Reading, Writing, and Explaining

I recently came across this recent clip of poet and professor Rita Dove on Big Think, responding to the question: Are we striving toward a post-racial literature and art?

Let’s agree to set aside for now the over-hyped connotations of the term “post-racial.” What Dove is attempting to speak to here, it seems to me, is the question of what exactly it is we are aspiring to, as a society, when we claim to value social justice, equality, and mutual respect through an appreciation of cultural difference.

If you are a black writer, the goal of your striving may be a future unburdened by the need to “insist upon your presence” and in this, Dove beautifully echoes the grievances leveled by James Baldwin before her, and Zora Neale Hurston before that. Another goal, Dove suggests, is to gain the respect of a reader who will not demand to be spoon-fed an explanation of “racial quirks” within the text. Free of the need to explain things, writers can devote their energy to telling good stories, to developing their craft, confident that the audience will be willing to project themselves into an unfamiliar experience.

I get this. No one wants to be what my family likes to call, “The Ambassador of Negro Relations,” having to explain to the uninitiated every single detail about black life 101 (as if we could anyway). But doesn’t the role of an effective published writer or artist necessarily contain an element of ambassadorship? If they don’t consider the creative deployment of “little reference points” to be a good use of their energy and talent, then I can’t help but wonder how readers are supposed to deepen their common knowledge about anything outside their comfort zone. How else are white folks going to figure out what we’re doing with Murray’s Pomade? (Google? Wikipedia? A Black Friend?)

It seems to me that explaining things is what fiction does best. I appreciate writers like Flannery O’Connor, Amy Tan, and Jhumpa Lahiri for challenging me to wake up and learn more about people I don’t know, but I’m also grateful for the efforts these writers make to clue me in to new details. I remember reading Bernard Malamud’s The Tenants growing up as a teenager in North Texas. Outside of The Diary of Anne Frank, I had never read a book about Jewish lives, never met a Jewish person, never even been to New York for more than a weekend visit with Frieda and my dad to see The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway. There were small details in The Tenants that I didn’t understand – the central conflict is between two black and Jewish neighbors in a crumbling NY apartment building – but I latched onto the moments of exposition and context in the novel until I could gather enough information to follow the story’s eye-opening revelations.

I fear that I’m reading too much into Dove’s off-the-cuff remarks. Perhaps she is not speaking to me (or t0 you) but to those who would prefer to see only themselves in works of creative art. Perhaps she is referring to the way agents, publishers, and other gatekeepers reward stories and poems that are more easily digested and blurbed. Writer should be able to tell the stories that they want to tell in the way that they want to tell them. I appreciate the fact that Dove also wants to spur the public into taking their responsibility as readers seriously. Her own poems are an elegant balance of subtlety and forthright language.

Dove has also said, in another Big Think segment, that “we live our lives in detail, all of us. We walk down the street. We breathe. We hear things. We try to transcribe it in generalities and the details are what make us come alive. I wish someone had said that just at the beginning, so I wouldn’t have felt so discouraged when I began writing and thinking who would want to hear the stories of a young black girl growing up in the Midwest?'”

Any thoughts?

16 responses to this post.

  1. I like her response. I like her desire for a literature that doesn’t require black writers to “insist upon their presence.” Certainly you want a writer to give you enough (maybe not all) clues and explanations of their specifc world (or at least the world of the story) to understand the story they are telling, but it would be nice to have a world in which we don’t always assume that black writers are always telling us some “truth” about black people. We don’t have those assumptions about white writers. We don’t expect Dan Brown or Jennier Crusie or Tom Wolfe or Nicholas Sparks to explain white people to us (and looking at that list of writers, the very idea seems absurd, doesn’t it?), but any cultural production by black people needs to “explain” black people. Look at the furor over Tyler Perry’s work. I’m not a Perry fan myself, but surely we can find many many many “white” films with characters as 2-dimensional and sanctimonious as Perry’s.

    My point? Your experience of reading Malamud describes the experience of entering a world crafted by a great talent. I think sometimes we are more interested in black writers’ explanations than we are in their talent.


    • I completely agree with what you’re saying, Conseula. No one can speak for “the race” and certainly no one should be expected to “explain” black people, especially not Tyler Perry….

      But I’m not sure your complaint is what Dove is trying to get at when she talks about the assumptions the reader brings to a text. I may not have done the best job articulating what puzzled me about her remarks. The title of the clip asks, “Will Racial Quirks Ever Become Common Knowledge?” I’m wondering: what does that even mean? is this what we want? Why do we want that? Maybe what the website really wants to say is: “Will Racial Quirks Every Become Common Knowledge to White People?” Which is really a question that is doomed from the start (and is not a question that Dove asks, just to be clear – it’s the Big Think that frames it in this way).

      It feels a little too close to what Langston Hughes referred to as “the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization.”

      I just think that what the title refers to as “racial quirks” and what Dove describes in the clip with the hair example – are not necessarily, always a burden to be rid of and merged into whatever is passing for common knowledge these days. Why not see these moments as opportunities – again, not to speak for all black people – but to make culturally distinct experiences an invitation into the text and not an obstacle to understanding it.

