Do writers of color avoid discussing existential problems?

If you want to read a much better-reasoned and more articulate discussion of the issues I'm talking about, I recommend Oscar Wilde's mind-blowing essay, "The Soul of Man Under Socialism."
If you want to read a much better-reasoned and more articulate discussion of the issues I’m talking about, I recommend Oscar Wilde’s mind-blowing essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.”

My portion of the internet has been abuzz with Hiromi Goto‘s and N.K. Jemisin’s Guest of Honor speeches at Wiscon. Both are very political speeches.Both deal with what it means to be a writer of color in a predominantly white milieu, and both positioned the current moment as a time when people of color are injecting ourselves and our stories into the literary discourse.

Both speeches are very powerful and are well worth reading.

They’re also not speeches that I’d ever give.

I’ve written before about how I get frustrated with the activist worldview. I don’t disagree that there are issues with the world or that change is necessary. But everywhere I look, the paramount concern amongst most of the intelligent and sensitive writers that I know, and particularly amongst queer writers, female writers, and writers of color, seems to be social justice. It’s not that they don’t care about other things–moral philosophy, aesthetics, and all the other big questions that the world has to offer–but when they give interviews or post on Facebook or write blog posts or deliver speeches or issue a tweet, social justice will usually be the predominant theme.*

It feels like we, as writers, have abandoned the task of advancing a positive vision for how people should live. We seem to have little sense of what constitutes the good life, or how a person should go about figuring out what the good life involves. Instead, we focus on the opposite. We focus on describing, in exacting detail, all the things that we know to be bad: the racism, homophobia, colonialism, sexism, ableism, and economic inequality that blight the world.

Alright, I know that social problems influence existential problems (and vice versa), and that politics and culture have tremendous bearing on the question of how a person should live their life, but I also don’t think that social problems are existential problems. I do think that the two things are different.

Social problems are situated outside the individual. They’re about the relationship between the individual and their society.

Existential problems, on the other hand, are situated within the individual. They’re about the individual’s relationship to him or her ambitions and emotions and desires and history.

Right now, when writers of color are called upon to comment about the world, we often say something like, “Look at the child of color. Look at how disadvantaged he is. Look at all the things that stand in the way of him becoming what he wants to be. Wouldn’t his life be much better if he didn’t have those disadvantages?”

And yeah, his life would be better in many ways. But we never seem to talk about the ways in which it wouldn’t be better: the ways in which he’d still be a solitary human being who must struggle with the fact of his own inevitable death. A world in which he’d need to wake up every morning and go out and do stuff, even though there’s no rational reason for him to do something instead of nothing.

Oppression doesn’t remove existential problems: it exacerbates them. It’s even harder to find meaning in a world where the system is stacked against you. It’s harder to find meaning in a world where your aims and goals and thoughts and history are not privileged.

But we elide that problem. Instead, we say things like:

Arm yourselves. Go to panels at Wiscon and claim the knowledge and language that will be your weapons. Go to sources of additional knowledge for fresh ammunition — histories and analyses of the genre by people who see beyond the status quo, our genre elders, new sources of knowledge like “revisionist” scholarship instead of the bullshit we all learned in school. Find support groups of like-minded souls; these are your comrades-in-arms, and you will need their strength. Don’t try to do this alone. When you’re injured, seek help; I’ve got a great list of CBT therapists, for any of you in the New York area. Exercise to stay strong, if you can; defend what health you have, if you can’t. And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don’t wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it’s hitting another group. If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don’t be “fair and balanced.” Tell them they’re unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight.

And maybe one day, when the fighting’s done, then we can heal. On that day, all of us will dream freely, at last.

— N.K.Jemisin

Which, I want to reiterate, is a wonderful and stirring sentiment that should be  said and needed to be said.

But I worry that we’ve marginalized ourselves by getting into a place where we’re only expected to talk about stuff like that, and we’re not expected to think about or attempt to answer other questions, things like: What constitutes a beautiful sentence? What makes a story worth reading? Is it worthwhile to pursue material gain? Is there any honor in acceding to your family’s wishes when their desires contradict your personal preferences? To what degree (and in what manner) can a person change their nature? What is love? Does love endure? Is love worth pursuing? Is there a value in status-consciousness? Why should a person read fiction? Why am I standing here, delivering this speech, instead of doing something else? Why am I doing something, rather than nothing?


*I’m being persnickety, of course. This speech was delivered at WisCon, which is a very political sci-fi convention. I’m sure that both guests of honor talk about and think about other things all the time. Also, my whole argument falls apart if you don’t accept either of the core premises (Firstly, that writers of color tend to be more concerned with social problems than existential problems; and, secondly, that there is a difference between social and existential problems.)


6 thoughts on “Do writers of color avoid discussing existential problems?

  1. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    Great essay.

    Personally, I’m really really turned off by the “f__ing fight” rhetoric for two reasons.

    First, it structures the world as zero sum. For black/gay/Asian/trans/whatever authors to win, white/male/European authors have to lose, and while I don’t have have such tribal loyalty that I would back a white/male/European over someone else just based on skill color and such, neither am I so apologetic or self abnegating that I’m going to agree that I and my family are “the enemy”.

