What If We Saved Ourselves?

Everything the white gaze does to our writing, it does to us as well. Well, so is the infamous waiter program, finally retired. “I had to constantly justify why the lives of people of color were subjects for literature.”
The premise here is that only white lives matter enough to make for literature. Most of all, I explain how it feels to move through the pipeline as it stands so that we can imagine something more generous and encompassing. Racism doesn’t disappear on the other side of accomplishment. Early in the pandemic, I was in an online workshop. During lunch, the older white man in my workshop called me by the name of the other Asian American man in our group. Sometimes it’s too much. Under this spell, I’ve never questioned the Clifford Garstang ranking of literary magazines. Once, Crystal Hana Kim, author of the 2018 novel If You Leave Me, attended a fundraiser as a literary host. How does she make sense of this contradiction? Here’s a sad daydream. Ploi Pirapokin, writer and editor, offers this pivotal lesson: “[L]earn quickly that whiteness has its own styles, aesthetic, and conventions. “[Y]ou have to put in the time to love and appreciate your own writing — and have faith that the work will find its audience without you having to compromise yourself.”
The thing is, the pressure to compromise comes for us all the time.   The questions asked tend to cast her as the Latinx representative. I’m an East Asian American man in a PhD program for creative writing. The publishing industry would have us think that the work of writers has nothing to do with community. Like Claire Calderón, writer and curator, I’ve bought into the idea that literature is hierarchical. When we build for one another, we are not wasting time. Don’t work so hard. I’ve internalized this pattern and come to feel like an accident. […] That is a necessarily freakish, outsider, objectified experience.”
They expect us to be experts on All Things Race. This is why writing that’s aware of racism gets called “too much”: it makes white people feel that they’re not enough. Would I feel obligated to do all this if I weren’t a queer Asian American man — the only one, anomaly? For me, everything turns on power and positionality. I’ve planned POC-centered events and consulted with a POC press. When most agents, editors, and critics are white, their judgment determines legitimacy. By the end of the workshop, I felt like the thing that didn’t make any sense. My white peers repeatedly refused to engage with race in one another’s work even as they touted reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and paid lip service to boulevards painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
My partner and I have a running joke. When we live in an inequitable world, how do we accept ourselves as enough? ¤
Brian Lin is a PhD student in the creative writing and literature program at USC. “Please don’t fuck up yourself or your partner or your loving relationships because you haven’t figured out how to deal with shame or failure.”
Laymon adds: “Share, with comedy if you can, your shame with a group of creators you love. That judgment steers us from the truth. Overcommitting to others at my own expense. It’s also how I coped at my PhD program’s reception for admitted students. Calderón again: “Now I understand how subjective that prestige is. The model minority myth is supposed to invalidate the Black freedom struggle. “Don’t / try to / slow me down.” Given the bravado of this bop, I’ve wondered about the ending. “Writers who lack this socialization […] encounter this recurring moment of deep alienation.” But when we’re together, instead of feeling out of place, we center us. People, often white, also tell her she doesn’t write about race enough. Getting Over
In light of all this, it’s understandable to feel the need to prove our worth. “I feel I’m playing poverty Olympics when I speak on my own experience raised in the housing projects.”
White liberals often ask Jonathan Escoffery, winner of The Paris Review’s 2020 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, to talk about institutional racism. Alexandra Watson, executive editor of Apogee Journal, gets a note often about her writing: “you’re doing too much with the characters’ identities.” But complexity isn’t the problem exactly. The thing to do with blinding whiteness is to throw some shade on it. White supremacy can be dumb like that. The discussion about my work continued into lunch. Should I, next time, give a pretend answer? I’ll come up somehow in their conversation. That’s the paradox, isn’t it? It’s our personhood. Out of 11 people, three of us were POC. Senna is somewhere else now. “Don’t try so hard. “I’d tell a younger me to not bear the brunt of failure or anti-blackness alone,” Laymon says. As Tayari Jones, author of the 2018 novel An American Marriage, says: “Having grown up in a segregated world, I knew there were benefits to it. I may have protected myself with POC immersion. It sets me up to prove my worth, but here’s what I’m learning: you can’t work your way to enough. “Yes, you have to work twice as hard and be twice as good, but you don’t have to be perfect,” Vanessa Villarreal says. The reasons are endless. The genre privileges “economy” and “efficiency.” It asserts a particular taste as universal. It’s a Dionne Warwick sample that I hear as a question: “Is it good enough?”
