AWP2018: Writing From Privilege: Who Can Write What and Why?

Moderator: Angie Chuang
Panelists: Vanessa Hua, Kirstin Chen, Kim Liao, Kelly Luce

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMDescription: What does it mean to write from a position of privilege? How should white writers navigate their privileged positions? Are writers of color exempt, or are all writers inherently privileged by way of having the opportunities to pursue literary careers? In this panel, writers of a diversity of backgrounds and formats will discuss the question of who has permission to write what, and how it influences their willingness to write outside the confines of their race, gender, economic class, and more.

From the moment I sat down, I found myself wrestling with a host of pre-conceived notions—all self-imposed. What I saw was five panelists, none of whom appeared to be Black or Brown. How could a meaningful conversation about privilege occur without what I considered to be the necessary representatives of diversity? I share this as a way of shining a light on my own bias – it’s what I might have called unconscious bias except I was very conscious of this unexpected response to a panel of professionals who had yet to even open their mouths and share a single insight—a reminder of my privilege and the pernicious nature of stereotypes and single stories.

Throughout this excellent session, moderator Angie Chuang made it a point to have panelists address their diverse backgrounds and their differences in positionality. (It should be noted Chuang stepped in for panel organizer Kaitlin Solimine whose flight was cancelled due to weather.) Through introductions, we learned that Luce, the sole white, non-Asian writer, often features Asian protagonists in her work. She lived in Japan for several years. Liao is Asian American with Russian Jewish heritage on her mother’s side, Chen was born and raised in Singapore, and Hua is the American-born daughter of Chinese parents (as is Chuang). Hua’s debut collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, features individuals from the Bay Area’s diverse immigrant communities: Chinese, Mexican, Korean, and Armenian among others. “I call them model minorities behaving badly,” she says of these characters, explaining how she likes to go outside of herself and employ “imaginative empathy,” as a way of expanding the world.

The panelists all embraced coming to diverse characters from a place of humility. Luce underscored the responsibility she feels in terms of representing and giving voice to a group outside of her own race or culture. She suggested that writers question their motivations when including diverse characters. “Are you just adding them for diversity’s sake or does the writing demand something of you?” Chen pointed out that, when it comes to secondary characters, writers often lean on stereotypes. “This one-dimensional approach causes problems,” she said. “Minor characters matter as well.” Panelists agreed that “acknowledging your otherness” is a way to gain trust. They also emphasized that researching people meant absorbing what people needed you to know about them, not just exploring what you think you know.

The writers were asked to comment on Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech from 2016’s Brisbane Writers Festival. Shriver, wearing a sombrero, had scoffed at hypersensitivity and political correctness. She also called fiction writing a “disrespectful vocation by its nature.” Chen suggested people read Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Who Gets To Write What?. She also pointed to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s LA Times piece on appropriation. Overall, the panelists were aligned in their belief that writers were free to use their imagination but challenged the idea that imagination and disrespect went hand in hand.

The panelists were asked about their experience with and/or opinions on “sensitivity readers,” people who are hired to vet a manuscript for issues of representation, cultural fluency and bias. The responses suggested that a sensitivity reader’s value could only be assessed on a case by case basis. The group believed writers should be open to culturally attuned feedback but shouldn’t blindly relinquish their authority over creative choices. Hua suggested a solid relationship between a writer and such a reader would be a plus. The relationship would facilitate candid communication as well as a better understanding of the writer’s vision and goals.

The panel addressed several audience questions including how to avoid being perceived as tone deaf—“data can go a long way” was one response, particularly when it helps to establish that you understand privilege. In terms of vetting work, an audience member expressed concerns about exploiting culturally diverse friends and fellow students by asking them to read and represent their culture. In response, Hua spoke to the value of relationships once again. “They need to begin long before you need them,” she said. “Your friendships need to be in place.” Everyone agreed that you need to ask yourself what you are bringing to a community, not just what you need from it.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco has an MFA from Antioch, Los Angeles with an emphasis on Creative Non-Fiction and Literary Translation. Her work has appeared in Role Reboot, Lillith, NAILED, Advertising Age, Lunch Ticket, The Forward and others. Her bilingual children’s book, ZigZag, will be published in 2018.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

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