"I was highly suspicious of this book when I first started it."
September 22, 2013 8:53 PM   Subscribe

V.V. Ganeshananthan at The Margins on writing outside of what you know and the literary establishment's willingness to suspend disbelief and praise authenticity of narrative. As Gracie Jin put it, "In a society masquerading as post-racial, it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man."
posted by spamandkimchi (14 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, what interesting articles. It's the understatement of the year when the first article refers to the coverage of Cheng's book in the Times as "subtly racialized". That review was blatantly racist.
posted by medusa at 9:15 PM on September 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Cheng is upset, probably for good reasons, but his critique is too sweeping and off the mark, I think. It would be far more accurate to say that his account of the specific cultures and communities of the American South ( which obviously includes non-White groups and authors who are very well-established and prominent in its literary traditions too! ) is at issue, not of "Whiteness". I can well believe that Johnson's book is full of mistakes about North Korea, but Cheng's critical comparison of it with the mainstream consciousness about the American South seems bizarre for many reasons.
posted by Bwithh at 10:41 PM on September 22, 2013

I believe that critique is Gracie Jin's, not Cheng's.

Also, I don't understand why you think it is bizarre to compare the degree to which Johnson's and Cheng's work are subject to questions of authenticity. Could you explain?
posted by misfish at 11:02 PM on September 22, 2013

Cheng isn't arguing anything; he didn't write either piece.

. It would be far more accurate to say that his account of the specific cultures and communities of the American South... is at issue, not of "Whiteness".

But that's the whole argument of the piece - that if he was white, it wouldn't be an issue (e.g Cormac McArthy).

Personally I find the argument pretty compelling. In one of the areas I read in (SFF), I feel like people-of-colour are, if not generally expected to be writing "coloured" books that deal with race, typically marketed and noticed far more strongly when they do. Some of this may be the genres' efforts to embrace more diversity, but sometimes, I feel like it's a bit of a 'diversity straitjacket' sometimes; I would be interested to see if writers-of-colour feel a pressure to confirm this way, too.

Thank you, spamandkimchi, for these pieces, they both - particularly the first one - very good.
posted by smoke at 11:20 PM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I feel like it's a bit of a 'diversity straitjacket' sometimes; I would be interested to see if writers-of-colour feel a pressure to confirm this way, too.

I've definitely had thoughts along the lines you're describing, but I also have two sort of follow-up thoughts.

The first is that I think mainstream SFF depends on audience expectations very strongly. There are all kinds of genre cliches that dictate to the reader, in a set way and using a minimum of words, who the heroes are, who the villains are, what is desirable, what is bad, what is valuable, what kinship looks like, and so on. There is an extensive vocabulary of narrative cues and assumptions. I think that genre readers expect writers to demonstrate that they have license to depart from this genre vocabulary, and "cultural authenticity" is an acceptable license. I think that a lot of genre readers would consider genre writing that departs from the established genre vocabulary "for no reason" to be pretty impenetrable and unrewarding.

The second is that, inasmuch as white authors fictionalizing the experience of people of color is problematic, I think that the converse is also a problem, at least in theory. Obviously, this isn't an urgent problem in American literary or genre writing, which is either pretty damn white or just has a common core of cliche. But if you abstract hegemony from American whiteness, it's just another minority identity. The Nigerian-American guys I've worked with had an encyclopedic knowledge of rap, but had no idea what Nirvana was. Some of my Indian-American coworkers have a very detailed appreciation of the sitcom Friends, but don't seem to know that Lord of the Rings was a set of books first. And this is actually where "writing white" can get problematic. For example, I read Russian non-genre fiction, and Russians writing Americans (or any foreigners, really) is a real can of worms.
posted by Nomyte at 11:59 PM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

A zillion years ago when I took an Asian American fictions class as an undergrad (the plural "fictions" was very much on purpose), we discussed Robert Olen Butler's short story collection, Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which prominently featured Vietnamese protagonists and was also praised for its authenticity, rooted in his experiences as a military translator. Butler in an interview:
My first five books were written very close to my, for want of a better word, demographic. I mean it was close to who I am, close to a direct experience I’d had. But then I began to roam further and further from my demographic, from those things that seem so irrevocably to divide us: race and gender, and ethnicity, culture and class. And eventually, and that’s the thing about the artist’s unconscious, eventually, you break through to a place where you’re neither male nor female, not black, white, red, brown or yellow; you’re not Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Sikh, you’re not Vietnamese, or American, or Albanian, or Serbian. You’re human. And if you write from that authenticity, then you can draw those truths up through vessels, character vessels, quite differently from yourself.
I really struggle with this as a reader (thankfully I abandoned fiction writing in my early 20s, so stopped worrying about whether I'd be pigeonholed as an ethnic writer). The desire for the authentic guide, in the way my non-Korean friends always badger me to take them to Korean restaurants, is related to the tendency to identify the protagonist with the writer herself. But if I fervently support the right of the second-generation Asian American writer to abandon the "Grandma is in the kitchen making kimchi and says 'aigoo, why you no marry?'" genre means I also support the right of a non-immigrant writer to write stories about the generation/culture clash in immigrant families. But the way we as readers or critics police these boundaries is often so weird and troubling and I'm glad Ganeshananthan and Jin articulated the problems.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:22 AM on September 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

No major book critic said boo when American white guy Arthur Golden wrote a novel from the perspective of a young Japanese woman who becomes a geisha. Why can't we extend the benefit of the doubt to American non-white guy Bill Cheng?
posted by gingerest at 3:38 AM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Golden was sued by the woman he'd used as the basis of the the novel. He'd also traveled in Asia dn worked and lived in Japan. Mississippi isn't all that hard to find--Cheng's book tour managed to get him there. Personally, I'm all for works of imagination, but maybe MFA novelists might try getting out of not just their heads. Since he was so inspired by Delta blues, why not seek out that homeland before writing?
posted by Ideefixe at 4:19 AM on September 23, 2013

I believe the point is that if Bill Cheng was a white American, people wouldn't ask if he'd been to Mississippi. They'd judge the book on whether it was an effective portrayal of the area and its people.

