Recently, I was asked by a former student of mine to read at a University where he’s now a professor. About a week or so before the reading, I received an email from the woman co-ordinating the series. She told me that a Rather Famous Writer had accidentally been scheduled to read that day too, and could she re-schedule me for a lunchtime reading the next day. I am Nobody Dr. McObscure, so I agreed. I was then asked if I wanted to attend the Rather Famous Writer’s reading the night before my own. I sighed, and said that I would. Sighed, because even though I have it better than most, as a (full) prof, and I’m able to at least get plane fare out of most (and barely for this gig), I still travel a lot, for very little. Most days, I’m pretty tired. And man: I’ve been to a LOT of Rather Famous Writer’s readings, and mainly, at the risk of sounding like a cynical shithead, they’re generally rather dull. But I was curious, as always, and frankly, I’m always happy to be wrong. Because even though there are many books and writers that fail to move us, when they move us, it can take us right back to that original magic, that thing that started us down this path that takes so much and gives so little back to the majority of us. And I need that magic, after all these years.
That night, the Rather Famous Writer (let’s shorten that to RFW) was reading at the library. There were about twenty older white folks, looking excited AS HELL, and sitting right up front. My former student, being a ridiculously nice dude, offered to buy me a copy of one of RFW’s books. We settled down near the back, right by some of his students and behind three boys who honestly looked like they’d been collectively flashed by their respective mothers when the RFW, an older white lady herself, said something about “sexual intercourse” (not sex, sexual intercourse) in the midst of one of her anecdotes. About ten minutes in, before I understood that she was going to tell 45 minutes of anecdotes all leading up to the same thing (I’ll get into that in a minute) she looked towards the back of the room and DEAD EYED me. Though perhaps she was thinking about the boys – or the three girls to my left, as she began to probe us as to why “young people” were there – were “we” the exceptions to the rule, and part of book clubs, like the folks her age belonged to? Or were we there for, could it be, extra credit. DUDE? I, thought, it’s extra credit. And frankly, RFW must not know that young people are reading in record numbers. But since she seemed to be directly looking at me I said, Uh, I’m 41. A professor. I’m pretty sure she didn’t believe me. And though I’d like to flatter myself, and to some degree – I think a lot of Native (American) people who’ve had the benefit of half-way decent lives do actually look younger, honestly – part of it was that I was under 70. But then a funny thing happened.
I’m kind of yellow. My dad was about as white as humans can come. So, I’m never exactly sure how people are going to perceive me. And it’s entirely possible, even probable really, that this was going to be her routine anyway. But she began to go on about the terrible, horrible oppression of white writers who have been politely questioned.
I don’t know if you know this, but, even though black folks are killed by the police in our country at rates that should horrify any sane person, even though the suicide rate in many Native communities is beyond what most Americans could even begin to comprehend, even though Mexican-Americans are being deported at gunpoint from homes under the Cheeto-in-Chief that they’ve often occupied for around thirty years (even though they are as Native or more than I am and the idea that they are more foreign than the white folks who want this is absurd), THIS IS OPPRESSION. Know it.
After a twenty-minute anecdote about how her deceased sister’s book club was her real “tribe” – and a furtive look in my direction (and at this point I thought, ha haaaa just make it funny, and said awkward in a long, squeaky voice as to try to let my former student know that it wasn’t his fault RFW has no sense of the world outside of book clubs) – she went onto her next twenty-five minute anecdote that in retrospect, I guess, was related.
It was all about how one of her students had been oppressed, HORRIBLY, and told NEVER, EVER to write about anything she didn’t know by a student of color, who was described essentially as if she was Voldemort + Silence of the Lambs dude + unspeakable brown terror. I’m just going to assume that the horribly oppressed student was white. RFW went on in long, lamentative tones, punching her finger in the air in the way that Voldemort must have, finishing not by telling us what the white student had written that had set brown terror off, but by another anecdote that began with a famous celebrity she knew because of her book-turned-movie, and how if she’d written about such and such a subject matter now, she would’ve never gotten away with it (sort of like how white people think that genocide isn’t something they’re getting away with now). All of this ending on an answer to a question about whether she’d researched the prison in her book, and a GIGANTIC laugh from the audience when she was like OF COURSE, as if ANY of us there would otherwise have EVER been to a prison (sorry lady, I have seen a number of my relatives in an orange jumpsuit). And it was clear that even though brown terror was described as per the usual (i.e. as full of violence ready to be unleashed on the unsuspecting and thoroughly innocent white woman), RFW ended with a dismissive and yet somehow pouty statement about how political correctness was ruining everything.