    Second, I have nearly zero interest in the topics of racial politics, politics of sexuality, etc., in the same way I have nearly zero interest in the topics of quilting or bird watching. Sure, there are injustices, but there are thousands of injustices in the world and attention is finite. The tactic of talking and writing about the human condition, the craft of writing, the business of writing, etc. and drawing readers and fans based on commonality of experience (which then leads to sympathy for those areas where commonality of experience ends) strikes me as much more effective.

    In your case, Rahul, I love your blog because so much of it I can relate to, and those things that are new to me are like chocolate chips in a cookie: necessary to create interest, but not dominating the mix. If this was a blog by and about gay Asian-American West Coast socially liberal science fiction, I’d have stopped in once and never come back. But because it’s a blog about the craft of writing and your path through life, I find it fascinating and come back again and again.

    That, I think, is the way to carve out a place for new voices in SF.

    Angry words and fierce denunciations are exciting but I’m not clear that they’re particularly pragmatic.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Honestly, I do get a bit turned off by all the white people / men / straight people who get off on acknowledging their own privilege and talking about how they are the enemy. Something about it seems, to me, to be a bit unsavory.

  2. Rob Cobbs

    Isn’t identity an existential problem – one that depends on one’s social relationships? Isn’t a person’s relationship to social problems a key element of their identity – as much an element of their character as their loves or enthusiasms or quirks?

    I get that you’re not answering any of these questions, “No,” but pleading for a broader range of discourse – you want writers to have latitude to engage with subjects beyond the problems of immediate social context – subjects that are the traditional milieu of privileged writers who can ignore social problems because they’re not particularly affected by them. These subjects are important, you’re saying, and it seems counterproductive to cordon them off as inappropriate territory for a writer who’s on the right side of social issues.

    I agree that (a) non-social problems are important life problems, and so every writer should feel free to address them in the search for meaningful communication; and (b) reserving certain non-social problems for writers who have the luxury of ignoring social problems reinforces the divisions between privilege and nonprivilege. Also perhaps (c), it might be fundamentally incorrect to think that we can meaningfully divide social problems from non-social ones – it seems to me that aesthetics and life-meaning and personal relationships are all intimately connected to broader social issues, and understanding them as separate fundamentally misunderstands the human condition, which might be one reason so much “activist” literature seems flat and humorless and lecturey. Also (d), attempts to draft art into the service of consciousness (and particularly to delegitimize art that seeks to be its own end) have more than a whiff of authoritarianism to them – see the socialist realism of the 1930s, where the politics of art resulted not only in reinforcement of oppression but also in terrible aesthetics.

    To play devil’s advocate, though, isn’t all of the above just a list of excuses for failing to fully devote yourself to others’ liberation from oppression? Isn’t your concern with non-social problems a function of your relative privilege, the luxury of having a social context that doesn’t demand your constant attention? Presented with a choice between relieving the suffering of others and pursuing our own non-suffering-relieving ends, how do we justify the latter?

    It seems to me that the adult answer to these questions is “Yes, I’m indefensibly selfish, and such is the human condition.” It seems to me that this answer ought to obviate demands for complete other-directedness and singleminded focus on social problems. But I think this answer also highlights an ethical quandary that is itself existential – what are my duties to others, in the context of my search for meaning/beauty/love/etc.? Faced with demands for more social consciousness, I think it’s easy to react defensively, writing them off as nearsighted or aesthetically deficient or too demanding. But taken the right way, I think these challenges pose questions that strike at the very core of the existential issues you so laud.

    As devil’s advocate, then, I want to suggest that “but these other things are important too” is a bit of a cop-out – a failure to engage fully with the challenge presented. Of course those other things are important, but what is the appropriate relationship between them and “social problems?” Isn’t there, to some extent, a zero-sum tradeoff between the two? How do we justify the tradeoff? Assuming (as I do) that there’s some value in “non-social-problems” issues, what’s the nature of that value, and why should we pursue it even in the fact of suffering?

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I don’t think selfishness is indefensible. That’s begging the question. One of the existential questions that needs to be answered is, “Should a person devote all or most of their energy to helping other people?”

      In my view, attacking existential problems is much more important than attacking social problems. If you do not attempt to answer existential questions for yourself, then you will, basically, end up accepting the answers that society has handed to you. Unless you decide what is important to you, you’ll end up letting other people decide it for you. In our lives, we only have a limited ability to help other people. For all the carping that’s been done over the years about how a $4 bednet can save a life in Africa, the truth is that the world’s problems are structural in nature and that there are vast mechanisms that prevent problems from being solved. However, we have tremendous ability to solve our own personal problems. I only have a very tiny ability to alleviate other people’s suffering. My own suffering, on the other hand, is a problem that I can do something about.

  3. Craig Gidney

    One thing that you did not mention: some people (like me) are not activists. Much of my fiction *does* relate to Social Justice , but I hate personal conflict. I’m glad Nora’s speaking out on these issues, and I admire her strength (and others), but I’m not in the headspace to be burned. And I don’t think I’m the only marginalized person who, for the most part, avoids activism because it’s not in their nature.

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