If you go back a few pages on The Puritan‘s blog, The Town Crier, to what was published this summer, you’ll see several posts about the CanLit canon, post-truth politics, and post-identity literature. The publication of these essays has made me weary of race politics rising to the forefront of white, Western media, and the media of Canadian literature.
It seems like we are unable to write about anything other than race. Most of the time, I think it’s great that we’re being given platforms to share our stories, that we’re being heard. But the conspiracist in me—a quality I’m sure has been acquired from my immigrant Arab parents—wonders, why now? Is anyone actually listening, or are we nothing but a trend piece? I don’t have an answer to this, or to many of the questions I pose in this essay, but I still believe there is value in asking them.
As many writers of colour have said before in better words, writing about where you’re from—or the responses you face for doing so—both frees and constrains. In my own writing, I constantly worry about whether or not I’m going to feed into certain stereotypes in order to be palpable to a white audience, or if my work might well received only because it is “exotic.” Even in deciding what this piece would be about, I ruled out two apolitical literary topics (if such a thing can exist) in favour of this one. I keep asking myself if it is really what I want to be writing, or if it’s only that I know white CanLit wants more of these essays to feel better about itself.
I want to write about being a writer of colour, and I want to write about where I’m from, because it’s important to me; and, simultaneously, I know I can take advantage of Canadian literary publications’ pressing and hurried need to fill the holes they’ve been digging for the past several decades. If white publishers and editors are printing writers of colour to appear less racist, so be it. I’m going to take advantage of that. I’m going to keep taking advantage of it until I get to a point where I’m the one doing the publishing and the curating and the editing.
All of which is to say that writing as a person of colour is about more than improving your craft: it is unavoidably political. If you don’t write about where you’re from, you’re neglecting your responsibility to share your history; if you do write about it, you’re submitting to expectations of the type of writer you have to be. It’s a double bind that arises even in something as simple as the short bios that appears at the end of literary journals, novels, and poetry collections.
First, there is your name, which your parents so carefully selected and which forever connects you to your ancestors or cultural heritage. Already, race politics are inescapable: your name acts as a wall separating you from white writers. I am guilty of scanning through writer bios in search of names that don’t sound white and reading the work of those writers first, hoping I will find something that will appeal to me. Guiltier still, I have found myself disappointed when they aren’t writing about where they’re from. I know that is wrong of me to do, but it does help to prove that names have the power to place you in a certain category.
In 2015, Michael Derrick Hudson submitted a poem to Prairie Schooner under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson had been rejected 40 times, and he hoped the Chinese name would give him an edge. The poem was published, and later selected by Sherman Alexie for that year’s Best American Poetry anthology. In her article, “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist,” Jenny Zhang writes:
Names do a lot, and Hudson did what any white man who could not bear the thought that his whiteness might keep him from success would do: take on the name of the ultimate model minority!
Of his selection, Alexie has said:
When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marvelled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives.
Hudson’s poem was chosen because he was a seemingly Chinese man not writing about where he’s from. This justification infuriates me infinitely more than if the poem had references to Chinese culture and history; in that case, the pseudonym would have served to give Hudson authority, which is a more reasonable explanation.
I can’t understand why writers of colour not writing about where they’re from should be favoured over those that are. But what I do understand is the desire of a writer of colour to not write about where they’re from. Zhang writes:
I want to read more books by Chinese Americans that are not bound by the trauma of white supremacy, immigration, and imperialism. I want to write books like that. Perhaps one day I will, but I don’t think using a white pseudonym would help.
It seems like names do more than a lot—they’re doing too much, and always at the expense of writers of colour. It was easy for Hudson to take on a Chinese name, but perhaps not so easy for Zhang, or myself, or even Alexie to shed ours. I often wonder what it would be like to be a person of colour with a name that does not give me away. Mahmoud Darwish says in Almond Blossoms and Beyond, “If I could return to the beginning, / I would select fewer letters for my name, / letters easier on the foreign ear.” I have always been proud of where I’m from, but it took me a long time to embrace my name. One of the reasons I like it now is for its ambiguity: if someone reads only my name from my bio, it will be quite clear I’m not white, but it’s not clear what I am exactly.
After the name, however, comes the qualifiers, or the question of whether or not to include them. For writers of colour, there is one qualifier in particular that looms over our heads: where we’re from. If your name is unable to provide that clarity, surely a qualifier will—if clarity is what you’re seeking. When I first began submitting my work for publication, I was worried primarily about the content of my writing: all of it was, and still is, about where I’m from. I feared becoming a “one-trick writer.” I no longer see that as an issue, but at the time I did not want to be identified by race, origin, or nationality.
In an episode of the The Rookie Podcast, Durga Chew-Bose says:
I don’t want to be anything, ever. I don’t want to ever be introduced as all the qualifiers that people want to call me, like “Canadian,” “South Asian,” “woman,” “feminist,”—I sometimes don’t even want to be me, I don’t even want to be Durga. So it’s made me kind of have to sit back and question why we do this as a society, why we have to put people in their compartments, why we have to introduce them that way.
After hearing this opinion that aligned with mine, I realized I no longer agreed.
At the end of Anne Carson’s books, her bio simply states that “Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living.” Apart from her name, there is no indication of where she’s from. She doesn’t say she’s Canadian, but rather she was born in Canada. Such is the writer of colour’s burden: in the CanLit community, white is the standard—white means you don’t have to be from anywhere. But writers of colour cannot publish without being weighed down by questions of identity. Perhaps that will slow down the progress or evolution of our work, but for this writer of colour, the richness my cultural heritage has allowed me access to makes the struggle worth it.
Last spring, I had a poem published about Palestine but didn’t write in my bio that I’m Palestinian. I felt horrible. My people are being exiled and killed, their voices are being silenced, and I had censored my identity. It took a while to become confident in the work I’m doing, writing about where I’m from, but I’ve now reached a point where I’m happy to always be writing about the same thing. I find it healthy. It’s what I need to be doing. So why should my bio work against it?
My bio now begins, “Hajer Mirwali is a Palestinian and Iraqi writer living in Toronto.” I love the category assigned by this statement—a political statement.
Hajer Mirwali is a Palestinian and Iraqi writer living in Toronto. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph and reads for The Puritan and Brick. Her poetry has appeared in Brick and she was a winner of Room Magazine's 2017 Short Forms Contest.