Based on a True Story

Why don’t POC authors of literary fiction get the benefit of the doubt?

Image: Christopher via Flickr

Back in the spring, a friend sent me a tweet about authors of color and autofiction, by Tony Tulathimutte, the author of Private Citizens. My friend made the point was that writers of color rarely escaped the umbrella of autobiography, and, as far as the larger American literary establishment is concerned, our novels and short stories are inherently true, one-hundred percent of the time.

It doesn’t matter where we’re coming from. It doesn’t matter what we’re writing about. What matters is that this audience, which is to say the audience inclined towards reading supposedly literary fiction, and the editors and the agents and the critics and the educators upon whom the genre’s laurels mostly rest, at least on paper, is predominantly white. But once every third blue moon, they’ll come across an author who is not; and her contributions to the canon are treated as anthropological excavations, and as crossovers for mass (white) audiences, rather than intentionally crafted art.

Like most of the country’s institutions, American literary fiction is steeped in institutionalized racism; if for no other reason than the industry’s demographics, exclusion is endemic from seed to leaf. A glance at what books are being talked about, how often, and by whom, is an easy way to gleam the issue’s scope, but another indicator is how these texts are being talked about, in what context, and why. When white authors write characters of color — much like when white actors play characters of color—they’re deemed as “topical”, “necessary”, or “transgressive” (“Smart business”!), while the same actions by authors of color are taken as direct nods at autobiography. And a lack of understanding that writers (and characters) of color can and do exist, beyond the obvious eyes-on acknowledgement, makes it nearly impossible for certain audiences to have these conversations.

At my friend’s injunction, I reached out to Tulathimutte over email and asked how he felt about the assumption of autofiction, and what those insinuations looked like in his own experiences with publishing. I asked if he believed the industry and its audiences could eventually subvert their prejudices. Tulathimutte got back to me immediately:

I spent two years worrying that any Asian protagonist would be both generalized as a statement on “the Asian-American experience,” and particularized to my own experience. But if I tried to sidestep it by writing only about white people (as I had been doing before), I knew I’d just capitulating to the idea that whiteness is the neutral, Platonic form and everything else is specialized, non-universal—the Ethnic Foods aisle at the Piggly Wiggly of humankind.

Early on in writing my book I entertained moronic compromises like making its protagonist half-Asian, or giving him a different Asian nationality, as if there were some ideal proportion of Asian content or distance from that content that would insulate me from it. And in the end I did accidentally achieve a compromise, in that my novel has four protagonists and three of them are white; the move there was not to marginalize the Asian guy in my own book, but to situate him properly against a context of majority whiteness. I also decided to lean hard into any comparisons between me and him by giving him a long Thai last name and similar resume, but also making him an especially unsavory dickhead, baiting the racist reading by comically amplifying the stereotyping I was worried about. So basically I wrote autofiction to get ahead of having it incorrectly read as autofiction. If I’m gonna be associated with my characters, it’s going to be on my terms. 

When I asked whether he thought there were lasting repercussions for the immediate framing of autofiction, and what about works by people of color sparked that impulse to begin with, Tulathimutte said that we couldn’t begin the conversation without acknowledging that, even though all fiction is at least somewhat autobiographical, “writing by POC is basically assumed to be either lightly edited memoir, or writing about historical lineage”:

This springs from the assumption that they have nothing else to write about, an idea reinforced by the many, many well-intentioned agents and editors who solicit only this kind of writing from POC writers, often traumatic and intensely personal.  

Readers then end up expecting more of the same from POC writers, which feeds back into the agents’ and editors’ solicitations, with the result that younger POC writers are pressured to leverage their specifically ethnicized experiences for career advancement.

White writers, Tulathimutte said, are largely praised for their imagination and empathy when they write about countries they’ve never visited, or visited for just a few days. He pointed to Bill Cheng’s novel, Southern Cross the Dog, and the manner in which reviewers approached a text about a Mississippian black musician by a Chinese-American author. Without fail, on platforms both local and national, reviewers immediately keyed in on Cheng’s ethnicity:

At best, the difference between Cheng and his protagonist was always worth noting. At worst, the very possibility of that difference was inconceivable.The moniker of Great American Novelist almost always falls onto a white man, and while the plotlines that supposedly justify that label are generally more plausible than not (a novel in which a white guy reconciles his multiple marriages; a novel in which a white guy reconciles his sexual frustration; a novel in which a white guy takes a trip to a foreign country, where an illumination is made amidst cameos from the locals), it’s seldom that a direct line is drawn between those narratives and the author crafting the piece. When Chip, of The Corrections, dabbles with Lithuanian politics, no one points to parallels with the novel’s author. When Cal, of Middlesex, negotiates the nuances of living as an intersex male, no one equates the protagonist’s journey to the author’s. Those narratives are obviously fiction.