I’m a perfectionist, so I’m doomed to answer no. Literature is “defined by […] a whole socialization process firmly in the domain of whiteness,” says Vanessa Villarreal, author of the 2017 poetry collection Beast Meridian. It’s not good enough. “They never told me the consequences of being twice as good,” says Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy: An American Memoir (2018). I was pretty new to the whole thing, but I was already used to feeling misunderstood. When I urge us to save ourselves, it is also to assert this: the very work of community needs validating and celebrating. Those of us rarely represented write to make ourselves seen. When I told him he got the wrong Asian, he proceeded to ask, apropos of nothing, whether I did karate. In the process, we come face to face with our illegibility. It always is. The whole time, I wanted the interrogation to end. This made the tone and shape of my work different.” By her fourth novel, “I was well formed as an artist.”
As an East Asian American who grew up in a wealthy white suburb, I’ve struggled to unlearn so many isms. That it’s all about vision and genius, canon and heritage. Once, I was at an exceptionally white writing conference. As Chris Terry, author of the 2019 novel Black Card, says, “We have to build our own communities, because the world was not built for us. “White folks, particularly white men writers, tend to find pleasure looking down, possibly looking at, but when they have to look up at us, it’s brutal.”
Nor does white supremacy vanish in white people’s absence. “[A]bove all, you have to write to please yourself,” says Cathy Linh Che, author of the 2014 poetry collection Split. I have attended the right conferences, where I met the right people and organized for racial justice. The writers of color heralded as “essential new voices” mine a space that is outside whiteness. As the first or only person bringing up an issue, you’re never sure whether anyone else will agree it’s a problem. They will come to your funeral.”
Getting Caught  
Scholars have made the case that racial trauma plays out like PTSD. Muriel Leung, author of the poetry collection Bone Confetti (2016), hears that she writes too much about race. American individualism, which success like mine is supposed to prove, is itself anti-Black. The arrangement edges us past what’s human, what’s worthy. That weight has killed a lot of us. It won’t happen for all of us without visions of equity and follow-through on solidarity. And what illustrates individualism more prestigiously than the illusion of authorship? This wrongheadedness is not exclusive to conservatives. In workshops, I am often the first if not the only person trying to talk about the white gaze and the racial imaginary — even when the teacher and most of the students are POC. I write this essay to affirm those of us who struggle to balance our writing with our other work for racial justice. After the professors read off everyone’s bios — so many MFA degrees and publication credits — I circled up again, warding off shame and imposter syndrome. That’s what the writing world mingles like, workshops like, writes sentences like, gets book deals like: whiteness after whiteness after whiteness. Perfection is a trap. If I really want that Big Five publishing deal, I tell him, I better learn to get along with white people. I workshopped once in a mostly Asian group. […] I have also seen the devastatingly boring, mostly white, straight staff many of these publications have and the painfully limited scope of their reading lists.”
I seek acceptance by white institutions and dedicate myself to POC-run orgs. Getting Through
I didn’t do an MFA. I’ve believed that acceptance by a prestigious journal would, as Calderón puts it, “advance me along the path of my development as a ‘real writer.’”
These assumptions are hard to shake. How do we get there? It seems like a sweet spot: do your own thing and still feel seen. And the next time shit goes down — in workshop, on Twitter — I hope this chorus offers some solace. To this day, I can hear my own heart any time I’m about to say something real. She’s declaring: “Just because you say things are gonna change — saying something’s wrong isn’t good enough.”
It’s hard not to hear these lyrics as an evergreen read on white liberals. These projects of racial equity and solidarity — they’re a distraction. “While straight white people are bitching and moaning, invest your energy in doing the work so that when you publish and win all the accolades, no one can deny that the craft is bad-ass.”
