that it would go by the land that he bought up ahead of time, he goes through all the capitalists, if you go back and look, all the heroic capitalists of the past were all basically liars and cheats.
I mean, the only other thing about writing this book is that it was terrifying. And I had no idea. And I would ask people about this, and they would just shut down, and they wouldn’t say stuff to me. And I knew my family is going to be pissed. And people were pissed, and afraid that I was going to be sued, I was terrified. And there wasn’t a structure, like, I really had not heard the term—and maybe this is my fault, or maybe it’s the fault of the culture, that I had not heard the term structural racism when I wrote this book. I didn’t know what it was. I just was writing a story that I was like—holy fucking shit, the implications of this are gigantic. And in a way, I’ve never gotten over that story.
Part II: Jess Row and Tim Yu
Jess Row: When the question of race comes up, one of the first things that one often hears is—I’m not a racist. And I think that that speaks to a level of obliviousness and wishful thinking. That really, that often indicates to me that that person has not really done a lot of deep thinking about race at all. And one of the reasons why I started the project of writing White Flights, which I really started a long, a long time ago, was, was because I felt this really pressing need for a deep inquiry into white subjectivity as a part of the racial power structure of American society and American culture. I knew from my own training, my background, my education as a writer, how thoroughly I had been taught to ignore and dispossess questions of race in my, in my fiction, and, and I, I knew as soon as I started thinking about it, I knew that there was a, there was a very close link between that, that effort to avoid race as a subject, in writing, which I was, which I was taught was really a requirement for white writers. There was a deep link between that level of avoidance and the general obliviousness about race and racism among white people in general.
Whitney Terrell: I don’t know what the case was for you, Jess, but I did not have a black teacher until I had James MacPherson in graduate school, and he immediately started talking about this, and I was like, Oh, yes, you’re right. But in high school, like, my teachers were all white. And I did have a chance to take some teachers who were, who were, who were not white in college, but not specifically for workshops, you know. So there just wasn’t any discussion of this issue it as it pertained to writing it just didn’t happen.
I knew how thoroughly I had been taught to ignore and dispossess questions of race in my fiction.
JR: My kindergarten teacher was a black woman, one of my literature teachers in high school was a black woman. But those were still very white spaces. Those were private schools that were overwhelmingly white, and the issue of race only, only tangentially came up. And—and it was, and, you know, I like I never had a black creative writing instructor. And in my very first creative writing workshop that I took when I was 17 years old, the teacher told us—it was an all white workshop, an all white group of students, and the teacher said to us: this is in 1992, he said, because of William Styron’s book, The Confessions of Nat Turner—
WT: Oh, yeah. You mentioned that in the book. Yeah.
JR: —white writers, white writers should never write about race. He said, it’s the third rail, don’t do it, you know, you’ll get punished. So that’s a book that was published in 1969, and it was still being held up in 1992. And in some quarters, it’s still held up today as a sort of, you know, that as sort of a generic principle of why right writers can’t, why white writers can’t write about race.
Writing “I’m not a racist” is an entirely deflective mode of saying: my responsibility is to my own individual patch of ground.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: It’s so interesting to listen to—right, you mentioned the reflexive response, you know—I am not a racist. And this notion of punishment, right, this fear of, I can’t take an artistic or moral risk because I’ll get punished. Like there’s this sort of inability to take criticism or feedback or even to deliberate, your own oneself, which is like, right, I mean, I come from a—I am fortunate to have Sri Lankan activist elders who sort of taught me a particular political tradition of self-interrogation and self-reflection and self-critique, which is really valuable to me as not only an activist but also an artist. And, like in those comments, I think the thing that’s really fascinating to me about this intersection between art and politics is the way that so much of workshop is predicated on this notion that an individual life can be disaggregated from its community and from history, in this weird way, like, I am not a racist, I can defend myself and my own territory, the territory of my individual life, and that’s all I have to do, and this preoccupation with—yeah, go ahead.
JR: That’s a line of thinking that—it comes up in Bob Hicok’s essay. And it extends I mean, that, you know, I did a lot of reading on the subject for, for
White Flights, but, you know, Richard Ford is another writer who often writes about race, but he writes about it in this entirely deflective mode of saying: I’m not a racist, and you know, exactly, Sugi, exactly as you just put it, he says, essentially, like, my responsibility is to my own sort of individual patch of ground. And that’s it. It’s a kind of radical individualism that I think Americans take for granted and don’t interrogate because it’s so deeply embedded in our culture. It’s so deeply, especially it’s embedded in American white culture, I should say.
