#ThursdayThoughts: The Burden of Diversity

When I decided to blog my venture into reading literature written by women of color, I did so for many reasons:

  • To expand my own reading past a library dominated by white men,
  • To understand myself better and to contextualize my position as a woman of color living in the U.S., and
  • To actually understand intersectionality and the experiences of women who don’t share my ethnicity.

All of these reasons are valid and well-intentioned, in my opinion. So, feeling proud of myself and my own growth as a human being, I began Googling and assembling my Avengers-esque lineup of WOC authors. Side note: who would YOU rather have at your side in battle – the Hulk or Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri?

My pile of books grew, and I threw myself into learning and reading with abandon. I lived a day in the life of a soon-to-be-deported Natasha in The Sun Is Also a Star. I learned what it means for a Nigerian woman to become black upon arriving to the United States in Americanah. I was pumped about my learning and sharing that learning with the world. And then, I read Wintersong.

After finishing S. Jae-Jones’ first novel and reveling in the wonderful story that she told, I found myself asking, “Why did she choose to write about a German girl and her encounters with the underworld?” S. Jae-Jones is Korean-American, so for some reason, I had assumed that her novel would be somehow related to that experience. The real question I was asking was, “Why didn’t she incorporate her ethnicity into this book?” And with that assumption, I unintentionally placed an all-too familiar burden on this author and her writing.

The literary world and society at large expects people of color, and especially women of color, to enlighten them about what it means to be marginalized or oppressed. To share some insight about their “ethnic” or “cultural” experience as someone who is NOT a white man. So if you’re brown or black, it somehow becomes your job to teach white people about your life and your experiences.

This is an egregiously unfair and completely unrealistic burden. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a person choosing to write about those experiences. We need more diversity in literature – diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, experience, etc. But we cannot box POC or WOC into a corner and expect that all they have to offer the world perfectly aligns with their marginalization. People are much too complex and interesting to be suffocated in this way.

I only realized that I too was adding to this systemic burden when I read this article on Fantasy Cafe, written by the author of Wintersong herself. Jae-Jones perfectly articulates the expectations we place on artists who happen to be non-white and non-male. She discusses the different cultural and literary influences that led her to write Wintersong.  And she also writes about how despite the fact that this story was hers in the sense that it was a beautiful amalgamation of so many stories and aesthetics she had grown to love, readers still questioned her authenticity, and ultimately her adequacy as a Korean-American woman. Somehow, she became less in the eyes of some of her readers, because she wasn’t writing a Korean-American story.

S. Jae-Jones is allowed to write a story about a German girl falling into the clutches of the Goblin King, because that is the story she wanted to write. That’s all that matters. She is more than just a Korean-American – she is a human being who has been deeply shaped by all of the books, movies, relationships, and experiences in her life. Who hasn’t? She shouldn’t have to justify what she writes about to anyone. And that includes me!

I am grateful for her story and the time that she took to eloquently educate me and the literary community about the burden of being a female writer of color, which she calls an “albatross about [her] neck.” And I also thank her for reminding me of my own complexity, and of the many varied and seemingly paradoxical influences in my life.

Just like S. Jae-Jones was shaped by Jane Eyre and The Phantom of the Opera, I can name W.B. Yeats and Joy Harjo as some of my biggest literary inspirations. I’ve also been equally molded by my love of romantic dramas and time travel. Maybe my first novel will be some great fusion of all of the above, or maybe it’ll be about an Indian-American girl growing up in Virginia Beach. Who knows?

All I do know is that it’s time for us to relieve people of color of this enormous weight. Artist or not, people of color are not responsible for educating or enlightening anyone about their marginalized experiences. We need that education, for sure, but we CANNOT demand it.

What do you think about this issue? Leave your comments below, and happy Thursday!

 

Photo by seabass creatives on Unsplash

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Making Reading Magical Again: A Review of Wintersong

There is nothing more magical than diving into another world when you’re a child, whether it’s through a good movie, a video game, or for me, a really great book. In his book Why Write?, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson discusses the particulars of reading as a child. He writes that reading when you’re young is a completely immersive experience, one in which the mundane norms of real life fall away in their entirety and you’re fully transported to another time, place, or body.

The slightly depressing thing, Edmundson continues, is that this complete immersion doesn’t continue into adulthood, especially for writers.  We have to shed books as a form of true escapism when we grow older, because when we turn to books as writers, we read to analyze HOW our contemporaries or literary heroes are writing, not just what. Of course we still enjoy reading, but it becomes a rare thing for people who decide to devote their lives or parts of their lives to the written word to truly fall into a story, free of criticism or analysis, like we did while we were young.

And I’m sorry to say that Edmundson is completely right. When I pick up a book, any book, these days, it takes all of five minutes for my inner English major to rear her annoying head and start pulling apart the text in front of me. But sometimes, if I’m really lucky, a certain book comes along and completely knocks me back to my childhood, to days spent curled around stories that pulled me out of the bunny-covered walls of my bedroom and into other worlds. And the first book that’s done that for me in recent times? Wintersong by Korean-American author S. Jae-Jones.

Wintersong is a triumph of storytelling. Set in the German state of Bavaria, the events of the Wintersong spin into motion when Liesl’s younger sister Käthe is captured by Der Erlkönig, the legendary and mythical Goblin King. Desperate to retrieve her sister from his clutches, Liesl becomes swept up in a Romantic quest that turns out to be about more than just physically rescuing her sister from the underworld. Her ambitions, family relationships, and desire to live an unrestrained life all come to a head as she pursues the Goblin King underground.

First, Jae-Jones crafts incredibly human characters that you immediately identify with. She does what writers like George R.R. Martin are getting lauded for these days – she builds a fantastical world full of real, flawed human beings, all of whom have their own motives and agendas and wishes for their lives. There are no outright heroes or villains in Wintersong, not even the trickster Goblin King, who becomes an incredibly alluring love interest for Liesl. You end up sympathizing with every single character in the novel at some point, except maybe the goblins. And for a first time novelist like Jae-Jones, that is freaking masterful.

Not only does Jae-Jones create a brilliant cast of characters, she writes a lead character that has a creative agency that I haven’t really ever encountered before in YA literature. Liesl may be young and figuring her life out, but one thing she is sure of is her passion for creating and composing music. This passion, along with truly mesmerizing passages detailing Liesl’s composing, drives the novel and, of course many of Liesl’s missteps. But seeing this young woman so completely certain of her passion and her desire to freely create music is one of my favorite things about Wintersong.

The best thing by far about this novel is the mental landscape Jae-Jones draws for the reader. The Goblin King is first and foremost a trickster, and under his influence, the characters literally get caught in a haze of belief versus disbelief, real versus imagined. Liesl remembers something important and true on one page, but she forgets it by the next. She questions her reality, and somehow you find yourself trying to remind Liesl of what’s really happening. Jae-Jones’s interplay between a captivated narrator and a truly invested reader constructs a world of whispered magic that you can’t easily get home from. As Liesl falls prey to the magic of Der Erlkönig and his kingdom, you too fall under Jae-Jones’ spell.

My verdict:

If there’s any book that completely subverts the stigma about YA novels being somehow less complex and captivating than novels written for adults, it’s Wintersong. From a group of gorgeous, multifaceted characters to an inspiring lead protagonist who convinces you to live a more creative life, to a spellbinding landscape of questioning what’s real and what’s not, Wintersong unapologetically throws you into a deeply immersive and mesmerizing world that you’ll never want to leave.