Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Ethnic Writing

Here is a recent high-brow take on ethnic writing:

"First-generation American writers often have two stories to tell. There's the story of their inspiration and the quest for a discipline to give form to their imaginings. Then there's a more constricted tale: the arrival myth. How did my parents get here from Hungary or Nigeria or China, say, and at what cost? The children of immigrants sometimes feel a kind of moral responsibility to address their parents' struggle. And that sense of duty can saddle the work with a reverence that makes it feel ponderous or didactic, drained of the very thing that moved them to write in the first place: imagination. So it's especially exciting to find first-generation American artists who don't traffic in guilt or remorse, and who can laugh ..."*

Let's unpack: According to this piece, the immigrant past stifles the creativity of an "ethnic writer." The experience of family functions as a constraining, albeit moral force, bogging down ethnic writers. The excerpt above creates a normative category, ethnic writing, frames it as a handicap, and then proceeds to praise an exception that the author discovers.

But this approach hides more than it reveals. The fact that "ethnic writers" are fundamentally frustrated by the dominant society's label of them as authentic bearers of ethnicity and therefore are seen as uniquely qualified to write about it (and only about it) is never acknowledged in the above excerpt. (see,

In other words, what is a mainstream expectation is diagnosed as an ethnic problem, which in turn is criticized as a symptom of its own making. The fact that ethnic writers often imaginatively deal with their immigrant past is not given due credit.

There is nothing new in this formulation, ethnic writing is routinely devalued as lesser than "mainstream" American literature. Ethnic arts are labeled inferior to national arts because of the former's ethnographic obligation to entangle the past. Painful immigrant memories demand a voice that compromises artistic freedom. Ethnic writers are "condemned," held liable for compulsively visiting this past (and criticizing the dominant society, one might add).

Such framing of ethnic writing is an artificially fragile (and ideologically suspect) category. This becomes clear once we probe any realist national narrative that takes as its subject the narrator's difficult past. Are there no examples in American art where the narrator or the artist delve into their ("non-ethnic") family's economic hardships, injustices, dislocation, eviction, despair, or displacement?

When "ethnic" writers write about a painful past are lesser artists. Does the same apply to "American" writers who feel the moral responsibility to explore their family's adversities?

To summarize in a manner that can easily be memorized, here is a template that could anchor any discussion on ethnic writing:

There is mediocre ethnic writing delving into the past and there is great ethnic writing delving into the past. There is mediocre national writing delving into the past and there is great national writing delving into the past.

And let us then proceed to interrogate the notion of an independent "ethnic arts" category, to investigate instead its permutations with American arts. For instance, is Jeffrey Eugenides's
Middlesex, a novel organizing itself around the immigrant past, a Greek-American or an American work of art? And let us consider that this might be a misleading question, as this novel, like so many others, can be simultaneously claimed as ethnic and national, not solely one or the other. Let us view, in other words, American art as an experience of border crossing, not a pure category.

* Hilton Als. "Double Talk: Two Comedies of Miscommunication." The New Yorker, Nov. 7, 2011: 86.

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