They must be right. They discipline writers of color into caring for the white gaze. Since I’m an East Asian man, I signal pretty quickly that I’m not the kind of Asian person who gets along with white people. It would be easy to think: if I only work hard enough, I will get that two-book deal. More often, they critique the poets as people, not text. These Black women will take care of you. Accessing opportunity shouldn’t require excellence already. The manuscript was from the first draft of my novel. But in that moment, shivering because of nerves and summer A/C, I went with the flow. Any time competition is involved, suspicion gathers. His work can be found or is forthcoming in Hyphen Magazine, Lambda Literary, and The Margins. Something as elemental as overlapping worldviews can truly feel abundant. A PC culture! The liberal multiculturalism that organizes literary consumption — “It’s API Heritage Month, Read These East Asians” — reinforces the same premises. We’re making it. What is a recurring situation that’s destabilizing and hard to navigate? The authors on her syllabi are mostly POC, but the students struggle to approach the literature as art. In the hyper-individualistic enterprise of publishing, organizing might seem like a distraction. What they’re telling you is that there are not multiple or infinite ways to write about mixed-race characters. Nonetheless, I expect myself to do the most: editing, teaching, organizing, and graphic designing all while preparing for PhD exams and revising a novel. Such decentering is epistemological and deeply threatening. Increasingly, Leung observes, writers of color are writing about racism in ways “that can’t be easily delineated, parsed, or reconciled.” Such formal innovation “reveals what is true about race, which is that it is not palatable or easy to consume.”
Sometimes I fear my work is illegible. […] In order to be understood or taken seriously, you do not have to succumb to writing or reading what does not reflect your astonishments.”
Tayari Jones shares her “north star.” It’s advice given early in her career by Nikki Giovanni: “Take care of your Black women readers. I offer my experiences as exemplary — not because I’m exceptional but because racism is predictable. “Any time you’re writing from a space that hasn’t been written from, expect to do a lot of that work,” Senna says. Pushing back on exotifying book covers. See that barrier, that wall, that ceiling? Then there are good days, and regardless of who gets it, I think it’s very good. It shows up everywhere. What has he even written?”
I haven’t published fiction yet. I weave my anecdotes with their responses to build an organic framework. Yet once in a while, despite it all, I feel like a fraud. I’m a fiction editor at a literary journal for people of color. Natalia Sylvester, author of the 2020 novel Running, names “all the seemingly small ‘corrections’ we are tasked with bringing up […] to really stay true to our vision.” Refusing editorial suggestions to include border-crossing scenes. This idea of “making it” has the power to un-make me. “As far as I knew, the world knew. It doesn’t exist.”
I look up the lyrics to “Shining.” Warwick, it turns out, isn’t asking. Many stem from a sense of unworthiness. Swirling a martini olive, someone will ask, “How do we all know Brian? It’s more work. For “literary gatekeepers,” Watson says, “race is the axis which especially feels like ‘too much.’”
Why? Me — I bury myself in service, afraid my writing is not enough. Trained in ethnic studies pedagogy, I make space to unlearn whiteness. It can’t be, no matter how many hours I put in. Fooled by these pillars, I have mistaken writing as a white male project. JANUARY 25, 2021

I’M IN A creative writing PhD program. She sinks into them. It’s a fucked-up double bind. Delaying submission of my work until it’s absolutely perfect. And if Bread Loaf rejects my application again to serve and sing for white people, I’ll write myself off as unworthy, unreal. This is how I’ve set myself up. I felt grilled for my intentions until I wasn’t sure I even had any. So, if Ploughshares — number one by Sir Garstang’s measure — turns down my story, I’ll quickly believe that my work is no good. At the start of the pandemic, I emailed friends, colleagues, and mentors, all POC, to ask two questions about their literary lives. Correcting a book review that referred to characters as “illegal immigrants.”
