On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to listen to author and activist Janet Mock speak at a moderated discussion at the University of Washington. It was brilliant, of course. She is a luminous storyteller who writes beautifully about black trans womanhood, social justice, and pop culture—and the things she has to say about language and memory are so spot-on. She also talked about two of the most searing aspects of my own writerly journey.
1. Women of color writers are not just women of color writers.
2. Women of color writers are women of color.
As she spoke on the backlash against the recent obtuse, racist article by Alessandra Stanley (in which Stanley calls showrunner Shonda Rhimes “an angry black woman”), Janet Mock talked about the imaginations of women of color. In her careless article, Stanley assumes that all of the black women characters in Rhimes’s shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder) are based on Rhimes herself. The implication is that the rest of Rhimes’s wide range of diverse characters are not speaking from her voice. In one interview, Rhimes spoke of being asked about Olivia Pope in Scandal and what it was like to “to get to write the voice of a black woman.” Her response: “Well, you know, McDreamy’s [a reference to the white cis male lead in one of her shows] been speaking in the voice of a black woman for a long time now. So it’s been fine.” Why was it assumed that Rhimes could only write in the voices of characters who look like her? When women of color imagine and create, why are the products of their imagination and creation seen as reflections of their identity politics? Why are the characters conceived by women of color always seen as autobiographical? Let me ward off any unnecessary “NOT ALL” comments here: Yes, oftentimes it is autobiographical! Yes, I guess you could say that all created work contains some element of the author. Yes, there are “mainstream” authors and artists whose personal lives are of interest to the public. But that is irrelevant in how these works and creators are seen systemically. White men writers are “writers” and women of color writers are “women of color writers.” We can pull any canonical text from the shelf, written invariably by white men, and drone on and on about authorial intent, post-structuralism, blah blah blah—yet, women of color creators are always beholden to their identities.
That veers into my second point. I accept that this is complex and even contradictory because this isn’t an easy topic. When we write as women of color, we reject narrow frameworks and shallow categories, but we cannot dismiss who we are. When the different axes of marginalized peoples’ identities become their primary signifiers, it perpetuates marginalization. However, we must not neglect that each axis is a vital part of selfdom. Janet Mock told the audience that she has often been asked about the accessibility of her book, Redefining Realness. Because she was trained as a journalist, she starts with the old newspaper benchmark of readability: that writing accessibly means writing at a middle school level. Yet, she says, it was wrong to say that she was writing for “everyone.” She wasn’t. She was writing for a very specific person: a seventh-grade trans girl of color, searching for answers. “How do I center that girl on her experience?” she said.
I think about the first stirrings of poetry in my heart. It was not, as I often tell people, at the edge of the Pantheon that summer I studied in Rome. It was a decade before that, in a dusty corner of the Fairwood Public Library, where I first cracked open the pages of one of Maya Angelou’s books of poetry.
When Dr. Angelou passed away this past May, I was struck by how many people started memorializing her by remarking on her “universality.” Many declared that her words “spoke to the human condition.” I remember thinking, that’s not quite right. I understand the sentiment, but it was not Dr. Angelou’s “universality” that stirred an awakening in me. It was her specifics, her everyday praxis, her intersections. And it was not because I myself inhabited those intersections that her words moved me (I am not Black, and have no right to speak on the experiences of Black people). Anyways, it wouldn’t be until years and years later that I would have academic language like “intersectionality” and “praxis” to talk about what I experienced. Back then, all I knew was that I was reading the words of a brilliant writer who wrote about navigating life as a woman of color. I had already fallen in love with the written word by then. I was already hoarding stacks of books and immersing myself in glorious new worlds. What Dr. Angelou did for me was arouse the awareness that “the human condition” did not only include the experiences of white cis men, that girls of color could write about being girls of color and it could be literary, that my identity was important.
Dr. Angelou wrote about her specific intersections—and a young girl, struggling with things she didn’t have words for yet, saw it as empowerment to write about her own specific intersections. The same feeling rose as I read Janet Mock’s book and heard her speak. I write for that Asian American girl meandering through the library, brimming with stories and uncertainties. I write for her contemplations on language, history, memory, and passion. I write for her borders and margins, her fears and joys, her wonders and wanders. I choose to center her.
The penultimate chapter of the anthology This Bridge Called My Back includes an open letter from Gloria Anzaldúa to women of color writers. “We cannot allow ourselves to be tokenized. We must make our own writing and that of Third World women the first priority,” she writes. “Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency I fear. Because I have no choice. Because I must keep the spirit of my revolt and myself alive. Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and hunger. I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you.”
It comes down to this: We should be able to write about our authentic experiences without being tokenized and objectified. Although Maya Angelou, Gloria Anzaldúa, and many other radiant women of color writers shifted my consciousness, it’s taken me (it’s still taking me) a long time to figure this out. The process continues, and there are still moments when I buy into that old myth of universality. Even worse, there are moments when I allow silence, the institutional silence of complacency, to invade my throat and hands. I must constantly remind myself—and remind the world—that my voice matters. My gender identity and my race are integral parts of who I am, but they are not the only aspects of who I am. Yet, I have to constantly fight for this basic declaration of my humanity. I will continue to write my stories because they are mine. My experiences in their entirety are valid. My imagination in all its entirety is valid. I’m still learning as a writer and a human being, but my voice is valid. In her book, Janet Mock writes, “I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act. It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion, and violence. It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence, and community. I hope that my being real with you will help empower you to step into who you are and encourage you to share yourself with those around you.” I am finally taking this step, telling my story—to myself, to you, and to the world.