      I’m starting to ramble here….


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  3. I have a couple of responses to your response. One, where you say that this (explaining things about a culture) is what fiction does best, I think to some degree you are right, but she is talking about a poem and the space of a poem (in many cases) doesn’t allow for the kind of detours we find in a great deal of fiction. The poem can’t always shoulder the burden of having to explain what might necessarily be a minor detail.

    Two: there are many ways to treat the details of a culture with which we are not particularly familiar when we encounter them in fiction. You mentioned Jhumpa Lahiri. I once read an interview where she said people often asked her if she ate “Indian food” growing up. She said she did, but that she didn’t think of it as “Indian food”; she though of it as “food”. As a reader who is sometimes unfamiliar with culturally specific references in her work, it is sometimes helpful to look up the details, but sometimes it works just fine to accept “food” as “food”, even without knowing the details (ie: what it looks like, smells like, tastes like). I would like to think the same thing is possible in a poem.



    • Thanks for stopping by, Mendi. I appreciate your comment and you are probably right that Dove is speaking mainly about poetry, which places special demands on language. And I really like the quote from Lahiri – sometimes food is just food! I can’t deny that line of thinking, particularly when difference is so often coded as odd, abnormal, and unwelcome. I have a lot of respect for writers who are able to strike a balance between “quirks” and “common knowledge.”


  4. Posted by Conseula on May 17, 2010 at 6:54 PM

    Sure, there should be racial quirks (or quirks of any kind) in literature, but I don’t know if I need those quirks to work as explanation or invitation. I need them to make the word of the story legible, but I don’t necessarily need the world of that story to be “true.” Toure, who is rather infamous as of late, writes great stories about black people who are not always black in ways that I recognize. More importantly, he does so without explanation. You either get his allusions and references and jokes, or you don’t. I don’t find that alienating or off- putting. I also don’t find it post-racial.


  5. I’m sorry to start out this way, but HER hair is really distracting in this piece…and I’m black, and *I* would like to know how she got it like that! Your analysis is more nuanced than her short response to a very odd question…and I’m not sure what she meant about the Black Arts Movement wasting energy…I think we need to consider audience. Not all black artists give a crap whether or not white folks “get” their work. And, of course, coming from a self-publishing background, I’m inclined to think that audiences will get smaller or narrower or perhaps more and more authors just won’t care about “breaking through” to a mainstream audience. John Edgar Wideman is self-publishing…I think more and more big name authors are going to realize that they don’t have to follow the directives of sales and marketing and editing people who are NOT from our various communities, and who mostly care about profit. I’m for organic writing, and that means cutting out the interference/input of all those folks who want to make a piece of art “more universal” i.e. palatable to whites. I don’t think art will become postracial; I think more and more artists will care less and less about pleasing a huge swath of people. Which will also require more artists to give up the dream of making a living off their art…Race is often used in art to create a sense of the exotic; to emphasize difference, express deviance, or otherwise create a spectacle. But it’s just as often incidental to the story–we just don’t see as many of those stories getting published. The Black Arts folks could be explicit largely b/c they started their own presses; I think we can also be subtle when we take back control of the production end of things…


    • What is the difference, though, between black writers who make an effort to explain particular cultural distinctions to please white audiences, and those who explain these same differences to develop character and enhance the world of the story? The intent may be different, but it seems to me that the result is similar. I don’t want to read yet another version of Native Son, but I’d like to strive for a future in which a writer didn’t lose sight of the aesthetic power of Wright’s stark descriptions of South Side Chicago and the people who lived there.


  6. I think I’ve said this in the past, but I really liked Neil Gaiman’s approach to “writing race” in Anansi Boys. He didn’t specify/belabor the race of the title characters. Instead, he noted their lineage – from “Aunt Nancy,” Anansi, West African diety – and provided fascinating details through their family’s language use, cooking scenes, funeral rituals, and some physical description. Race was incidental to the story, but not irrelevant. And the reference points were useful and rich. Now, Gaiman is white (and a best-selling, award-winning author) and could care less about audience at this point, but I have a feeling that Rita Dove would be okay with this method.

    You’ve given me an excuse to quote my favorite passage from Gaiman’s novel, half of which takes place is small black immigrant community in Florida:

    It was sort of like Macbeth, thought Fat Charlie, an hour later; in fact, if the witches in Macbeth had been four little old ladies and if, instead of stirring cauldrons and intoning dread incantations, they had just welcomed Macbeth in and fed him turkey and rice and peas spread out on white china plates on a red-and-white patterned plastic tablecloth — not to mention sweet potato pudding and spice cabbage — and encouraged him to take second helpings, and thirds, and then, when Macbeth had declaimed that nay, he was stuffed nigh unto bursting and on his oath could truly eat no more, the witches had pressed upon him their own special island rice pudding and a large slice of Mrs. Bustamonte’s famous pineapple upside-down cake, it would have been exactly like Macbeth.


