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.)

 

The Week of Capsule Book Reviews Continues With Another Day of Predictably Good Books

imagesNine Stories by J.D. Salinger – Catcher In The Rye is another of those books that I hated in high school (where, due to a change in schools, I had to read it in both 9th and 10th grades), but loooved when I re-read it in college. I also really liked Franny and Zooey and even Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (you know you’re a Salinger fan when you enjoy 70 pages of Salinger rhapsodizing about the utter perfection of one of his Mary Sues). I can’t say why it took me so long to read Nine Stories. I think I was just put off by the first story: “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” I mean…it’s a great story, but there’s just something about it that’s so wrong. There is no reason why it should work. Anyway, once I got over that (which took about two years), I loved this collection. Salinger has such a warm, comfortable voice. You can just read it for hours, even when he’s talking about Buddhism and crap. Which he mostly doesn’t do in this volume! There’s so much good stuff in here. In “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” an 18-year old kid becomes arts instructor at a correspondence college and starts to obsess about the beautiful paintings of one of his students (who’s also a nun). In “The Laughing Man,” a narrator talks about the scoutmaster of the “Comanche Club” that he belonged to in his youth and how the scoutmaster used to tell him thrilling Lone-Ranger-type stories about a figure called the Laughing Man—eventually we see how the spiritual disintegration of the Laughing Man is paralleled by that of the scoutmaster. Just good, intricately-structured, warmly-written stuff. I’ve only rarely read short stories that were as purely enjoyable as this.

its-good-life-if-you-dont-weaken-seth-paperback-cover-artIt’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken by Seth – This Canadian graphic novel frequently makes those lists of best graphic novels ever. And it deserves it. I have to say that I was up in the air about this one for most of the time that I was reading it. There was something about the art style—very pale blues and reds and simple figures without much depth—that put me off. And the story is a bit slow. It’s about a modern-day cartoonist who becomes interested in the creator of a few New Yorker strips way back in the 70s. All he knows about the creator is his pen-name: Kalo. From there, the cartoonist slowly delves into Kalo’s history. But, at some point, everything clicked for me. The sparseness and colorlessness of the art meshed with the loneliness of the storyline. And the ending is so understated and so perfect.

driwerDrinking At The Movies by Julie Wertz – I don’t think I ever write about graphic novels that are not mopey autobiographical comics…in truth, that’s mostly what I enjoy. You can keep your Walking Dead and I’ll busy myself with comics about a cartoonist who moves from San Francisco to New York and spends a year just…I dunno…being miserable…drinking a lot…doing mid-twenties stuff…fighting roaches…quitting terrible jobs…squabbling with roommates. It’s just good times.

17728House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton – I love Edith Wharton, even if I can never remember which of her books is which. All of her books have such totally forgettable and similar-sounding titles: Custom Of The Country; Age of Innocence; House Of Mirth. But whatevs, this was my favorite of them all! It’s about a woman, Lily Bart, who is super beautiful and somewhat poor and lives by sponging off her rich society acquaintances. From her girlhood, she’s been trained to marry money. But…although she doesn’t lack for offers, she keeps putting it off. Every time she comes close to making a match, she swerves and turns away. And every time she comes close to falling in love, she swerves away from that too. What I love about Lily is that she’s not brilliantly self-actualized. She’s brave and she’s ingenious, but she doesn’t know what she wants. She needs money and she needs love and she can’t find both. There are no good solutions for her.

PicofDorianGrayPicture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – I wish that me and Oscar Wilde could’ve been friends. I wrote a few years back about how I think “The Importance Of Being Earnest” is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. And I love his essays. I’m not sure how right they are (“The Soul Of Man Under Socialism” seems, to me, very fuzzy and aristocratic), but he always words things so beautifully (and you can tell that he’s given a lot of thought to what he says). Oh yeah, and his only novel is the bomb. And, it’s kind of a fantasy novel! As you probably well know, it’s about a handsome young fella whose portrait is painted by a well-known artist. And then, for the rest of the life, the portrait ages instead of Dorian. Anyway, roughly 80% of this book is talking. A lot of it is witty, highly-mannered, vaguely philosophical talk. I’d be lying if I said that I remembered what exactly they were talking about, but I do remember that it was exceedingly funny, but that it had these undertones of despair. It’s a portrait of a place and a time and a people (a gay people, one might note); in many ways, I suppose it’s the depressing autobiographical comic of the 1890s. Anyway, it was an experience. I read it in one sitting, while on an airplane.