That's the way Cheng's novel should be judged, too.
posted by Georgina at 5:08 AM on September 23, 2013 [7 favorites]

This is good.


Related tangent: oftentimes, when white people distort history or other white people's stories, people don't bat an eye, or they simply assume that the discrepancies are intentional.

I'm thinking mostly of Spaghetti Westerns here. The Western, as made by white Americans, had always been a highly mythologized, historically inaccurate genre. Not only were the depictions of Native Americans wildly inaccurate, but so were all the parts with white people. Body counts were highly exaggerated. The image of the rootin'-tootin' gunslinger was far more fantasy than fact.

Fast forward a century. When Italian directors made Westerns, they made the West their own all over again, in part by abandoning any pretense of accuracy. I'm not just talking about high-octane zaniness, like what was in Django's signature coffin. Even Sergio Leone's more straight-faced Spaghetti Westerns were rife with contempt for historical accuracy. For example, he had clearly done quite a bit of research as to all kinds of guns - he loved his characters to have distinctive weaponry. He then consciously ignored when those various guns would have come into existence, or how those guns would have been used.

Consider the scene in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, in which Good and Ugly see a band of soldiers in gray, seemingly Confederate uniforms. They sing the praises of the Confederacy, hoping for rescue. But their faces sag with horror when the wind reveals that those were actually Union soldiers, whose blue uniforms had only been covered in gray dust. This is not inaccurate - for what it's worth, blue Union uniforms often faded to gray anyhow - but it's interesting how Leone finds the sides in the US Civil War to be arbitrary. After all, Bad is a hideously evil Union soldier.

Leone doesn't seem to be making any sort of satirical point about moral equivalency between the two sides. He certainly doesn't care that these Union soldiers seem to be awfully far West. All he cares about is the fact that the Civil War was a thing that happened in the US, at around the same time that a Western would be set.

Anyway, there's all of that, but at the end of the day, people don't complain about Leone, et al.'s lack of historical authenticity. It was much more easily understood that an Italian-made Western was as accurate as it needed to be - which is to say, not very.


Also worth noting: Spaghetti Westerns were, like many Italian films of the time, dubbed. They were dubbed even in their own native language. It was just how Italian movies were made at the time. Fellini did the same thing. Nobody in pop culture seems to remark on it. And yet, what movies did we make fun of for being dubbed? Hong Kong kung fu movies.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:25 AM on September 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

Writers write about things outside their normal lives or identities all the time. Fiction is an imaginative enterprise. Cheng's getting extra scrutiny for this is a little suspect. It's people in the literary community feeling unease that this domain of artistry and creativity, which is seen as something mostly "Westerners" are inhabitants of, is getting encroached upon. Writers like Cheng should stick to narratives about race issues or cultural stuff, as if his writing about China or Chinese culture would somehow be more authentic.

Originality, creativity, true artistic "genius" are just not things that a Chinese American from Queens should have any possession of. He's clever, good with numbers, and well-behaved enough, but he's no visionary or genius, so why are we even seeing his work in our territory? Must be some interloper out of his element - he needs to be put back in his place.
posted by ChuckRamone at 7:00 AM on September 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Check out the Amazon reviews that gave it three or fewer stars. They invariably question his authenticity - how could this guy possibly know anything about the South?
posted by ChuckRamone at 7:35 AM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Stitcherbeast: No one makes fun of Kung Fu movies being dubbed. They only make fun of badly dubbed films. There are plenty of kung fu movies with excellent dubbing but the ones that get parodied are the low quality imports where the dubbing seemed like an afterthought.

As for Gracie Jin's article, she uses The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson as an example of an American author writing a fictional account of North Korean life, stating that there are "few questions as to the authenticity of his account." However, most of the links she provides (aside from a quick NPR.org blurb) specifically question the authenticity of such an account and go into detail about how difficult it is to glean information about North Korean life and how it's hard to tell what's an exaggeration and what's not.

As for the NYTimes.com article, it seems to praise Bill Cheng for not just writing an authentic fictional account of life in the South but for doing so from an African-American perspective. Would we be having this discussion had Bill Cheng chosen, for example, to write about life in Paris, France in the 1940s?
posted by enamon at 11:34 AM on September 23, 2013

However, most of the links she provides (aside from a quick NPR.org blurb) specifically question the authenticity of such an account and go into detail about how difficult it is to glean information about North Korean life and how it's hard to tell what's an exaggeration and what's not.

They're not questioning the authenticity of the account as it's tied to his identity. They're questioning what anyone can really know about the place because of its opacity to the outside world, the same questions they'd raise about any fictive account of North Korea. That's pretty different from the scrutiny Cheng is getting.
posted by ChuckRamone at 12:18 PM on September 23, 2013

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