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.)