Caught My Eye: Writing Like a White Guy

Thursday, January 5, 2012

This article caught my attention (and held it rapt) quite some time ago, but I just now have had a moment to sit down and reflect on it in written form. I'm an English and psychology major (some days one more than the other) and have come to questioning what these two courses of study really entail. Particularly with the English major, there is one important question that continues to test my commitment to it: is being an English major a colonization of myself? I found it hard to form a response. My words get all caught up.

As a South Asian woman whose country was colonized by the British and who spurns canonical literature, I use English (the "master's tools" for anyone with Audre Lorde on the brain) in a wholly different way than they would be by a white author. Yet I still have grown up in a culture that prizes certain works, makes reference to them, and uses English as the medium through which all "proper" and "high" literature is considered. Anything else is lost in translation or sub-par. Minority authors are just that - part of a specific subset that is not as revered or canonical as the classics. So am I also prizing certain literature over others? Am I making English a prioritized language and disrespecting my ethnic heritage, my mother tongue (for which a war was fought to preserve, no less)? I have been consistently frustrated by this question, going back and forth over whether its even relevant and whether anyone has the same concerns I do.

Jaswinder Bolina's "Writing Like a White Guy" article articulates an answer to this question in a truly remarkable and sensible way.

The piece discusses the place of minority poets who don't write about "minority issues" or identity, the encouragement to be as white (read: default/normative) as possible in order to gain accolades, and how the whole thing is wrapped up in the story of immigration and assimilation - either by our parents or ourselves. Bolina uses personal narrative to his advantage during this article, discussing names and trying to answer the hard question "am I a writer or a minority writer?" and what that means in the greater context. He argues that the language of English is a tool that can shape and form narratives that are completely different from the traditional view - essentially contradicting Lorde's point that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." And he makes the point that even if he is not discussing identity or the expected set of topics that minority authors are "supposed" to write about, that is up to him. It's his tool to wield.

"Writing Like a White Guy" gives me some hope around my English major. While it's true that I have to go through some required classes on the canon (which, for the record, I've avoided like the plague), the fact is that I can shape my ideas and my writing in any way that I'd like. Just because I read authors of the current canon doesn't meant that I must ascribe them greatness. We will make anew the canon of great writers in a few years anyway.

As for English being a privileged language, there is no doubt that this language has been forced on people and has caused many a challenge to cultural identity and history. I will not apologize for its past just because I have learned it as my first language. I am both colonizer and colonized, having occupied a space of intense privilege and conflict. Yet this language is my native tongue - the one in which I can best articulate myself. I must use it as a tool, as Bolina guides, to "pound on the crooked nail of race or gender, self or Other" rather than feeling endless guilt or rage that this is the language I have inherited from a troubled past.

Now, I want to turn it over to you, readers. Have you ever felt conflicted about something that you enjoy or something you've planned to study? Let me know in the comments. And let me know your responses to "Writing Like a White Guy" while you're at it!

You may also enjoy these posts:
Finding My South Asian Identity through Literature
"Where Are You From?" (Race vs. National Identity)
Denim and Black Cloth: Feminism and Female Expression