VVG: Right, and I want to get to the Bob Hicok—we’re going to get to the Bob Hicok essay, and Tim’s terrific response to it in a little bit, but I want to go back to, for a second, in your essay “Parts of Us Not Made at Home,” you talk about white students of yours who say to you—I don’t know what to write. And I mean, that—I remembered hearing that in, you know, classes I was in, like a literature class in high school, and can you relate this, and you relate this in the essay to the way that racism makes life boring by reducing it to artificial categories, which reminds me of that, sort of, the Toni Morrison, you know, the very real function of racism is distraction. Could you talk about that idea, that racism makes life boring?
JR: One of the things I say about in the, in the, in the introduction, like, the second paragraph of my book is that whiteness is both laughable and lethal. And I would say that you know, about racism in general, it’s ridiculous. It’s absurd. It’s risible, but it’s also lethal, which is why we have to, you know, pay attention to it and track it closely, and interrogate it. But it’s also it’s the reduction of human beings into these totally artificial categories and stereotypes, is, it’s just, it’s just very boring, it’s like, you know, it’s like an artificial flavor of watermelon or grape in a piece of chewing gum, you know, that, that lasts for about 20 seconds and then disappears, you know, it’s, it’s, once you actually have a relationship with another human being, it’s, it’s not at all that race disappears, but that the, the categories, and the archetypes come to come to seem just so tissue thin.
So that, you know, one of the things I was trying to say in that in the opening of that of that essay “Parts of Us Not Made at Home,” that’s an essay about interracial life. And one of the things I talk about is the fact that my own great grandmother who came from the Azores, or who actually, more accurately, her parents came from the Azores, which are islands in the Atlantic Ocean, that have a very Creole population, she was a person of color, my great grandmother, and she powdered her skin every day to pass as white. Um, so I have that as part, you know, I’m a, I’m a white person, no doubt, but you know, as you know, that’s what I’ve been taught my whole life, that’s how I identify. But I have this in my background, I have a passing ancestor. And, and, you know, what i’m talking about in that section, where I talk about my students who often say, I don’t know what to write about, at my school, my school is, is maybe not majority, but the most prevalent ethnic ancestry is Italian. And so these are, these are students whose great grandparents would not have been considered white, and went through a very long process of racial assimilation into American whiteness, that’s sometimes called—Matthew Fred Jacobs—Jacobson calls it “the special alchemy of race” that was allowed only to southern Europeans and the 20th century, the way that they assimilate it into whiteness. And, you know, my feeling is there’s a, there’s a lot to be told, in that story. There’s a lot of, there’s a lot of material in the very tricky and painful ways that people are assimilated into, you know, that, that—that people are assimilated into the racial categories, the racialization of American culture. So you can see that, for example, in the work of Salvatore Scibona, or Jeffrey Eugenides, you see that history of assimilation into whiteness, which is a very fascinating story, and one that is really, I think, underappreciated.
The reduction of human beings into these totally artificial categories and stereotypes is just very boring.
WT: One of the things that I thought about when I was first starting to write when—I felt the same way about my upbringing, like, I can’t write about it, but that thought was really a thought of, first of all, I understand that too many white guys have written about, you know, relatively safe, middle upperclass life, you know, and, okay, that’s happened. But also, what I realized was that the truth of my life was, was not able to be understood until I thought about it in terms of race and, and the racial covenants that I—that Sugi and I talked about at the beginning of the podcast, like the shape of my city, the neighborhood I lived, in the reason that I went to this particular school, the reason that public schools around me were 99 percent black, all had to do with this racial covenanting system that nobody discussed. So there’s this secret language there that until you’re willing to deal with race, you really can’t understand your own life. I feel like basically every—and you write about this, in the book to justice, every suburban novel that’s ever been written, fundamentally misses the fact that the suburbs largely exist as a racial sorting project you like, where does it happen?
