David Mura, the celebrated Japanese-American author who has published several books of poetry, nonfiction and fiction, has always been frustrated by the fact that books about the craft of writing are often divorced from questions of race. In his popular class at the VONA workshop for writers of color, Mura argues that a writer’s education should also include an understanding of race, gender, class and post-colonial theory.
In his new book, A Stranger’s Journey, published by the University of Georgia Press, Mura argues that all writing is, on some level, about questions of identity. I studied with Mura at VONA, and his class made me realize how central issues of race are in discussions of craft.
Over email, Hyphen interviewed him about his new book and how writers of color can avoid the pitfalls of self-exotification.
1. You have written several memoirs, including Turning Japanese, and my personal favorite, When the Body Meets Memory. You describe this book as another memoir. How so?
Turning Japanese recounts a year I spent in Japan and it explores my identity as a third generation Japanese American, my ethnic and cultural background — in particular, how Japan brought up questions of who my grandparents and parents were and how they were affected by their internment during World War II by the U.S. government. In Where the Body Meets Memory, I continue exploring the internment legacy, but I yoke this legacy with the issues of race and sexuality that I dealt with growing up, trying to formulate my own masculinity in a culture which stereotyped Asian Americans as perpetual aliens and Asian men as figures of ridicule, nerds with no sexual appeal, outside Western-defined masculine qualities. Both books focused on my identity as a Japanese American and the relationship between my family’s political history and my family’s psychology of identity.
In A Stranger’s Journey, I’m writing both as a Japanese American and as a writer of color, and I’m concerned with the issues facing all writers of color, whether it’s in how we approach and investigate our identities or how our work is often misunderstood and improperly contextualized or evaluated. In the process, I’m also going over the literary, cultural and theoretical backgrounds I needed to acquire in order to write about my own racial identity. Through writing about other writers of color, I’m also demonstrating how I learned to read other writers of color and what tools one needs to properly do this.
In the book’s penultimate essay, I write on V.S. Naipaul’s career to show how a writer from a background of a small minority must work to own and contextual their experiences. Naipaul didn’t grow up in India like Rushdie or Arundhati Roy; he grew up as part of the small Indian community in Trinidad, a minority in an area of the world which is often considered marginal. I feel my own position is more like Naipaul’s than that of Rushdie or Roy, and the same is true for many of my students at the VONA writers’ conference for writers of color.
In the book’s last essay, I explore how the individual writer’s struggle is its own version of the hero’s journey. It’s here I make the statement my VONA students hear from me: “We start a book in order to become the person who finishes the book.” Certainly, this is true for me with this book. I didn’t come from a family who talked about race; indeed, my family discouraged it, in part because of their complicated reactions to the internment. That race is now a central theme of my work sometimes astonishes even me.
2. You have written and taught poetry, memoir and fiction. How do questions of race and craft differ, if at all, in these three genres?
Let me start with how race and craft show up in all three genres.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire states that the oppressed need two languages: First, they need a language to speak about and describe their everyday experiences, what goes on at their work, at home, on the street, in their encounters with others. Second, they need a language to describe how their individual fits in with the workings of the greater society, the structures of power, of the economy, of politics, of culture. Freire argued that if the oppressed do not possess these two languages, they cannot describe their lives and they cannot describe the barriers to their lives, and if they cannot describe the barriers to their lives, they cannot begin to formulate ways of overcoming those barriers and their oppression.
A couple of observations: It’s obvious that the first language Freire describes is aligned with what we commonly think of as literature, which is also an attempt to describe our everyday lives. But I would argue that the second language, the language which describes the social structures of power, is also necessary for writers to acquire; otherwise their descriptions of their world will lack a necessary component for understanding that world.
More specifically, you cannot begin to describe the United States, either its past, present or future, without a language to describe and account for the ways race has shaped this country and continues to shape this country. This means you must understand the history of race in this country; you must understand how our concepts of racial identity were formed and why; you must understand how using the lens of race is essential to understanding what is happening now in this country.
And beyond the social, you must understand how the history of race has formed who you are and how you formulate your own racial identity. This is true for both writers of color and white writers, for we all possess racial identities, both in the ways we think of ourselves and in the ways our society deals with us.
