Before an Asian American man threw a chair in rage at a white man in the presence of women and children (he missed), I sat in a room with a lot of other people who didn’t know each other, trying to look as though I were interesting, or already occupied. The first day of this writing conference felt like the first day of college—just as shy, or a little shyer—that first registration day where you watched people out of the corner of your eye and wondered who you’d wind up being friends with. I’d like to believe that I’ve progressed past my eighteen-year-old self, I mean socially, but the truth is, she’s still me on first meeting: bright with anxiety, and eager to please. So when an older white woman approached me, I was open to conversation. “Where are you coming from?” San Francisco, I told her, and she said she was from there too. We talked about our writing: she asked me what I was working on. My practiced line came out, that odd thing that seems to have little relevance to my actual project: I’m writing a coming-of-age-story set in 1970s Bombay. “Oh, you are so lucky,” she said. “I should pretend I’m Indian and write something like that.” She considered. “My niece is Indian, so maybe I’m allowed.”
Doubtless, she has since forgotten this conversation, while I’ve turned it over and over again in my mind like a riddle for months: Lucky? Pretend? Allowed? Something like what? In moments like these, I act as though I am the one who said something embarrassing, which is because I am very often the only one who feels embarrassed. I blush and move away from the subject as quickly as I can, often making some soothing, stupid joke to show that I’m not hurt, though it is clear that the idea that I would be hurt by such a comment hasn’t crossed the comment-maker’s mind. This time, I think I said, “Why pretend? You can write about India as yourself,” which I don’t believe. That lady can do whatever she wants, obviously, but I would like her to stay the fuck away from India, and me too.
I’m tired of all the riddles that were told at this conference, like how my Mexican-American roommate got asked repeatedly by white people to read their stories with Latino characters and tell them if they were authentic. How many members of my workshop group used the “N—" word freely and easily in the discussion of a story by a white man, whose depiction of his black character, taught how to improve his jazz playing by the white protagonist, involved mangled Ebonics. How only a few of us thought this was a problem. How one person said, “I don't get why black people can say nigger but white people can’t, I mean, just listen to rap songs, they call each other that.” How, in the middle of a friendly conversation, a black woman was told by a white woman from her workshop, “It's so nice to be talking to a black person!" How I was told, as a compliment, “Your characters are Indian-American, but this story is universal.”
As a compliment, Shruti!
This is how it often goes: a person is being kind, or curious, fully innocent, and I ungrateful as I mark my complaint. Weeks later, I nearly lost it when I saw a similar compliment printed on the back of an exquisite book by Anita Desai: “Desai makes the apparently exotic...seem as universal, as vital and familiar, as food on our plates.” (I see you, Francine Prose and you don’t get credit for that “apparently.”) Each little riddle, a tiny wound: you don’t cry when you get a paper-cut, nor even when, at home making a salad, citrus finds it and burns. We conference-goers of color told these riddles to each other over dinner, in doubtful voices. Each person who told their riddle was unsettled, uncomfortable, or bemused, but they weren’t sure it was that bad. The rest of the table would explode with disbelief and anger on the part of the riddle-teller. The riddle-teller would shrug. Someone said, or am I misremembering, “I see this all the time in white spaces. They want a few of us here but when there’s more than a few, everyone starts to get nervous.” Is it possible that all these white people had never met a person of color before, and approached us like animals in a zoo? I walked each morning to workshop through impossibly beautiful scenery in my shoes that had holes in the bottoms of both soles but which I couldn’t bear to throw away, gold sneakers worn down to pale leather, items of nearly totemic familiarity in a hostile landscape. It rained surprisingly and often, and my feet got wet as I walked. My mind pulled up a line and chanted it to itself, soothing me and increasing my rage: I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background.
On a long, rambling panel, where the endings of several books I haven’t yet read were given away, three white authors discussed the unreliable narrator, though I don’t remember them coming to any conclusions. But the term is useful. When we’re called over-sensitive as women, as people of color, as queer people, as differently-abled people, we become the unreliable narrators of our own stories, unable to claim the truth of our lived experiences. We know that “some people have it worse” and that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s “not a very big deal” or “maybe we don’t understand the full situation” or that she “didn’t really mean it like that.” We hear these things first spoken in other voices, then we hear it in our own inner voices, turned questioning and timid. That is to say: we become unreliable narrators to the outside world first, but we quickly become unreliable narrators to ourselves.
