In my opinion, this is, perhaps the most overlooked TED talk on writing out there. Most people skip it because it is subtitled, but the teacher in me loves this for many reasons, particularly the message that you can be more than one thing at once: a taxi driver AND a writer, a businessman AND a writer, an scientist AND a writer. I think many people forget this. They think that this writing thing is all or nothing, and my STEM-school students often say they don't have time for creative writing. That they are working towards being an engineer or a doctor or some other thing that will, undoubtedly, make more money. Young-ha Kim offers a beautiful reminder that we can be many things at once. As he points out, the artist is there inside us, right from the start. Give a kid a chance and he'll make art happily, without much prompting. At some point, we become disconnected from that childhood self, but the artist is still in there, inside us, yearning to get out.
Can we be honest here? Lately, I've been frustrated with the publishing world. In graduate school, I used to travel to the annual AWP Writers Conference specifically to seek out panels about what it meant to be a diverse writer in today's literary world. After each panel presentation, the audience peppered the writers with questions - if we depicted queer characters, we wanted to know, did we risk being marginalized? By writing ourselves, were we committing literary suicide?
Over and over, the advice had the same Field of Dreams-esque mantra - "If you write it, they will come." Over and over, we were told that our task as writers was to not worry about what agents or editors might think. Our task was to do the best we could by telling the best story we could. And if the book was good... And if the craft was good... then the story would speak for itself.
And so, like the good student I have always been, this is what I set forth to do. For the last 10 years, I've written draft after draft after draft of a novel. Each draft was read and vetted by professors and peers and friends and readers (in grad workshops and writing conferences and writing groups), and each draft became a much improved version of the book's earlier self until I finally had a book worth putting out in the world (and let me tell you, it wasn't easy thinking through that many drafts, but I was learning and growing at the same time, and often drafts were as much about undoing as much as they were about doing, but that is another post entirely)...and yet...and still...as I query agent after agent, I keep getting the same responses: "This is a great book...." "This is a well written book..." "I really like these characters..." "I read this with a lot of enthusiasm...."
....BUT... (because of course there is a "but")
...the book is just not marketable.
And so, suffice to say, I've been thinking not just about this idea of "marketability," but also those who deem something to be marketable in the first place. At the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Conferences in Los Angeles, I attended a panel titled "Agents without Borders," which featured five literary agents speaking about their experiences in the publishing world. During the Q&A, someone wanted to know – how did diversity fit into their decisions? Were they [the agents] looking for diverse writers? At first, the panelists said what you were supposed to when you are in that situation. Of course! Yes, we love diverse writers…(some of our best friends are diverse writers…) But one of the panelists decided to be real: “To be honest,” she said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “diversity is something I am interested in, but it’s the publishers that are the problem.” Apparently, because the publishers were not a diverse group, they were unable to recognize the need for more diverse stories.
In a recent interview publishedy by Gertrude, Michael Thomas Ford offers up a similar idea, arguing that since our literary gatekeepers "are not gay themselves," gay literature is being defined by people outside the queer community. This, as you can imagine, is highly problematic. As Ford explains, the result is that "we’re only allowed one version of our lives at a time, and it’s the one that non-gay people find the most compelling. Or, more often, the most depressing, because what I see a lot of is praise for books in which gay people are portrayed in a tragic fashion, books in which being gay is a terrible struggle filled with depression and addiction and sadness. Those are the stories we’re allowed to have—the ones where we are acceptable subjects to the gatekeepers of the literary world."
In other words, what Ford is saying (and what I, too, have found myself worrying over) is what happens when our stories do not fit into what these gatekeepers THINK are gay stories? What if our stories are about people who do not hate ourselves, who are not bullied, who do fit in? (Imagine that!). What if our stories are stories about love and loss? What if our stories are about the mistakes we make in life, or about wanting life to have purpose? Or about grief? These are gay stories, too, aren’t they, in the same way that a story about a divorced white man is also a story of what it means to be a white male in today’s world?
After all, a character's “queerness” is a part of their identity; it does shape the way that character engages with a given situation, even if the queerness is not the subject of the story. But because these stories do not include the key “gay” ingredients, will our stories continue to be overlooked as being “not gay enough” to be marketable? And by only getting the “gay enough” stories published, are we not allowing for a multitude of stories about what it means to be “gay” today? (and here you could substitute gay or queer for any other non-normative noun – black, brown, Asian, etc. For, as Cynthia Nixon said during a rally at the Stonewall Inn earlier this year– if we didn’t know we were all working for the same cause before, we know it now).
Michael Cunningham, in an interview with Ursula K. LeGuin, said that he believes that our current phase of literature is a phase that he’s coined as a “broadening.” That right now, we are in a phase – at least according to him – where our idea of literature is expanding to include other perspectives and genres previously kept out of the the “literary” cannon. If this is the case, however, then the broadening needs to happen across all lines – we as writers need to broaden, to write characters more like ourselves, and less like the old white men in the stories we get in graduate workshops. The powers that be need to broaden so that they are publishing the new stories people like us are writing, and, of course, we, as readers, we need to broaden as well. We need to seek out more stories of other groups, not just our own, and then gift these books to other people and encourage them to do the same. We need to put pressure on the literary landscape, to say no more, and in that way cause, effective, lasting change.
