February 19th, 2010

I just completed an interview for the forthcoming issue of the University of California at Irvine’s undergraduate creative writing journal, New Forum. Here’s an excerpt:

NF: Many writers including myself grapple with the fact that creative writing in American culture is for the most part considered leisure or hobby at best. There is an essential and important urgency which underlies passion for literature and yet remains beyond my ability to explain. How do you articulate your passion for writing?  What is the role of creative writing to you and what do you envision its role is in society?

AC: Well, for example, what I know about the Chinese emperors of times gone by is from Mencius. A poet. Not from any historical record those emperors commissioned.

What does that mean? It means what we do is not frivolous. What we do is record the culture, for the times we live in and the time to come. We communicate the values of the culture to each other and to posterity. This is so important…The treatment of the arts as decorative is criminal. Art, as the comic artist Lynda Barry says, is an immune system, for each of us. If we don’t participate, we’ll die.


  1. This recording of the culture is such a critical idea. Your words remind me of Margaret Atwood reviewing Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow” in the NYT: “…the Turkish public reads his novels as if taking its own pulse.”

    Recently, I had a conversation with another writer who was tired of novels with Women as Victims. She was particularly fed up with multicultural fiction. She wished we would all write strong, kick-ass female protags. She did not care if, by the end, Something Was Overcome. She longed for a novel that did not have even the smallest hint of oppression, fearing that we were circling back on ourselves, shaping the reading public, perpetuating inequality.

    It’s a danger, I suppose. But I still believe that the stories must be told–even the ones where the “something” was too big to overcome–and that maybe nothing will fully change until every story is told. And even then, when it’s all in the past, I hope someone remembers. And tells.

    Can’t wait to read the entire interview.

    1. J, thank you.

      In a forthcoming forum over at the Asian American Literary Review, Ru Freeman, David Mura and I discuss some of these points as related to what is now seen in America as multicultural lit, which to be clear is shaped to a great extent by market demands. My first novel was rejected many times despite enthusiastic editors because marketing said “Is it an Asian American novel? A Gay novel? Which is it?” As if I had to choose. And I would answer them (in the privacy of my Brooklyn apartment, of course), “I wrote a novel! How about ‘It’s a novel’?” It was intensely frustrating for my agent, the editors and myself.

      Publishing, like other kinds of media, is driven by market forces in terms of what it publishes. It’s good to be upset with the writers, but the novels and stories you feel you lack are in all likelihood shut away where no one can see them, rejected for not fitting the narrative the marketing departments feel sure they can sell—a narrative that is too often purchased because it resembles a popular narrative that sold well in the past, and yet will be sure to be hawked as delivered by an original new voice.

      Marie Mockett covers some of her frustrations with being a debut author amid this kind of thinking here.

      In that AALR forum response, which will be online soon, I talk about how I feel writers from the realm currently referred to as ‘multiculti’ need to reject the idea that they aren’t wholly American, whatever place they’re from–which this sort of niche marketing encourages because it needs this idea to sell the lit version of “complaint rock”. The immigrant’s tale, of coming from elsewhere, or the tale of their children, and the difficulty they face, well, it’s not so different from My Antonia, right? Willa Cather, for example. The tales of oppression are considered nobly important (think of actors hunting Oscar material) but in the meantime it creates a literature of complaint, that exists, as a result, in the margins. We need to tell all of the other stories we have, is what I mean–and to be allowed to, not just invited in to point out the sad hard parts of being different.

      I will of course link to the forum when it goes live, and I encourage you to visit it.

      1. And yet, as an immigrant, we are never wholly American. Or, more specifically, I will never be wholly American, nor does it seem that becoming American is an ideal; to me it would be a tragic impoverishment. To place two feet so firmly in two separate places requires a stretch, not only of the body, but of the mind, and that elasticity is not something to be rejected.

        I did find Adiche’s PURPLE HIBISCUS problematic for reasons I noted in a review on Goodreads, the most important being that it seemed inconceivable that a child as astute as her young protagonist would think what she did about her father. Because that was not handled better, it did appear to be the case that “crazy mad Nigerian wife-beating, child-abusing lunatic” was just a way to move the book, not the story.

      2. Ru, isn’t the problem really that we are asked to believe in an artificial idea of what it means to be American? Which is to say, the immigrant experience is so much a part of being American.