The worst, and most complex riddle of all, of course, led to an Asian American man throwing a chair in rage at a white man, but I think I might be too tired to tell it to you. Take me for a drink and I will tell you this riddle, which ends with the conference organizers telling me, “As we do become more diverse, it is to be expected (unfortunately) that these issues will crop up,” and, “I recently got a thank-you letter from a participant who was African American. He wrote: ‘I think there were moments of insensitivity in the workshops regarding race, gender, and sexuality, but I feel that as the conference becomes more diverse, folks will become more sensitive and develop a language for proper criticism when talking about writing when race and culture are part of the story.’ " (some of our best friends are black!) and then we can laugh together, the kind that looks like screaming.
When I came home from the conference, some of my friends were not my friends anymore—I mean books. Every time I picked up a book by a white person, even a beloved book (some of my best friends are books by white people!), I put it down: it didn’t feel like it had been written for me anymore. For a while, this made me seek out more writers of color, which, of course, was a gift. But it became limiting, and lonely. I had always looked to books to give me the world, to allow me to enter and participate in it, in times, places, bodies, and experiences that were otherwise inaccessible, to enter the “apparently exotic” and find it familiar as the food on my plate. If these books weren’t for me, the world wasn’t for me.
I want to be clear: it’s not like I haven’t experienced this before—(this?)—I have had a workshop where the topic veered away from the construction or even content of my story into a discussion of female infanticide in India, conversations about race at a mostly-white residency that made me retreat to my little room so I could hide my tears of frustration: I have lived an entire lifetime of “I love your accent” (I was born in California, and talk like it) and where-are-you-from-no-where-are-you-really-from, and “I went to India once for a wedding” (congratulations?) or “my son-in-law is from India” (There’s over a billion of us: I don’t know him) and “you must be an amazing cook” and “your culture is so beautiful” and one particularly creepy gynecological exam where my male gynecologist told me that his daughter married an Indian man (white people love talking about Indian weddings, I guess), and asked me with concern if I was able to have an orgasm while he was examining my breasts. Why then, nearly a year later, do I still feel so angry, so startled, by what I witnessed at this conference? I think it is this: a few months before, my little brother, a painter, asked me if I had ever experienced bias in the writing world. I told him I didn’t know. No one has rejected a story and told me it’s because my characters were too brown, my subject matter too exotic or not exotic enough: no one ever has to give me a reason. Only rarely does racism bubble up to the surface of my life: only rarely does it make it past riddles.
But since attending the conference, my understanding has changed. Nearly every person at the conference, especially the organizers, would perhaps be individually able to defend themselves against the charge of racism. Yet they had created a structure, passively, where some people felt more welcome than others. More dangerously, they had created a structure that passively privileged certain aesthetics and narratives over others. White is the vacuum: male is the vacuum: straight is the vacuum. Night after night, they served us dinners that got their heft and weight from a meat main course: vegetarians subsisted on the potatoes and grilled vegetables side dishes. That week I fed myself powerbars and hardboiled eggs I brought from home: it was an unwitting metaphor for the experience as a whole. You can’t simply add “diversity” into a white space any more than you can remove the chicken from a dinner and call it a vegetarian meal. You have to plan a new meal. You have to create a new space.
Many are creating new spaces, for which I am grateful. VONA, Kundiman, Hedgebrook, VIDA, and others, who are dedicated to creating the literary world they wish to see. Yet, these new systems need to work in tandem, not in opposition, to the old. Why am I angry? Because it felt personal. Because now I can say to my little brother, “yes.” Because I think every person of color can tell you about the hurt of an innocent comment about your dark face or the oddness of your name from a person you had spent days liking and trusting. Because I understand in a new way how the dismal numbers for women of color in writing and publishing have come to pass. Because the world is contained in a single drop of water: a single riddle. Because I feel very keenly the loss of the stories that don’t make it through, the stories that never reach us. The stories that, as a chorus, could save us.
There is no answer to the riddle: there is no good answer. Except: these days, when I sit down to write, I hear the sentence in my head, the entire length of it, before I put it down onto paper. I hear the diction of my fiction-voice, which is not the way I speak, or even really the way I think. It has a specific rhythm, and a delicious oddness. It says “fuck" matter of factly when it talks about sex. It talks about sex freely, and the mysteries of the body, and it talks about pain and isolation and disconnection from community, and disconnection from self. This voice speaks very clearly.
Maybe, my answer to the riddle is just to listen.
Shruti Swamy lives and writes in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Agni, The Kenyon Review Online, Boston Review, and elsewhere, and has received fellowships from Vassar College and Kundiman.