My first memory of tea is not of tea, but of “ocha.” That was what my mom called the clear green liquid she brewed in a funny-looking brown pot, with a handle closely resembling a second spout. I didn’t encounter the white-people version of tea until elementary school, when I visited a friend’s house for a tea party.* These days, I drink all kinds of tea, but my first association with the word “tea” remains the ocha we drank at home. Tea is my go-to comfort drink, and one I especially need now, as I’m writing this post.
Early this morning, I read two essays, each by an Asian American author.** I admired the points made in both essays and did what I could to RT and like them on Twitter, so more people would read them. A few hours later, I checked Twitter again and found an explosion. White and nonwhite writers alike leaped online to voice disagreement, sometimes reasonably worded, sometimes heated, with the first essay. The prevailing assumption seemed to be that the author of the first essay was saying, white people should not write nonwhite cultures.
I’ve voiced my opinions on white people writing nonwhite cultures elsewhere on this blog, at length, so I’ll just say here, I don’t believe white people should *never* write nonwhite cultures, but I believe they have an extremely poor track record of doing so and could stand to educate themselves at length before continuing to do so. But to return to the essay and people’s responses to it, I can see why white writers reacted defensively (albeit, in most of what I saw, with their usual ignorance of their privilege). I am more confused and troubled by the negative responses I saw from nonwhite writers.
I am a nonwhite writer. I read that essay. At no point did I think the author stated or implied white people should never write nonwhite cultures. Seeing nonwhite writers – most with published work and much more experience than I have under their belts – explode over this essay on Twitter, I have to wonder – why? What did you see in the essay that set you off so explosively? And especially – why slam this author when I see you yourselves constantly advocating the need for #ownvoices and for the US publishing industry to put its money where its mouth is as far as opening doors for nonwhite writers? This is what I don’t understand.
Some of the responses I saw from nonwhite writers accused the author of hypocrisy because this author has been a leading figure in the push for diversifying literature. I saw several comments along the lines of, you can’t champion diverse literature for all writers and then slam white writers trying to participate. To be honest, I think you can – I think you can slam any writer who poorly and disrespectfully represents your culture. Why? Because the movement this author works with is not about propagating poorly researched, disrespectful “diverse” books. In fact, I doubt any movement sincerely supporting “diverse” books would do such a thing. And I don’t believe any writer who sincerely believes in the mission to diversify literature would do such a thing – any writer, not just the one who wrote the essay. I don’t believe agents, publishers, editors, readers – anyone, really, with a stake in books – want to bring books lacking in execution into the world.
When I returned to Twitter for the third time today, I saw some nonwhite writers had come forward to clarify and/or defend the essay. I appreciate their comments – and I am sad they had to make them in the first place. I also saw a response posted by the author of the essay on her blog. It was articulate, thoughtful, and didn’t give an inch. I am glad she wrote her response – and again, I am sad she had to do it.
I don’t expect nonwhite people to be a monolith, whether they are writers, editors, agents, etc. A lifetime of being nonwhite has shown otherwise. We argue, fight, insult, defend, laugh, and cry – as all humans do. But today, I was saddened and shocked to see so many nonwhite voices piling onto one person who, as far as I could see, only took the time to articulate more fully the thoughts that her now-critics espouse everyday on their own social media accounts. I am not saying the author of this essay is perfect or that her views are – no one is perfect or has perfect views. But I see no reason for the outburst and melee generated in the wake of what, to me, was a timely, perceptive, and straightforward account of one of the biggest hurdles facing nonwhite writers in the US publishing industry today.
As always, check out the Resources page for other perspectives! Thanks for reading!
*But let us not forget the colonization of nonwhite people that accompanied the origins of “European” tea. British Empire, anyone? Also, ironically, I had seen Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast before ever drinking “European” tea, so I knew my mom’s teapot didn’t look like white people’s teapots.
**I’m writing this on February 17, 2016, so if you weren’t on Twitter today but you run in these circles, check your feed from today to see which author/essay I’m talking about. If you’re outside the community, check my feed from today. I RTed both essays. For the record, I’m not in the habit of naming specific people or book titles on this blog, to avoid making them targets.