Joan Didion’s writing maintains a voice which remains steady, matter-of-fact, and almost unquestionably honest in the way she sees herself and the world, which is part of the reason why I—like many writing women—count her amongst the writers who made me want to write. I’ve always been struck by the way her writing voice manages to show no embarrassment or hesitation. Up until I read her latest publication, Didion’s writing struck me as self-aware, but not obnoxiously so. There was a vague bit of backlash to this attitude when Vanity Fair printed an excerpt from her 1970s-era essay “In the Islands” in February 2016, where she mentioned her decision to visit Hawaii “in lieu of filing for divorce” from Gregory Dunne. “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting,” she said. Some read this as though it were a presumption of people’s curiosity about her. I read it simply as truth. When a writer uses Twitter or Facebook, are we not, on some level, attempting to show those who read our work what it is they are getting, or for many, what we hope they will get?
When I read that interview I felt something close to, if not exactly, camaraderie. If nothing else, I felt understood in a very specific way. As if Didion was champion and chief assurer of a sisterhood of writers for whom messy intersections of writing and home lives are a fact of life. Being a writer, a spouse, a mother, a friend, a daughter, and more is a consistently challenging path and her frankness about her own personal intersections and devastating losses tell each of us in that sisterhood that we are not alone. Perhaps I was being too presumptuous.
When South and West, Didion’s latest publication based upon the notebooks she kept while on an observant 1970 road trip through Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana was announced, I couldn’t wait to read it. I was sure there would be a lot of truth-telling bottled up in this small volume. After all, these stories had waited 47 years to be read. I bought the book as soon as it was released and jumped in, but when I turned the last page the feeling of vindication I’d expected was missing. If anything, I felt abandoned. It seemed I would never be a part of Didion’s sisterhood, and neither would my writing peers of color.
Didion’s observations of the black southerners she encountered are fueled solely by her own assumptions in this book, creating a stark contrast to the treatment of her white subjects, from whom she collected actual statements and opinions, making these observations whole. For example, while visiting the campus of Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi, Didion describes a young black woman who caught her eye as she walked across campus. “…she was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey, and she was quite beautiful, with a NY-LA coastal arrogance. I could not think what she was doing at Ole Miss, or what she thought about it.”
At this point, Didion had seemingly interrogated every attendee at a Mississippi convention for radio broadcasters. While she asked fewer questions of the wives than their husbands, she at least sat amongst the women and socialized as much as was possible from across their gulf of differences. What kept her from spending a few minutes inhabiting similarly close spaces of conversation with a black student on a college campus? The mere fact that the woman was a university student created more commonality with Didion than most of what she shared with the bored, willfully ignorant convention wives.
As complex as Didion has always seemed, I struggle to believe this is a simple matter of some conventional adherence to the 1960s rules of engagement for privileged white ladies. It doesn’t fit. Perhaps her lack of engagement with black Southerners has more to do with her own complexities. Perhaps she just didn’t know what to do with it all.
It would be disingenuous to dismiss all things Didion for the gaping omissions I’ve discussed here. If anything, we should use such observations to fuel a resurgence in the recognition of complexity and nuance. This writer has given feminists, readers, writers, and cultural observers so much material to use as part of the platform from which we proceed in our analysis of today’s cultural and personal intersections. I was saddened to see such an omission of the black experience in Didion’s 1970 notes, but I think it’s a crucial point in need of acknowledgement for the sake of sustaining and increasing resistance to the blows that keep falling upon social justice today.
Inequality and prejudice are complex, nuanced, and suck the breath out of areas of life far beyond the glaringly obvious scenes shown (or not) on the evening news. They manifest the way we’ve been conditioned to see each other as fellow humans, women, and able intellectuals. Whether exhibited passively or actively, the most basic effect prejudice will have on the receiving party is exclusion from a space in which the included feel adept and mentally agile. But as anyone who has suffered a sports injury knows, agility is far from a fixed quality. As the demographics of diversity continue to shift and prejudicial exclusion continues, writing and other intellectual/creative spheres will shrink and become stiff, as if the spheres themselves are suffering from osteoporosis.
The burden of changing the conditioned biases which create a worsening cripple in the continued evolution of cultural thought doesn’t only belong to gatekeepers and champions like Didion. Passivity on the receiving end will be the death of our entry into these rarefied spheres. For this reason, my disappointment in the 1970s notebooks published in South and West won’t serve as a dismissal of everything else I’ve known or admired about the author. Instead, I see this as a call. A reminder that inequality won’t be solved if those most affected aren’t included, and also one highlighting the importance of studying the experiences and tactics of those who went before us. Critical analysis and acknowledgement are imperative in all cases where a system—cultural, civil, or otherwise—needs to change. So no, Joan Didion may not see me, a black, female, writer, as part of this sisterhood I completely made up inside my head, but her work does occupy my space of experience, having inspired me to be the kind of writer who would put this criticism into a public space with the hope of people recognizing it as something to discuss.
Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist based in Charleston, S.C. She writes about class, race, gender, and how perceptions of these affect community. Her essays have made appearances in Longreads, The Daily Beast, Literary Hub, Catapult, and Charleston City Paper.