The next day I read to the lunch crowd. It was a rather big one that left almost in entirety about ¼ of the way through because the reading had been scheduled right before the first class after lunch, which, when I joked about this, the woman running the series was like, well, you were warned. Indeed I had been. I got home at 12:30 that night, and got on a plane the next day to be the unofficial, unpaid chair of another ex-student’s MFA thesis defense (plane and hotel paid, though!). And for the second day in a row, I got maybe five hours of sleep, knowing that it would put me behind on my grading, because I hadn’t had time to read this version of her novel and had to read 450 pages in one afternoon/evening. Why was I the unofficial head of her committee and how does this relate to the Relatively Famous Writer? Well, I’ll tell you.
One of my favorite Brown Terrors was a student who was so talented, so hard working, she knocked my – and other department faculty members’ – socks off from day one. When it came time to apply to MFAs, she ended up with four competing heavily for her, even though she had applied only to institutions within drivable distance to her mother. She went where she went, because she wanted to work with a not rather famous brown writer, but a VERY famous one. One who didn’t have time for feedback. When my ex-student asked for it – nicely, instead, VFW went off on social media about my ex-student. When my ex-student would bring up issues in white professors’ classes like, hey, this character is a literal spear-chucker, and yeah, it’s pretty racist but also, it’s just bad writing, her peers and profs would weep and scream and she garnered a reputation for being the Terrible, Horrible brown writer who told white people what they could and could not write about. When we talked about this, she said what every single Writer of Color and/or Native writer has ever said: I didn’t tell anyone what they could write about, I told them what I thought about their writing. And then, on top of things, then my ex-student couldn’t get anyone in her genre to be on her committee.
Shit. I’m sick of this.
And I’m guessing that this is really more along the lines of what RFW’s Brown Terror really said to the young white writer who was horribly oppressed and terrorized by truthful, quality critique by one of the most talented students I’ve ever had.
What floors me is what the Very Famous Writer told her students. Since she is also brown this lends what she’s saying authority in this sense, which is, it isn’t fair to tell people what to write about, because for example, J.K. Rowling writes about wizards. Yeah. I’m just going to go blunt here vs my usual high sarcasm and say that equating people of color and/or Native people with… wizards, who don’t exist, is just…
You get the idea.
The thing is, there is no oppression of white writers, as the GRAND majority of writing published is by and about white folks (wow, this not talking about race thing is really working!). And the short list of brown and/or native writers that seem to have garnered some real love from white folks isn’t really doing much to further a complicated and human portrait of brown and/or native folks, especially for brown and/or native folks. I think that’s because often, when brown folks are writing about racism, it’s ultimately a way for white folks to watch brown folks lash other white folks for the pleasure of white folks. And then we can all pretend that we’re lauding a writer of color, who is really just re-centering whiteness vs just writing about issues that affect people and whole communities of color.
Look, I’ve rolled my eyes hard at folks struggling to eeek out any angle of oppression too, and I’ve been like, DUDE? Just write the story. And when it comes down to it, there are absolutely risks you have to take if you’re going to write, and you’re probably going to get a lot wrong, and the art might even be better if you push the narrative around in certain ways that are going to make all kinds of people look bad. In fact, that’s writing fiction. For me, writing poetry (when I did that) is a thing I did to transcend, to get closer to something spiritual. But the purpose of writing fiction is to show us how truly human we are. And I’m a Native writer plenty of Natives are anxious over, because sometimes it’s important to me to show that darkness that exists inside us, in our world. But that’s the thing: though I’m not writing about anything I don’t feel at least I have some understanding about (or better yet, investment in), I do reach: I do write about things I don’t know, about people who are oppressed, and who are not necessarily nice folks. But it’s more than just writing or just research for me, it’s writing about communities of people who I work hard to show as complicated human beings that are never getting written about otherwise, because white folks have trouble being interested in anything that either doesn’t center them (even if it’s in a negative light), isn’t exotic, or sad in that oh-those-poor-people kind of way. Doubt me? Look at what is published in just Native American writing alone, especially by the big presses, and tell me if most of it can’t be housed, even if it’s really good stuff, under those three things. Or if you really can’t understand my pissiness over this issue, look at the fact that there are so many, many incredibly badly-written, inconceivably silly and stereotypical novels written by whites about Natives. Or call my agent, who still cannot believe how many presses turned my Native gangs novel down for being too unrelentingly dark, when my straight, white, male peers are lauded for the same thing.
Look, what we all want is to be moved, to experience magic. That’s why Harry Potter is so goddamn popular. But we should all get that shot at magic. And to perpetuate a false narrative about people of color and/or Native writers being the true oppressors, when, as my ex-student pointed out, all of the black characters in Harry Potter are described as oh, look, a BLACK dude, and the three, very white main characters are described as default humans without a discussion of their race, is just wrong. Everyone has the right to write about what they want. But we also have the right to respond. And that’s hardly oppression. For the magic to exist, everyone needs to get a wand.
Erika T. Wurth’s published works include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend and two collections of poetry, Indian Trains and A Thousand Horses Out to Sea. Her collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine is forthcoming. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, such as Boulevard, Drunken Boat, South Dakota Review, and The Writer’s Chronicle. She is represented by Peter Steinberg. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.