Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Ghost of John Cheever Beats The Ghost of Richard Wright

31º ~ sky 3/4 clouds, 1/4 blue, brisk winds continue...snow, gasp, in the forecast for tomorrow, but the temps will rise, so nothing sticking, praise be

First, I love and admire the work of both Cheever and Wright.

The title of this post and the contents are inspired by a series of links and blogs I came across in my reading this morning.  First, I read Julianna Baggott's post "Why We Write. What We Read." on her Bridget Asher blog (Baggott writes under three different names).   Baggott's post whetted my appetite for this discussion of race (a difficult word) in the 2010 Best American Short Stories collection.

From Baggott's blog, I linked to both Roxane Gay's "A Profound Sense of Absence" over at HTMLGIANT and Tayari Jones' "Letter to Vanessa," which links to Gay as well.  (I love the web of the blog world!)

Please follow the links to read these wonderful explorations of race in today's fiction. According to Gay, within the BASS 2010 "Almost every story in the anthology was about rich or nearly rich white people" and their problems.  (Disclaimer: I have not read the book.)  Jones picks up the conversation by also touching on a 'real' reader, someone not reading for a job (editor/critic/academic/etc.).

The following challenge comes from Gay's post:

Can you name five contemporary black writers? Or Latino/a writers? Or Asian writers? Can you do it if you omit writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Junot Diaz, Ha Jin, the writers who have achieved enough success to be the go to writers of color?

Not one to resist a challenge, I started a list in my head, and Dear Readers, these are poets, so not quite on topic, but I think the diversity issue exists across the board.  (A good blogger would provide links for them all, alas, I'm short on time this morning.  Sorry!)

Antoinette Brim, author of Psalm of the Sunflower
J. Michael Martinez, author of Heredities
Li-Young Lee (hero), author of Rose, The City in Which I Love You, and more
Joy Harjo (hero), author of She Had Some Horses, In Mad Love and War, and more
January Gill O'Neil, author of Underlife
Allison Joseph, author of My Father's Kites, Voices, and more
Eduardo C. Corrall, blogging at Lorcaloca
Tracy K Smith, author of Duende
Quincy Troupe (hero), author of Weather Reports and more
Oliver de la Paz, author of Furious Lullabies, Requiem for the Orchard, and more
Victoria Chang, author of Circle and Salivinia Molesta
Khaled Mattawa, author of Zodiac of Echoes, Toqueville, and more
Reginald Shepherd (super hero), author of Otherhood, Angel, Interrupted, and more (***chose Blood Almanac to win the Anhinga Prize), he is missed

Well, then I started thinking of writers whose race is unknown to me or is unclear to me.  I'm terrible at figuring this out for people of blended heritage (I'm also terrible with age and gender if someone looks the least bit androgynous or when reading has an androgynous name).  So, unless a person writes specifically about race, age, gender, etc. I might not notice it.  The list above is certainly not exhaustive.  If we are really talking about diversity, I would include a bunch of white women, LGBT, and working-class writers as well, and I'm glad that Roxane Gay makes the point about wealth that she does in her post.

I wonder if diversity is something I seek out subconsciously, having been educated by a group of canon-busting professors in the late 80's/early 90's (thank you, Mara Faulkner, Ozzie Mayers, Madhu Mitra, Mike Opitz, Janet McNew, and all the rest!)

I wonder why my MFA program was made up of nearly all white writers. (Sadly, less canon-busting going on there).

I wonder if poets have made better work of promoting diversity.

I wonder if my few years spent working in independent bookstores makes a differenc.

I wonder if and when the diversity issue will be overcome.  For fun, I happen to read a series of crime novels set in the future (around 2060), and in the books, a great majority of the characters are described as being of blended heritages.  Given that these are 'who dun its' the writer has to give us basic descriptions of each character/suspect so we can figure out the clues; we get images of skin tones, health/body type, economic status, etc.  It took me a few books in the series to catch on to the subtle shift in 'racial' (I distrust and question this word so much) makeup of the world as this author predicts it.  Smart move on her part, given that many experts agree that by 2060, the US will no longer be a white majority country; instead, we'll be closer to the melting pot metaphor than the tossed salad metaphor.  What will our literature look like then? (May I live to see the results!)

So, I'm left once again with more questions than answers.  Any thoughts, Dear Reader?


Jeannine said...

For my advanced poetry workshop class at National U, I purposely picked books from poets from a variety of backgrounds, classes, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. And not just because of the "diversity" issue but because they were excellent books and because students - who have mostly only read Mary Oliver and Billy Collins up until my class - need a variety of voices in their heads in order to express their own variety of unique voices.
I think about this a lot as a teacher, and as a reader.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Jeannine, I think instructors do bear some responsibility for showing students just how many different voices are out there, esp. those students with minimal reading experience. Thanks for the work you do!

Quintilian B. Nasty said...

Roxane's criticism seems pretty sound to me, but I wonder how much of the selections are a result of Russo's own reading? I'm not clear on the process for selecting these "best" stories.

I think it's important to engage students with diverse writing, but "diversity" is obviously tricky. Gay's note about wealth sounds like my own grumblings about how a lot of lit anthologies still reflect an East Coast bias of sorts, perhaps because many of the big-name publishing houses are on the right side of the country.

And wealth, well, as much as I like Updike (this dude wrote his Master's thesis on the Rabbit novels) and other assorted white male authors who still should be read to this day (Thoreau, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, et al.), I wonder where is all the lit about working folk? The fact that someone like the late Larry Brown didn't/doesn't get more critical attention is good example, and it doesn't help that he was a Southerner, which might bring out a whole 'nother set of blinders from the publishing powers that be.

Looking at how many lit courses/curricula are arranged still to this day, the predominance (or some might argue hegemony) of Brit lit remains whereas truly delving into an expansive version of American lit would unearth a wonderful multifaceted hodge-podge of good reading, which could then be coupled with a multicultural approach to studying Latin American, African, and other World Lit.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Q., I don't know how BASS works, but BAP (Best American Poetry) has the guest editor read a ton of journals for the selection process. However, I don't know if the guest editor compiles the journals or if someone associated with the anthology series does so. Interesting.

Even Brit Lit is more diverse if you look at contemporary writers or writers under the umbrella of the Empire.

Glad to know you are out there fighting the fight on the battlelines with me.