Why it is okay to not be special

I recently read Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”. It’s very provocative, and definitely something I would recommend to anyone. Probably the most interesting assumption in it is the notion that the human spirit can evolve…that people can be different from what they have been, not just in their actions, but in their souls. Oscar Wilde believed that the necessity of acquiring property preventing people from manifesting their full personalities:

“With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, and healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life accumulating things and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all…..It is a question whether we have ever seen the full experience of a personality, except on the imaginative plane of art.”

There’s something interesting about the notion that mankind possesses some heretofore unseen ability for expression, not just in art, but in action as well, that is suppressed by the conditions under which we live.

The bulk of Wilde’s essay is given over to statements about the philistinism, conformism, and stupidity of most people on Earth (under the existing system) that I think may preclude agreement with his points (although the point of reading Wilde is not to agree with him, it’s just to enjoy thinking about something very strange). Statements like these:

“As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birthright for a very bad pottage. They must also be extraordinarily stupid. I can quite understand a man accepting laws that protect private property and admit of its accommodation as long as he himself is able to order these conditions to realize something of his life. But it is almost incredible to me how a man whose life is marred and made hideous by such laws can possibly acquiescesce in their continuance.”

Or, even better, this one:

“To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wing is blwing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.”

The whole essay is very concerned with the force of personality made manifest by artists and all those who’ve managed to free themselves from drudgery. It reminded me very much of this quote by George Orwell from his essay “Why I Write”:

“The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all–and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class.”

And that in turn reminded me of a quote from the sitcom Modern Family where Mitchell (who is in his 30s) tells his 5th-grade stepbrother Manny:

“But this is the funny thing about growing up: for years and years everybody is desperately afraid to be different in any way, and then suddenly, almost over night, everyone wants to be different… and that is where we win.”

And that made me think of a conversation I was having with someone recently about why I don’t read much fiction written for kids or young adults. I was saying that there’s a lot of wish fulfillment in those books. They’re about someone who’s a little different, and whose differences make them special. And I don’t like that, just like I don’t really like any of the above quotes.

And the reason I don’t like them is because of how compelling I find them. Sure, I’ve often gotten off on thinking of myself as special and of the rest of humanity as some kind of herd. We’ve all done that…(vis this xkcd). But isn’t it so perverse to think of millions of people reading the same book in their living room and thinking, “I am so special”.

I went to a Lady GaGa concert a few months ago, and I found the rhetoric she deployed to be totally  bizarre. She kept saying things about how this is a safe place, where no one will make fun of you for being different, etc. And I kept thinking, “Since when is being a fan of the most popular pop star in America enough to enroll you in some kind of persecuted minority?”

 

Living in society is kind of weird, because on the one hand your experience of yourself is so real and so immediate and so important. But on the other hand, no one else really acknowledges that. To them, you’re just a set of effects. You’re a set of pictures and sounds that sometimes impinge on their lives, while to yourself, you are a cascade of sensation. To yourself, you’re the whole world.

Thinking of yourself as “special” or “different” or “gifted and willful” or “an artist” is a way to reconcile this problem. What you’re basically saying is that other people are wrong to treat you the same way you treat them. Whereas they are not of great importance to you, you should be of great importance to them.

And that kind of succeeds in bridging that cognitive weirdness. But it is also such an other-centered position. When you start trying to assert your own specialness, you do so by carving out a relationship between you and the mass of people, and asserting that this relationship is what is important about you. In the Modern Family quote, Mitchell “wins” because he is different. Lady Gaga’s audience is special because they like Lady Gaga and everyone else, presumably, doesn’t (which is false, everyone loves Lady Gaga).

By trying to assert one’s individuality, one becomes much more dependent on society than one was before, because now, if, for instance, everyone else becomes weird in the ways that Mitchell is weird, then he is no longer special.

 

And that seems like a loss to me. Because the fact is that human beings are not special, when viewed from the outside. We’re all made of the same sort of stuff, basically. But we don’t have to view ourselves from the outside. We get to view ourselves from the inside.

People aren’t special, so much as they are incommensurable. It doesn’t matter how different I am from you, because I can never be you.

I don’t think that other people’s experience of the world is less full than mine, or that their lives are less rich. Probably I am just the same as them. And that’s okay, because the fullness of their life does not detract from the fullness of my own. Everything is new to me. I have very little idea of what to expect from life. I have very little idea about what kinds of things are even possible. Even if we’re all doing pretty much the same thing, and thinking pretty much the same thing, and experiencing the same things, that’s okay…because they’re still pretty interesting to me…and it seems almost a betrayal of that fullness of sensation to spend so much time and so much energy on worrying whether I am different from you.