JR: That’s right, something that, you know, when, when the question of like, politics and fiction comes up, something I often say is that the most, in some ways, the most politically astute white American fiction writer of the late 20th century was John Cheever, because his narratives of the suburbs, which extensively don’t concern race at all, are, in fact, a very complete and rich and detailed socio-economic portrait of the ways that the suburbs consolidated a new kind of white supremacy effectively. So you know, I mean, he doesn’t say it explicitly, but it’s, but it’s, it’s there. I mean, his books contain a very, a very rich and profound understanding of American political life, just in their evocation of a certain landscape, a certain spatial understanding of the world.
Until you’re willing to deal with race, you really can’t understand your own life.
WT: I think that leads really nicely to talking about Timothy’s work. You advocate in your book, Jess, for literature that’s capable of being or entering the interracial, either as a hypothesis or you know, reminded me of Timothy’s critique of the Calvin Trillin’s 2016 poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” Tim, I wonder if you could talk to us a little bit about the genesis of that essay.
Tim Yu: Yeah, sure. So it’s this, this poem by Calvin Trillin, who’s obviously very well known writer—
WT: And from Kansas City, by the way!
TY: —and . . . that’s right, that’s right, known as a food critic, but also as somebody who writes, like, verse. And so he wrote this poem for The New Yorker called “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,” which is a poem about all the different kinds of Chinese food that there are, and so Trillin is a food connoisseur and has written a lot about regional Chinese cuisine, and so this poem is this kind of doggerel that says—Oh, you know, first there was Cantonese food, then there was Szechuan food, then there was this kind of food and all of these different kinds of regional cuisine that keep coming over to the United States. And the refrain of the poem is, have they run out of provinces yet? Is there some still—region of China that’s kind of hiding over there? And you know, it’s a funny poem, it’s meant to be humorous, but part of what was so interesting about it was that for Trillin, and I think that this was, what was really interesting to me about the poem was that Asian American writers, when they started reading the poem, uniformly had the same kind of cringe reaction to it, they were like, oh, my goodness, you know, this is—and, you know, we were trying to understand what the nature of that response was, why do we feel this way about it?
And the part of what I came to talk about in my essay about it was that, you know, first of all, Asian Americans are so accustomed to the idea that Chinese culture is simply represented by food, right? We’re simply represented as a source of different kinds of cuisines. And so Americans love Chinese food, but not Chinese people. And what I detected in the poem, in my reading of it was the, the undercurrent of the Yellow Peril, the idea that this kind of Chinese invasion of the United States and of course, you know, people who defended the poem are saying—Oh, you know, it’s not really about that. It’s just, it’s just a joke. It’s—it’s satirizing other people who, you know, who who don’t understand this kind of this kind of food.
There’s this consumption-based attitude, whether you’re talking about yoga, food, meditation, Feng Shui—it’s what aspects of this culture can we comsume, monetize, transform?
But, you know, the, the elements of the poem that have things like there are lines like—now, each new brand new province appears, it brings tension, increasing our fears. So, you know, what’s the nature of that fear? You know, what is the nature of that sense that there’s just more and more Chinese stuff that keeps coming over here? So I think the way to connect that to the conversation that we’re having is that, you know, for, for Trillin in an interesting way, this isn’t about Chinese people at all right, it’s about—his, his own interpretation of the poem when he sort of mildly defended it was that he was, you know, satirizing food snobs, that he was talking about all the people who are constantly trying to find the latest thing. And so what that meant was—in my response was, well, you know, what happens when an Asian American reads this poem? What happens when an Asian reader is actually in the room, and that Trillin’s understanding of what the poem was doing was really about, I think, unconsciously, a white food connoisseur talking to, and critiquing other white food connoisseurs and then being taken aback when Asian Americans said, Hey, you know, where are we in this poem? Like, does—this poem is talking about us in this very indirect way? But we’re not really, literally at the table? Or we’re on the table, but not at it?