You can’t acquire this language being unconscious about your racial identity; nor can you acquire this language without considerable study. Yes, our experience as people of color often provides us with a certain portion of this language; we may obtain some of it from our families or communities and certainly from our literature. But there has been a vast amount of research, both concrete and theoretical, in the area of race in the past few decades, which writers should be acquainted with (e.g., The New Jim Crow or Stamped from the Beginning). Moreover, I believe certain works are absolutely essential to the education of any writer — Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, the essays of bell hooks and James Baldwin, Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey, Jeff Chang’s Who We Be.
I remember running into a young Asian American writer a few years ago who said she didn’t want to racially identify her characters. I said that was certainly a literary option. But I then asked her if she had read any of the above works, and she hadn’t. So, I told her, “Your aesthetic choices have been shaped only by white writers, by listening to one side of the argument. You aren’t making informed choices; you’re making the choices your white writing instructors and their ignorance have made for you.”
As for the specifics of your question: Poetry for me is at times unplanned and aimed towards hearing from my unconscious. But there are certain events or issues or histories that I want to write about, such as racial incidents either in public or in my life. There are ways that poetry can be ideologically charged and pointed that might not be appropriate in fiction; certainly, this is true of spoken word.
With fiction, my understanding of race undergirds the work, and if I’m writing about Asian American or other characters of color, that scaffolding is part of the framework and informs certain implicit assumptions and readings of reality. In Mat Johnson’s Loving Day, the novel opens with the light-skinned black protagonist who is a comic book illustrator approaching other black comic artists at a convention. The protagonist knows the other black comic artists might view him as white, and he makes a number of maneuvers to demonstrate his identity as a black man and get the other black artists to accept him as such. The knowledge and skill involved in this seemingly simple encounter is enormously complex and requires a certain level of understanding of how race plays out in the interactions of the black community and why. In A Stranger’s Journey, I analyze a passage in the opening of Shawn Wong’s American Knees which possesses a similar dynamic and social reading; there a hapa Japanese American woman meets a Chinese American man at an all-white party. Race is a way of reading our social interactions, and certain social interactions simply don’t make sense without the use — implied or explicit — of a racial reading.
Essays and nonfiction allow me room to deal with issues of race more directly and to use both my intellect and passion for theory and its value. As for memoir, Garrett Hongo once remarked to me that he, Li-Young Lee and I were all writing memoirs to provide the cultural, historical and intellectual context for our poetry that is missing from the culture we grew up in. At the same time, I know that writing my memoirs allowed me the space and latitude to explore my own issues of race and identity in ways I could not have done in poetry.
3. We are living in a time when writers such as Tommy Orange and Tayari Jones speak and write about white supremacy and, unlike in the past, are now receiving accolades for tackling issues of identity. Do you believe the U.S. literary scene has changed? And if so, why is that?
Part of this shift is demographics; there are more and more writers and readers of color, and we are growing at a faster rate than the white population. Moreover, more writers of color are taking creative writing classes, getting MFAs and/or taking advantage of avenues to study writing and literature with other writers of color. The VONA writers’ conference is part of this (Tayari was a student at VONA, then a faculty member), so are Cave Canem, Kundiman, Macondo and others. Then too when a writer from one community really breaks through, such as has occurred with Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich or Maxine Hong Kingston or Viet Thanh Nguyen, that creates openings for other writers from the same community. And of course, we learn from each other; my guess is that Tommy Orange learned a lot from Louise Erdrich, but perhaps he also learned from the short stories of Junot Diaz and from The Brief Wondrous History of Oscar Wao (just as I learned from Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoirs). Part of what Orange might have learned is that he could write out of his own experience and out of his own community and he didn’t have to make any of that particularly palatable or understandable to a white middle-class reader.
In the introduction to A Stranger’s Journey, I quote from Jeff Chang’s Who We Be: The Colorization of America. Chang examines the issues of race over the last 50 years, the post-civil rights era, within the context of cultural change. The book explores moments like Black Arts Movement, the advent of multiculturalism and the so-called culture wars:
Here is where artists and those who work and play in the culture enter. They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable. Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Change presents itself not only in spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but in explosions of mass creativity.
So those interested in transforming society might assert: cultural change always precedes political change. Put another way, political change is the last manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.
As everyone now knows, sometime around 2040 or sooner, we will no longer be a white majority country. No racial group will constitute the majority. Artists of color, who are recreating the past, exploring our present, and creating our future, know what it means to be a racial minority in America. White artists and white America generally lack this knowledge.