“[E]very instance of this creates so much doubt and is both emotionally and mentally draining to navigate,” Sylvester says. Then they imply the writing is provincial — nothing like Real Art, universal. If that isn’t alienation, I don’t know what is. The colorblind description of my work felt like a skinning of the story. All of it looked a lot like Get Out. Then there’s white supremacy. “I’m left wondering, was this a pretend question? I never worried about white people. Never be afraid. The notions of success that I have internalized set the white man’s route as the only way. In the online workshop, I felt this so acutely. Audiences ask Senna a specific kind of racist question: “Are you always going to write mixed-race characters?” The implication: the author’s race limits her work. They naturalize white supremacy. My master’s is in urban public education. Am I the only one? Because the instructor was also an Asian American man, I went in hopeful that that I wouldn’t need to explain myself for once. Shit spills over. What guidance would you offer a fellow person of color for navigating such situations? But when you get done building it, that world is yours.”
I choose and create POC spaces so I can write the work I want to write and say the things I want to say without censoring or explaining myself. The research squares with experience. Like Borjas, Dennis Norris II, writer and editor, deals with belittlement by doubling down on craft. “Whatever the character is I’m writing, I’m always trying to find ways to liberate myself […] creatively write toward things that are oppositional, that are characters that I haven’t seen before.”
Divesting from legibility and recognition, making space for the unfamiliar, the unknown — these choices amount to a kind of freedom. After the summer uprisings, in the pale fire of their fading fervor, I am learning to see myself differently: neither a fraud nor a nuisance but a disruptor — even, I hope, a leader. At the end of the night, the white woman “clasped my hands and said, ‘You are now my third Korean treasure.’”
Lilliam Rivera, author of the 2020 novel Never Look Back, is often the only Latinx person on a conference panel. Sara Borjas, author of the collection Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff (2019), is a professor of poetry. We become authors through communion. So let’s provincialize whiteness by examining what it deems excessive. This, in turn, can make you feel like the problem. Most writing workshops do the opposite. Even then, I’m almost always the only Asian American man. I did this at one of my first writing conferences. Often, I’m left feeling that I was forced to jeopardize my career.”
Danzy Senna, author of the 2017 novel New People, calls all these various labors “Race 101 shit.” It positions us not as artists or even people but as experts on racial victimhood. The opening reception was literally in the big house across the street. If a work resonates with people of color but a white person doesn’t get it, he might have to consider the possibility that his worldview isn’t universal after all. Getting Out
I’m used to thinking that if I want to be a real writer, I should be doing the real work of writing. I am because we are. After a summary of my story, the instructor asked me: did we get anything wrong? Yet they appeal sufficiently to the gaze. White people change their minds all the time. Beyoncé takes the same approach: “always stay gracious / best revenge is your papers.”
I listen to “Formation” before workshops. That was great. Speak your mind. I also shield myself with “Shining.” When Beyoncé says, “Hold on,” she elongates the Os. That’s when I fall for white reality and fear. People of color are the beneficiaries of literary trends! One day, my acquaintances will cross paths. In white spaces, it’s not only our work that’s vulnerable. An older white woman told Kim about taking a trip to Korea and buying a pair of souvenirs. It took place at a secluded college campus. In reality, anti-Blackness is gravity in my world. It’s a contradiction, I admit. Perfectionism and workaholism have various sources, not the least of which is structural racism. At the hotel bar, let’s say. No, I said to the instructor. Starting these conversations hasn’t gotten easier. When I decided to pursue writing as an adult, I refused to go back to whiteness — even if I was getting in on a white man’s game. Stop holding back. That my work would finally make sense to people — “my” people. I didn’t have to be strong to resist their gaze.”
Jones wrote her first novel about the Atlanta child murders from within the circle, as Saidiya Hartman would say. Believing I can prioritize myself only once I’ve served everyone else. Escoffery will barely scratch the surface when the white moderator decides to change topics. Getting In
When I enter white spaces, I circle up with the other people of color. This essay maps out the terrain of racial struggle in the literary world. In other words, navigating white institutions compares to combat. “What they’re asking you to do is to be white. I’ve invested more time in other people’s work than my own. Well, no one had said the facts: the protagonist is a queer Asian American man, and the two other characters are white and Dominican. Much like whiteness, literary fiction goes unmarked. Despite all the signs to the contrary, it is right to live by this premise. We need us to live.”
If I may, that is also to say: we need “us” to live.