JR: Can I just add one thing about that? I had a conversation with my friend Yahdon Israel, who’s a writer and, and does many other things, literary activities in New York City. I did an event with him in Brooklyn, this past Wednesday, and one of the things he brought up, talking about my book, which I thought was so useful and important is, how, how crucial it is for white writers to talk about the kind of conversations that go on in all white spaces. Because of course, those are, by necessity, those are spaces that people of color don’t have access to. And it’s, it’s, you know, what goes on in those spaces is, is profoundly ugly. And, and disturbing. And all, often I think, white people avoid talking about it, because it’s so embarrassing. But one thing I will say is that, you know, I was, you know, I’ve been privy to these conversations all my life, and part of what Tim is talking about is this attitude of white Americans toward Asian culture in general, which is a consumption-based attitude, whether you’re talking about yoga, whether you’re talking about food, whether you’re talking about meditation, whether you’re talking about Feng shui, it’s what aspects of this culture can we consume, monetize, transform, and, you know, some of that interest is very genuine, very passionate and very real. But oftentimes, it’s a sense that Asian cultures are a kind of buffet that just stretches on into infinity. You know, there’s always—literally, right.
For many writers, there’s a fear of actually engaging race.
WT: But Tim also uses—points out the way he uses the pronoun of the title, you know, have they run out of provinces yet? That—that right, you know, I thought that was important.
TY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that this idea of the—right that the invisible “we,” who is this uninterrogated “we” that is at the heart of this poem, and the “they”—the whole, the poem is only funny and only works because there’s a divide between the we and the they, but neither are ever named. And so I think part of what you know, Jess is pointing to here is the need to name the we and the they. But you know, to tie this back to the opening of the conversation, I think what’s so interesting about that, it seems for a lot of white writers—one response is, well, writing about being white is simply boring, right? Like there’s nothing to write about. And I think that’s part of the position that whiteness is just an unmarked space. Right? So there, you know, so it’s just, there is nothing there. It’s an absence of race, right. And I think that’s where something like Trillin’s poem comes from, right? He’s not thinking about—at all—his racial position in the poem. He’s not interrogating it at all. And the reason it’s the poem sort of, steps in it, is because of exactly that. And then when writers pointed that out, then and I still have friends, I have a very good friend who is also an English professor who still argues with me about this poem, and still like, oh, like, you don’t really understand what he’s trying to do, it’s really satirical. I’m like, Yes, I do understand that it’s satirical, but it’s about the position from which it’s being written and read.
So there’s that, there’s the unmarked space, but then there’s the, and this may be kind of gets closer to the Bob Hicok essay. On the other side of that there’s the fear of actually engaging race, it’s like, okay, if I did write about race, if I did engage in an explicit way, I’m really afraid to do that either because I’m afraid of being called a racist, I’m afraid of being told I’m appropriating something else, I’m afraid of being told that I can’t write about that, and so on. So I think a lot of white writers, white writers who have gotten to the point where they’re at least conscious of the way race appears in their work, seem to find themselves caught in that—in that region. And I think that’s, that’s really interesting. I think that’s a position that we see some white writers in right now, including, including Bob Hicok. But, but yeah Trillin, I think is more in the I haven’t—it hasn’t even occurred to me to think about this issue. Yeah.
WT: The interesting thing about Calvin Trillin is that he’s Jewish, he comes out of a Jewish community in Kansas City that was separated from WASP culture. His family owned a grocery store, down down the street for me that—in what is now the black part of town, they saw that racial change, his first book was about marches in civil rights marches in the civil rights era. So he was aware, right? And he could have just said, I’m sorry, I screwed that up. That’s, that’s what I feel. I feel like white writers could learn to just say like, okay, I botched that, that you’ve got a good point, and move on. You know, and I feel like you’re going to screw up sometimes when you’re writing about this issue. And instead of being defensive, you can just say, all right, gotcha. Okay.
TY: Well, this is this is an interesting wrinkle to this, right? Because I think that, right? So Trillin, obviously is somebody who has thought about racism has thought about kind of the black/white access in American culture. And at the same time, he’s made his name as a connoisseur of Asian culture. But I think that he probably doesn’t see that as having a racial element. Right. I mean, I think that Jess was saying that, you know, Chinese culture is something to be understood and consumed. I mean, I saw another group of people who would defending Trill and saying, oh, but, but he knows what he’s talking about. He’s knowledgeable about Chinese food. And I’m like, have you read Orientalism? Recently? It’s like, that’s, you know, that’s what Orientalism is, generating knowledge about the other. And so that that idea, that—
In all white spaces, there’s a lack of tradition of self-critique.
WT: Good book!