  7. Thanks for letting me know about this clip and thanks for starting this discussion. It seems to me that the issue is about degrees. How much explaining is worthwhile? What do you explain and what do you assume people should know and if they don’t know they should go look up? That is something that all writers deal with, but when you add on having to explain your characters thoughts/actions in a racial context, then it feels like too much of a burden to me. However, having said that, I get a little bent out of shape as a reader when a writer uses foreign words and doesn’t also refer to them in English. (Usually it’s Latino writers who will write some narration & dialogue in Spanish). In those cases, I want some explanation. I want to know if you’re saying the character looks like a bird or like a chair. I suppose those writers don’t want to be the Ambassador of Latino Relations explaining why some things just make more sense in Spanish than they do in English any more than I want to be explaining why I say “sleep” instead of “asleep.”


    • Nice contribution, Carleen. The issue IS about degrees. How much explaining is worthwhile? What do you explain and what do you assume people should know and if they don’t know they should go look up? I’m guessing that the most effective writers have experimented with figuring out when and how such explaining should occur.

      Am I wrong in thinking now that this is mainly an issue between writers and their publishers/agents who claim to represent the interest of readers? I mean, folks aren’t coming up to you all at book signings and saying things like, why does the character say “sleep” when it should be “asleep”? (is that a racial quirk?)

      I think I’m going to start a new blog called, “Racial Quirks.” Heh.


  8. We are not heading towards a post racial ( term is over used) world, arts or otherwise. A White customer came in looking for a children’s board book for a gift. She picked up Please Baby Please by Spike Lee and quickly put it down like it was too hot to touch. She said no, in such a way I couldn’t help but think it was because the characters were Black. I had to take a few steps back I was pissed. It wasn’t simply because she couldn’t even consider getting this book it was her reaction to it that burned. (venting over back to topic)

    I like when authors “insist upon their presence” If authors of color or female authors stop making themselves known they will be forgotten. Though at the same time I don’t like things to be over explained.

    I like when authors include cultural nuances. Everyone can enjoy them but only readers who share a cultural or religious background will truly get it. Skilled authors do this with ease. These moments are almost like written cultural nods. If your not paying attention you’ll miss the quick chin raise but those who know what to look for won’t miss a thing.

    I actually don’t mind when Spainsh dialogue isn’t translated. I think its okay for Latino authors to assume we know a little Spanish and if not look it up. I am actually annoyed when easy words like buenos dias are translated.

    There are probably White editiors that when they don’t get something by an author of color will assume no one else will. So they will force the author to add inorganic explanations. Messing with the flow of the story.


    • Please, Baby, Please is such a terrific book, what a shame. I think I may buy an extra copy this week to make up for this customer’s slight! And it’s ironic, too, because that’s an example of the kind of story that is basically a generic tale about a little girl who happens to have brown skin and curly hair. What a missed opportunity. Thanks for weighing in, Doret!


  9. Posted by Stephanie Newton on May 24, 2010 at 10:24 AM

    I have been very intrigued by this post. Being a book publicist, manuscripts have already been edited before they reach my desk for promotion. I have never been involved in the process of authors being asked to explain natural aspects of their culture to make the content more understandable by different reader demographics. However, I understand that it happens.

    I work for a religious publishing house, and many books we publish are by pastors. Because at times the biblical knowledge of the pastor out weighs that of the reader, points and opinions have to be constructed in a different context. If they want to reach a broader audience than just other seminary educated pastors, they have to be willing to alter their manuscript in a way to both educate and inform the reader.

    Is this a similar comparison? Or do you see a difference in the need to explain cultural differences opposed to knowledge level differences, for example?

    Thanks for this post. I have enjoyed the comments and learning more about your perspective.


    • My apologies for not rolling out the welcome mat sooner, Stephanie. Welcome!

      I’m glad that you stopped by to join the conversation. I have been thinking about the comparison that you’ve made to your publishing house. Again, it raises the important issue of audience and the desire to write in a way that is accessible to readers outside a limited circle. But when thinking about the distinctions between “the need to explain cultural differences as opposed to knowledge level differences,” I keep coming back to what James Weldon Johnson’s asserted in 1922:

      Moreover, the matter of Negro poets and the production of literature by the colored people in this country involves more than supplying information that is lacking. It is a matter which has a direct bearing on the most vital of American problems.

      A people may become great through many means, but there is only one measure by which its greatness is recognized and acknowledged. The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art.

      The status of the Negro in the United States is more a question of national mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art.

      Talk about pressure! I can’t imagine what it must feel like to try to develop your craft as a creative writer when “the most vital of American problems” is at stake. This is the kind of added burden that I think many of the commenters on this thread have been resisting and I hear it in Rita Dove’s voice too. It is as if she is saying, “it’s time for the rest of America to start doing their own homework now” after decades of writing within a tradition that demands art function in this “demonstrative” fashion. I suspect that this isn’t necessarily the kind of responsibility that the seminary educated preacher/author might have.

      Having said that, it is clear to me that of the benefits black writers have today – thanks, in part, to writers like Johnson – is a readership that already acknowledges the humanity, intellect, and skill of black Americans. And this means that they can focus on the craft of writing clearly and effectively to tell whatever story they want, even if it requires explaining – on occasion – cultural details for those who may be unfamiliar with them.

      Link to the Johnson essay:


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