Reading More Writers of Color

I recall fiction writer Victor Lavalle saying that his work is often compared to black writers whose work he does not recognize as similar. Lavalle felt that a lack of familiarity with black authors was the impetus for literary critics who compared his work to canonical black writers like Ellison and Wright (you may not recognize their names but you know their books, which are also films). I understand that critics make comparisons to popular writers because allusion is a strong strategy for most readers. But by making comparisons to lesser known writers who are similar to Lavalle, critics more accurately depict literary family trees. Too, a second more pervasive benefit is increased recognition for writers on the literary margins.

According to Stephen King (On Writing), “a good deal of literary criticism serves to reinforce a caste system.” I’ll add to that a comment about race, which King would almost surely dismiss. The caste system includes people of color–likely firsts at some writing feat–who were compared by literary critics to white writers. Truly, identity politics matter second or third where good writing is concerned, but in terms of who gets published, who gets recognized, and enshrined into the caste system, identity is premiere. Not just race either. King says that his working class background keeps him confined, and he seems to enjoy his view from the outside. I enjoy this view as well. Still, what would a mainly non-white or working class literary caste system say about America? Will this ratio be true when America has a higher percentage of non-whites as has been predicted? Though the system won’t likely remove classic authors, is it possible that the canon could equalize-half white, half other?

Sometimes there are no answers and so hard questions can be a mirage. Once the smoke of questions leads, we see that what is possible is reading more writers of color. So I’m excited about a recent article on The Rumpus by Roxane Gay. It’s a quick read titled “We Are Many. We Are Everywhere.”

Once I read writers on Gay’s list who I have yet to read, I’ll try to think beyond the caste when linking their voices to the choir.