TY: You know, yeah, exactly. You should read it, you know, but, but yeah, that that idea also doesn’t have a racial component is—it’s interesting, but I also think that it has something to do as well with the kind of invisibility of Asians as a racial category, in the United States, still for, for a lot of people.
VVG: I wished for a long time that there was a way to assign journalism, journalists, Orientalism, that it just would have been required reading in all newsrooms, and it all journalism schools, because it would be so I feel like so many that so much of the time when I’m reading news coverage, and—and I worked as a journalist for a long time, that when I talk about that, from the point of view of, you know, having read that book, and being a person of color, that isn’t text that they’re necessarily familiar with, those aren’t necessarily ideas that they’re even familiar with.
I also want to go back to the thing that Jess said about all white spaces, Whit and I had a super interesting prep conversation for this call, and one of my questions for him was what do white writers talk about when I’m not in the room? I was basically like, wait, what happens in all white spaces? And I was like, do you guys criticize yourselves? Like, is there self-critique in the white community? Do you guys even think of yourselves as a community? And I was also thinking about, you know, the other day, I was at lunch with a very dear former student of mine who’s a person of color, her husband, who’s also a person of color, and a white writer, who’s a good friend of ours, and another version of this sort of came out, and the white writer said, you know, as a white person, well, as a white person, and then I all of us laughed. And I was just thinking about the ways in which, right, that sort of sentence is, is now beginning to be said, and, and yet also, we laughed, because it’s so rare. And because it is a, you know, it’s a phrase taken from the ability and the training, acknowledging the position that you come from, which is also I think, kind of where the Hicok essay falls down a little bit. And in the in the Trillin response, Tim, you, write—Asian Americans are in the room. And that reminds me of the Hicok essay, where he seems dismayed to discover that there are so many other people in the room and is trying to he writes, you know, reconcile his political position with his emotions about his own career. And he goes on to write,
“but as a group, I don’t think straight white guys can fit into the world taking shape, not easily, based on what we know about that world, and not quietly based on what we’ve done. Those of you who aren’t straight white guys can see many of us thrashing around,”
—actually, I’m not sure that I see that many of them thrashing around”—
“some, and some trying to tear off our skin and hide it. And many trying not to say anything, lest we put our feet in our mouths, which we do often. Because we don’t know how to be in
a world that requires us to think about race and gender. For hundreds of years, we could largely suppress or ignore outside treatment of us, as a category. A class. A thing and existed above such considerations. In historical terms, we’re new to this kind of introspection, and the last people anyone else will listen to when it comes to matters of race and gender, even when we speak about ourselves”
—boy, that must be hard,
“mostly because you’ve lied too much and too long, lied and pretended drag—lied and dragged our feet.”
So there’s is this like interesting—wrestling with—like—the notion of, I don’t know, like, the lack of tradition of self-critique, if that’s actually a fair statement? Tim, can you characterize the debate over this Bob Hicok essay a bit more for our listeners who might not be familiar with it? And maybe read to us a little bit from your response?
TY: Yeah, sure, I can definitely do that. So this essay, by Bob Hicok, who’s a quite established well known poet, he, as his bio notes, at the end of the piece, he is just as—is just publishing his 10th collection of poetry. So, you know, pretty, pretty well known writer. So he wrote this essay called, which has the title “The Promise of American Poetry,” and originally appeared in the Michigan Quarterly, and just reappeared online, in the Utne Reader. And so Hicok’s essay, as the title suggests, it sounds like it’s a celebration of the fact that American poetry is really changing. And as he puts it, the face of poetry has changed. And primarily, what this means is that more writers of color, more women, more queer writers are kind of, coming to the forefront of American poetry, the way he puts it, is that the hottest books at the moment are by people of color, by queer writers and so on. So that part seems all great, fine, good. But the essay really ends focusing on how Hicok
feels about these developments, as he puts it again and again, as a straight white guy. And, you know, how should he respond to this change.
And, you know, I think in my initial reaction, my response that I wrote was a kind of, very, sort of, you know, immediate, responding to some of the most obvious points in the essay. In the context of this conversation, I think what’s fascinating about it is—some of the passages that you just read, the way in which he’s very openly struggling with, you know, where is my place as a straight white guy. And so he’s obviously just coming to terms with the idea of understanding himself in that way, and—but really feeling this sense of paralysis in the sense of this, like, what do I—you know, what do I do now? Where is my where’s my place in this?