We are in the midst of a crisis right now over who is an American and thus, what America has been, is now and will be in the future. Writers of color are essential to understanding the causes and nature of this crisis, and they are certainly more and more essential to the portrait of who we are as a country.
But we have a long way to go; there are so many ways writers of color are still marginalized in the literary world — especially in terms of reviews, publishing and the ways creative writing is taught. My book, A Stranger’s Journey, presents creative, aesthetic and political arguments why the issues of race and identity should be a standard part of teaching creative writing. Certainly, the white writing world still needs a great deal of education to properly contextualize and evaluate our work.
In the book, I have an essay called “The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program,” and I continue to get emails from students of color in MFA programs who tell me that the events I describe in the essay are happening to them — the refusal of white students and white instructors to deal with the issues of race in writing; the various dumb and/or racist readings of the student of color’s work or the appearance of stereotypes and one-dimensional characters of color in the work of white students; the casting of the student of color’s critiques as either a personal problem of their individual character or as attempts at censorship or the enforcement of PC rules in writing. As I point out, these arguments are both aesthetic and political; they are arguments between groups, not simply involving the individuals in the classroom. That is why these arguments occur in classes all over the country — the pushback against race and racial issues in literature is not, at its heart, very different from the pushback against race and racial issues in any other area of society or institution.
4. One of the things I always worry about is self-exotifying myself to appease the white gaze. I feel this even when I am in an all POC space like VONA or Kundiman. How, from a craft level, do I weed this out of my writing?
I often tell my students of color: You don’t have to write for the dumbest, most ignorant racist reader. So, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how that dumb and ignorant reader is going to misread your work.
Conversely, there are still many white writers who don’t think about how readers of color might critique their work. That is one reason why so many white writers remain unconscious of the racial implications of their work or what a racial reading of their work might reveal.
But your question implies that you’re less concerned with these issues and more with your own evaluation of your craft. In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison gets at these concerns when she asks: “What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be 'universal' or race-free?” As Morrison points out, her dangers are not in resorting to the tropes white writers have used to construct “literary blackness”:
Neither blackness nor “people of color” stimulates in me notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy, or routine dread. I cannot rely on these metaphorical shortcuts because I am a black writer struggling with and through a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive “othering” of people and language which are by no means marginal or already and completely known and knowable in my work. My vulnerability would lie in romanticizing blackness rather than demonizing it; vilifying whiteness rather than reifying it. The kind of work I have always wanted to do requires me to learn how to maneuver ways to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains.
Morrison implies that an informed black reader or writer would be better able to point out where she is “exoticizing”, to use your question’s term, than your average white reader or writer. But of course, her remarks also imply that other black writers may also be guilty of using lazy or exoticizing language. Certainly, we’ve all been at readings, especially poetry readings, where we’re confronted with what is more agitprop than literature or where we’re hearing the ethnic food poem that we’ve all heard before.
So, the problems you’re alluding to are real. In A Stranger’s Journey, in my essay on the four questions regarding the narrator, I suggest that one way of confronting these problems involves the question: “Whom is the narrator telling the tale to?” You can, for instance, picture your narrator telling the tale to your average white audience and explaining everything that that audience would be ignorant of or not be able to contextualize. This is basically the strategy of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, where the narrator, a Bangalore businessman who grew up in a poor village, is writing a letter to the Premier of China and thus explains everything in India that the Chinese premier would not understand or know about. But there is also the option to tell the tale to members of your own community, as Junot Diaz does in The Brief Wondrous History of Oscar Wao; that audience would not be interested in self-exoticizing their own experience or the protagonist’s or the author’s.
Which in a way brings me back to my original point: You don’t have to write for the white reader; you can write for readers for your own community, and why would you exoticize yourself to your own community?
I would also suggest that exoticizing arises in part out of a desire, perhaps unconscious on the writer’s part, to avoid more difficult and painful areas of the writer’s experience or more conflicted aspects of the writer’s community or family. In other words, exoticizing can arise when the writer is focusing on the surface of their experience, rather than the complicated and often painful depths; in other words, you as a writer should be lasering in on what has been repressed or denied as opposed to the tropes, images and stories that may be more readily available and consumed. Dig deeper, be more honest, don’t write away from your fears or pain or complications but into them.