  2. Thank you for such a thoughful and thought-provoking response. I will visit the forum.

    I am turning this phrase, “A literature of complaint” around in my mind. (It sort of hit me in the gut. As in, God, I don’t want to be part of a literature of complaint!)

    Did you see Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story” lecture? If industry/American readers collude (out of perceived altruism) to create a “single story” of oppression for Asians or Africans or Arabs or gays by choosing which stories they will publish/read, what is the responsibiltiy of the author?

    Adichie mentions a man who, after reading “Purple Hibiscus” said he was sorry that all of the men in her country were monsters. Having read the book, I note that he did not say he was sorry that missionary activity, as a force in the world, has been almost universally incapable of self-awareness or self-criticism, or that it was interesting to learn that traditional Nigerian spirituality/religion was beautiful, or, to mirror his thought process, that all women in her country were educated like Ifeoma.

    So how much does an author whose story is about many things, have to censor the “complaining” part?

    In other words, how many people do I let into my head when I write? I already hear, loudly and clearly, those who will think I have penned a terrible blasphemy. I can make out the murmurs of those who will think that something that has happened to someone has happened to everyone.

    But do I also have to listen to the ones who will only read/internalize the complaint?

    This question is, of course, not really aimed at you. I’m grateful for your raising the issue and letting me explore it here!

    1. You’re very welcome, and likewise. I’m enjoying the conversation. In fact, I’m going to turn my next response to you into a new post.

      I had not read that by Adichie, but I find it fascinating and I’ll see if I can find it.

      1. Here is the link to the “Danger of a Single Story” talk:

        Her point was more about how when other people tell our stories they often create a single, and inaccurate or incomplete, narrative of our experience–so Africa becomes a land where everyone lives in rural poverty or Native Americans become savages or Muslims become terrorists.

        But in the “Purple Hibiscus” example, she illustrates how we can play into that as well, even when we tell our own stories. (She does, by the way, have a perfect response to the man who imputed the characteristics of the father in her novel to all Nigerian men.)

        This may sound naive, but I hadn’t thought of how the reading public or the publishing industry might be invested in the collective, single story of “the sad, hard parts of being different” until today. Your post/comments have me thinking in new and different ways about (my) writing.

        I’m sure it goes without saying that I am eager to read your next post.


  3. Shelley said poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. Rollo May used the vernacular of the 70’s to note that ‘poets’ are tuned to vibes coming off the subconscious of the masses. Those vibes tend to predict the future, for they show present concerns. In these chaotic times we are desperate for a clue to what next.

    Then check out Alvarez’s ‘Savage God’. Look at how many poets walk that thin line between sanity and insanity. So many just don’t make it.

    1. Everyone always thinks they want to know the future…

      Great Shelley reference, and also Rollo May. I do remember Savage God– I’d add that one of the things peculiar to being a poet in the US is their Cassandra-like status, a league of American Cassandras—if we were in Latin America, our poets would be heroes.

  4. The important question to paraphrase to Junot Diaz, Who is benefitting from my anthropology? When you sit down to write, who is your ideal reader ? Multicultural lit or whatever, the guardians of literature delineate boundaries. What matters is that creativity still flourishes despite restraints.

  5. Hmm. I’ll have to think about that one. The issue for me is that being American *is* a very specific thing that relates to world view, insularity etc. etc. and the American story of early immigrants is one of wanting to take on that mantle of superiority, dominance etc. and, ultimately, find someone else to look down upon. Perhaps modern immigrants are different. Maybe what I am arguing against becoming is part of that dominant culture (which, of course, controls just about everything due to access to resources yada yada), which is not one I admire even though I support and work to better a nation of people – that “nation,” for me, is the one that belongs to you and my other friends, to artists in general, to mothers and children, to women who work and don’t work, to compassionate people.

    The other part of this is that not every immigrant story is one of sorrow and complaint. Many are, but many aren’t. In Rishi’s collection, for instance.

    1. Well, I don’t agree in any way, though, Ru, about your sense of the American immigration story’s characteristics, of people looking for someone to look down on next. From My Antonia and Call It Sleep to Kavalier and Clay and Bone, I just don’t see that this sort of literature of being an immigrant in America backs that sense of it.

      I can’t argue for including the Rishi book for not having read it, but as it is a recent one, if it is as you say, then this is what I’m talking about—moving past that story of complaint.

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