This isn’t really directly related to the essay. But I remember quite some years ago, when I was writing about another poet, Ron Silliman, who’s part of the language writers. Silliman has this reflection of being around in the late 60s, and, you know, he’s in Oakland, and he’s watching the Black Panthers, like, just form, the Black Panthers are like standing out in some park, like, doing drills or something. And he said, and he writes, you know, if this is the Left, if this is, kind of, you know, the future of politics, like, where is my place in that, where do I fit into this as a—implicitly, he doesn’t say this, but implicitly as a white writer.
Bob Hicok is articulating white fantasies about white people being erased or pushed to the side or marginalized.
And I think that, you know, white writers who see themselves as Liberal see themselves as on the Left have been struggling with this for decades, that they see people of color kind of taking leadership, whether it’s from civil rights, whether it’s in literature, and so on. And for some writers—for some white writers that leads the response, you know, where do I fit in? And so Hicok’s essay—part of the reason it provoked such a response was that it really goes to this extreme of saying, Hicok’s I’m dying, as a writer, I’m disappearing. Nobody wants to hear from straight white men anymore. We’re simply being kind of erased from the conversation. And so there’s this very uncomfortable tension in the piece between ostensibly celebrating the rise of writers of color and saying, oh, gee, well, now as a—as a white writer, I’m just vanishing.
WT: Well, there’s also the issue of the eternal issue of writerly vanity, which is the uglier part of that essay, and so, you know, like, other people’s success does not have to be a bad thing for you just in—just whoever you’re talking about. That was that’s one of the parts of the essay that I find difficult.
JR: I wrote a little bit on just on Facebook as sort of casual response to the Bob Hicok essay. My response is very much aligned with Tim’s response, what I would really draw attention to is, first that Bob Hicok’s facts are not correct, largely, when he talks about who’s winning the prizes, or who’s getting the awards. It’s very, it’s—it’s very . . . the actual facts and statistics that he brings up are very, very selective. But the—the larger point, I would say is that he’s articulating white fantasies about white people being erased or pushed to the side or marginalized, that are very old, they go back to the founding of the United States. He’s voicing—
WT: Updike used to say that about Jewish writers, right? He would, you know, and that’s why he invented that Beck character, like, well, the Jewish writers are getting all the attention, I’ve got—as a W.A.S.P., I can’t get it.
JR: I mean, I think, I know that the term white fragility has come in for some critique, but I would urge everybody to read, if not Robin DiAngelo’s whole book, at least the—the essay, the academic paper, actually, that she, where she introduced that term, because I think, in the literary world, white fragility is everywhere. And the Hicok essay is a is a prime example of it. The simple fact is that white writers are not getting displaced, they’re not being pushed out, they’re not being marginalized. This fear of the success of non-white writers, and the fear of a kind of oblivion is, it’s simply a fantasy.
And it’s a very provocative and racially charged fantasy that, that can be, that can be traced back to, a lot of it can be traced back to the roots of the American Republic, Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin. But also, I think it’s very important to remember that in the early 20th century, in the heyday of modernists writing books, popular books, about the coming wave of non-white people that were going to wipe out the white race, were hugely popular. They come up early, a book, a very famous example comes up early in The Great Gatsby. And that kind of that kind of—that fear of, of the rise of the black race, or the rise of the colored races is very much in the background of Modernist American literature. And because a lot of that stuff is forgotten, it really, it feeds into the politics of contemporary American literature as well.
TY: Yeah. And just to add to that, I think that so much of that, I think there, you know, whether Hitcok intends this or not permeates his essay, this sense that, okay, so, you know, great writers of color are really coming to the fore, but the way in which Hicok describes that is he talks about, kind of, inverting the hierarchy of American writing, and then there’s this really amazing line where he says, well, when the branch has been held back for that long, it’s going to snap back, really hard. I’m like, wow, you know, there’s this fear that Jess is talking about, that people of color are on the rise, and they’re going to want theirs, they’re going to want payback, right. I was like, wow, what is that about? But it’s exactly about this, it’s exactly about this long running idea that since white Americans have dominated things for so long, we have to keep people of color down, because if we don’t, if they get power, they will come after us.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. This transcript has been edited and condensed by Damian Johannson and V.V. Ganeshananthan.