When I asked Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers, whether she considered if her fiction would be equated to her life, Bennett said she hadn’t thought about it while writing, but the potential for equivalence loomed in the months leading to publication:

When I told people I’d written a book, the first question I’d get was “what’s it about” and the second question was always “so is it based on your life?” That became increasingly uncomfortable for me because my book is about a teen girl who gets an abortion. So when people asked if it was based on real life, it became a hugely invasive and also politically-sensitive question. And I had everyone from Uber drivers to my dentist ask me that.

I asked the same question of Lilliam Rivera, the author of The Education of Margot Sanchez, and she told me that she wasn’t concerned with her novel being considered autofiction, although her work does come from a personal place. Rivera said that the things she could pull from her experience (“the feeling of being an outsider, the desperation of wanting to belong”) were universal themes that most young people could relate to; and while her protagonist may have been Latina, and some of her experiences were tied to this, it made her no less universal, or, for that matter, no less American:

Unlike other authors, authors of color are not given the leeway to experiment in literature. Some readers have a preconceived notion of how they want their POC author’s work to be. For example, I recently had a conversation with another Latinx author on how some readers complain that both of our protagonists are “unlikeable” characters. There is an added weight behind this labeling, as if Latinx characters can only be likeable or to the other extreme, completely full of pain, or living in completely poverty. There is no wiggle room. Some readers want their Latinx characters to come prepackaged in what they imagined them to be. Authors of color should be allowed to push against these set molds.

That lack of leeway is underlined by the editors, reviewers, MFA programs, and the agents holding court in America’s publishing industry: it could be that specific narratives, within specific molds, are “literature,” and it’s only those narratives that are privy to “artists” crafting it; or it could be that there are so many narratives falling within these lines that it only makes sense they’d be pure fictions; or maybe the voice of a generation is really only the voice of an audience of the industry’s peers. But despite the country’s rapidly diversifying demographics, or the expansion of voices being allowed their respective seats at the table (to say nothing of their having to drag them there), that same breadth of imagination isn’t allowed to authors of color.In his introduction to The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie turned towards his critics’ impulse to equate his short stories to lived events:

When I write about the destructive effects of alcohol on Indians, I am not writing out of a literary stance or a colonized mind’s need to reinforce stereotypes. I am writing autobiography.

When this book was first reviewed, people often commented on its autobiographical nature, and that always pissed me off.

“You see the description on the book,” I would say. “It says ‘Fiction.’ That’s what this book is.”

Of course, I was full of shit. The book is a thinly disguised memoir.

The stories were, by his account, almost entirely true— fiction, even the most far-flung, is never entirely divorced from reality. We all, to some extent, pull from the personal for our prose, and contemporary fiction is stuffed with critically acclaimed texts blurring the lines between fiction, nonfiction, and genre altogether: one needs only to turn to Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, or Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home. Claire-Louise Bennett, speaking of her debut Pond, said that Pond is the way it is, because of the way I am, more or less”; Junot Díaz, speaking of his linked collections Drown and This is How You Lose Her, has referred to their protagonist, Yunior, as his “alter-ego.” While no shortage of critics has gone out of their way to echo this detail, Díaz has elaborated on that sentiment by noting, “for me an alter-ego is less about pursuing my autobiographical details than it is just having a conversation about how in this age, we’re very hungry for autobiographical details in an area, fiction, where we should not be looking for them.”

Brian Ascalon Roley, author of (the wholly gripping, highly underrated) American Son, told me that, crafting the novel, he was conscious of the reader’s possible misinterpretations, but he was also aware of the authors who’d used the assumption of autobiography and played with it:

 I was aware that Filipinos are a pretty diverse lot, and didn’t think it possible to write a representational character or book. As to how this affected my writing, I think my irritation of it—and my rebellion against some publishers/editors selecting Asian American writers that seemed to fit into their idea of what Asian Americans were, or should look like, or what we should write about, led me to make Tomas and Gabe different than the model minority stereotype. I made them violent. Among other things. And I resisted the pressure to make them positive (that I felt would come from many Filipinos). It felt wrong that white writers could make white characters complex and bad, while some readers expected writers of color to counter negative stereotypes with positive characters to create an overall balance.