Here at the end, I want to acknowledge something that needs acknowledging: there is a good chance that the book I've written is simply not good enough. That literary agents out there are rejecting it, not because it is not marketable, but because they are too kind to tell me that my writing is not up to par. But wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where writers like me don't have to worry about overcoming BOTH the standards of "good writing" and the standards of the literary priveleged all in one, ugly swoop?
Note: A portion of this post originally appeared in an 2017 AWP Talk titled "The Politics of Queering Characters"
This past Sunday, I joined a small but dedicated crew of protestors in Fresno, California for the Earth Day March. We met in a small park then the couple of hundred people or so headed towards one of the busiest intersections in town, each of us holding our signs and feeling more than a little awkward.
This is not my first march, nor will it be my last, but it was clear from the quiet, polite way people were walking (on the sidewalks not in the streets!) that they weren't sure how to be the kind of people who hold signs. Were we supposed to chant? Were we supposed to sing? Were we supposed to stop traffic? How were we supposed to become the protestors we desperately were trying to be? This makes sense: Fresno is not the type of place where sign holding happens. But this is the new normal, right? Where people who usually go about their business are suddenly waking up to the understanding that this post-Obama world has become very very frightening indeed.
In any case, we did our part. For a few hours, we held that corner as cars sped past, some honking, some waving, most trying to avoid looking us in the eye as they waited for their various lights to turn green. It was a warm day, and the fumes made a good handful of people cough. At one point, my wife went to the Walgreens and purchased face masks, which she handed out to those within the protest (and others who were simply sitting at the bus stop looking to go home) - the masks served an important health purpose, but they also made a statement: The way we live on this planet makes it difficult for us to breath.
The person who stood out the most to me was a man driving a Prius. As he drove through the intersection, he rolled down his window, stuck out a hand, and gave the us a giant thumbs down signal, his gesture a strange incongruity with his fuel efficient vehicle. He didn't yell "Boo!" but we felt it in the deliberate way his closed fist rose and fell with fierce deliberation. Those of us who saw him stared at each other in disbelief - who would "boo" science? And why would you drive a Prius while you did it?
The irony of all of this, of course, is that he and everyone else driving through that Fresno intersection are breathing some of the most contaminated air. A recent report showed that of the TOP 6 most polluted places IN THE COUNTRY, three of them were in California's Central Valley. Visalia, Bakersfield, and Fresno were in the top 3, with Merced, my own hometown, falling at number 6. Let's pause for a minute to think about what that means: It means that these small central valley towns were MORE POLLUTED than many of our biggest cities - more polluted than Chicago or New York or Atlanta or Washington DC or Dallas or Pheonix or any other metropolis that is home to millions of people. This place is also home to much of the food the rest of the people in this country consume. Which means that the food we are consuming is COMING FROM the most polluted part of the state. Clearly, something is very very wrong with this picture. Politics aside, shouldn't everyone be marching with us? Why aren't the rest of the Valley residents saying enough is enough?
These were the questions we contemplated as we held our signs and stood awkwardly on the corners. The only answer we could come to is this: people simply aren't paying attention. Or they are simply too good at accepting bad situations.
And so, why this March for science. What is this about? Because, I admit, even being IN the march, it often felt so dumb, for why do we need to argue that science matters? And why do I need to shout this to a man in a Prius? Of course science matters. But this is the bizarre world where science, along with what feels like everything else, is under attack.
For those not paying attention, we are currenty living with an administration that keeps ignoring the advice of scientists. For example, the current EPA just approved a pesticide (chlorpyrifos) that is known to damage children's brains (the previous EPA deemed it dangerous, but Scott Pruitt pushed it through anyway). This means that yes, THAT pesticide is now allowed to be in your food. And yes, places like Merced, where I live, and the surrounding farming areas will become even more toxic.
So when you say that there is no attack on science, think again - there IS an attack. Anytime you ignore sound, life-saving advice, you are saying science does not matter (and usually choosing money instead), and we are going to be the ones who pay for it....literally - our communities, our pocketbooks, our terrible health insurance, our bodies, our lungs, our planet, will all pay for this stupidity. The health problems in these areas are tremendous. The pollution has been linked to lung disease, cancer, asthma, and other major diseases. This is not okay.
And don't even get me started on the protection of national parks...
At this year’s AWP Conference in Washington, D.C., I spoke on my first panel. The panel was called, “The Politics of Queering Characters,” and was, as the title suggests, about the benefits and drawbacks of creating queer characters on the page (whether that page be fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry or otherwise).