When I spoke with Krys Lee, the author of Drifting House and How I Became a North Korean, she said that she never associated herself with autofiction. But Lee was surprised by how, the further she revised a work, the more she discovered of herself in it. At that point, she’d begin to wonder how readers would perceive the work, and how much they’d correctly, or incorrectly, read the author into the pages:

My feeling is that many writers draw their strongest material from their life, whether directly or indirectly, but making assumptions about direct correlations between the writer and the writer’s life through fiction is often a dangerous game. The more tantalizing condition for me as a reader is to leave a novel or short story in a state of tantalizing wonder about the origins of the creative work.

These are important impulses, and probably many of us, including me, reach for books for precisely these reasons. But anyone writing fiction knows that autobiography can often be a crucial seed that often changes shape and light as that seed grows into a mature work. In many cases, too much happens along the map of the imagination for that seed to remain stable and faithful to the original.

Justin Torres, author of We the Animals, also noted those origins, stating that the relationship fiction and nonfiction has always been fraught, that “fiction has always seemed a blend of personal and cultural observations, of the real and imaginative, or interior and worldly experience, the waking and dream life”, but that “autofiction, or semi-autobiographical fiction…has always just seemed like one label among many, one of the taxonomies available with which to think and talk about literature”:

I think every minority voice, every writer of color who gains some kind of readership in this country, will be invited, constantly, to tell the story of their “people” or their culture for a white majority audience—and specifically, in that telling, to reassure them that the world of which they speak is not their world. It is an unspoken invitation, or a coded invitation, but you know when it’s being extended. Often times this comes in the form of keeping the conversation solely on your own personal experience and the degree to which it overlaps with the book. Tell  me more about you, about where you come from, how much of this is true? There are many ways to handle this. I admire writers who just outright refuse. I also admire writers who expose themselves (or some version of themselves) utterly. My own tact is something like, Sure, I’ll tell you about me; but then I make damn sure to tell them about themselves as well.

Every author I spoke to was, to varying degrees, aware of the assumptions of autobiography. Some of them cast it off as a necessary evil. Others deemed it par for the course. All of them grabbed those assumptions and molded them for their benefit. But there is a profound difference between acknowledging an event may be derived from lived experience, and assuming that a group of others is capable of no more than direct transcription. While authors of color find ways to work within those parameters, none of us, for the time being, is entirely immune to those assumptions.There’s a moment in Dagoberto Gilb’s essay, “Un Grito de Tejas,” where he lays truth on the line:

I may never learn, but you still might. What I am telling you is that we are, unlike in the past, being offered never-before opportunities, only you have to watch out and not mess up and look bad for our peoples… we are making our history proud again, even our own unique literature, and that sooner still, if we let ourselves do our best work—without having to perform as the stereotypes they have taught us is in our blood.

It’s as Viet Thanh Nguyen called it, when he said that “literature and power cannot be separated”. And it’s as Jenny Zhang called it, when she said that “white supremacy tries to reduce people of color to our traumas.” And it’s as Kaitlyn Greenidge called it, when she called on writers to

imagine the better, stronger fiction that could be produced if writers took this challenge to stretch, and grow one’s imagination, to afford the same depth of humanity and interest and nuance to characters who look like them as characters who don’t, to take those stories seriously and actually think about power when writing—how much further fiction could go as an art.

As always, it comes down to a failure of imagination.

Of course there are exceptions—authors of color who are, more or less, given some wiggle room. It’s one thing for an insider to notice this, and another for this dignity to be written into publishing’s institutional framework. And while some might be pressed to ask why this matters today, and what’s the point of story in the midst of a rapidly intensifying climate, or within an administration that takes its cues from white supremacists, they would do well to remember that narrative conceives states, and it is narrative that builds them, and it is narrative that sustains them just as it’s narrative that lays them to waste.

Allowing someone the benefit of the doubt with their narrative is the highest honor and the basest dignity. In this way, it makes sense that writers of color must pull teeth to get it.

As Tulathimutte put it,

It’s only gonna change if the industry publishes and promotes more writing by POC that isn’t predicated on their being POC. Yes, it’s important to write and read about race right now, but this doesn’t preclude publishing other kinds of writing by POC. The readers will be there if the books are there.

If the industry changes, the bookshelves will change. If the bookshelves change, the conversation will, too. And if the conversation changes, then maybe those assumptions will gradually recede; and while they’ll always be present, perhaps, maybe, they won’t be as prevalent; and then it won’t matter whether there’s a nod from the bestsellers, or the online reviewers, or the blurbs, or the MFA folks, or from people like me.

At the end of the day, what could possibly make a better story than that?