I organized this panel in response to a talk Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You, gave at last year’s AWP. For those unfamiliar with Greenwell, his latest novel has been hailed the “great gay novel of our time,” and as a queer writer, I was eager to hear him speak. On the podium, Greenwell talked about his views on being marginalized as a “gay writer” (a place some writers try to avoid as it often is seen as a curse, a label that can keep a writer from becoming more established and well read). He brought up Aristotle’s idea of the universal, that belief a writer’s our goal should be to tap into a collective consciousness of sorts, where no matter where you live or who you are, if the writer is doing their job, the reader will be moved by a “universal” sense of what it means to be human.
This is something I’ve always aspired towards in my own writing, this sense that all stories, even a queer story (especially a queer story), can be made into a story anyone can relate to, if done correctly. This idea works with my own sense of idealism, and for years, I’d gone about on this quest quite happily. But then, Greenwell threw a metaphorical wrench in that system. He questioned this idea of the universal, wondering who it was made for? Was it made for people like us? Or was the universal created out of the artistic aesthetic of a privileged few. And that aesthetic looks a lot paler, whiter, and straighter than my own.
And so Greenwell argued, why aim for the universal at all? “I am a queer writer,” he said, “writing queer characters for a queer audience.” He spoke, quite passionately, about the so-called “gay-ghetto,” claiming by the end that if James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf are in this “gay-ghetto,” then count him in.
In my talk, I discussed my struggles with Greenwell’s statement. On one hand, I loved the “screw you” approach to the greater publishing world and felt like his words were a good reminder of the writer I used to be before existing in the MFA program, the girl who sought out queer literature and devoured it in single, all night sittings, who didn’t worry about what writing was supposed to be, who simply loved existing in story. But after this most recent election, I’ve been wondering about my role as a writer, especially given the extreme turn our country has taken, when so many of us feel powerless in the face of our current government, and for me, the one thing I take refuge in, the one place where I feel we not only have space but tremendous power to cause change is with story.
One of my favorite TED Talks is one by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, a writer who is easily becoming one of my favorites. It’s called the “Danger of a Single Story,” and if you haven’t seen it, I consider it a MUST SEE for everyone, but especially writers who are, in any way, an “other.”
In this TED, Adiche talks about the ways stories have been responsible for our existing stereotypes, specifically because of the way they often present a single view (a single story) of an individual or group of individuals. So, for example, Adiche talks about the “single story” we have of what it means to grow up in an African country, and how Americans only get the image of the poor starving children living in squalor, seeing the entire continent of Africa as one thing and not many countries, and therefore making a lot of incorrect assumptions about what it means to be African.
You are probably intimately familiar with this idea of a “single story” – of Muslim’s as terrorists, of Mexicans as illegal immigrants, of lesbian women as lonely spinsters– stereotypes emphasized not just by the media, but by the countless wealth of existing stories which are often written about one group by the group in power (think, for example, about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and how lasting those images are of African people and how those descriptions still effect perceptions we have of African people today). Adiche’s argument is that when we live in a world saturated by the single story of what it means to be from a certain group, it makes it easy for other groups to demonize and demoralize the same group, so that, for example, at the end of one of Adiche’s readings, a fan came up to her and said, “Isn’t it a shame that all African men abuse their wives?” (referring to a male character in her book). Her response was that she had just finished reading American Psycho, and “wasn’t it a shame that all young white men were serial killers?” The point, of course, that because there are many stories about white men, when you read one about a serial killer, you don’t mistake ALL white men for serial killers. But since there were not as many stories out there about African men, the same could not be said of her own character.
I can’t help but feel that through a single talk, Adiche has been able to answer one of the biggest questions floating about the country – about how our country could be so divided. About why so many Americans cannot see outside their own experiences despite the fact that the other side is screaming that their experiences are real (and even have empirical evidence to back this up). Because for the group in power, they have had only one story of what it is like to be other (whether the “other” is queer or black or Latino or Muslim). And it is the single stories that do not allow for complexity that is, perhaps, the only real “universal” element of what it means to be human.
So – I asked the audience – as writers, what are we to do? Write, of course. Write stories that reflect a world as multi-facetted and complex cast of queer characters to help combat the single story of what it means to be a queer person living in today’s America. The talk went on, but here is where I would like to stop to tell you about the thoughts that have come AFTER the conference was over.
Since Washington D.C., since this talk, I have felt a prefound shift in my own writing. I started examining the work I had been doing, specifically a book that I have been paining my way through for roughly a decade, a book that I have since finished three times and queries over 100 agents and been rejected by roughly 20 different contests and agents and small presses. A book that I had, prior to this AWP Conference given up on.
But now, after a year of working on another project, after thinking through my arguments with Greenwell, after listening to writer after writing speak similar sentiments about our role as writers and the potential power of our stories, when I returned to the book, I had a Joycian moment: “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” In my quest to be a good student, to be applauded for my ability to “transcend” the gay into the “universal,” I had toned down the very thing that made the book worth reading: it’s gayness.
The first draft of my novel had a lot of sex. At one point, I gave a reading and the 15 minutes of prose had three different sex scenes, each of varying lengths and details. Over time, the MFA world taught me to shift from first person present tense to third person past tense. It taught me to think of a greater audience, to focus on my sentences, to craft my prose. I do NOT regret my MFA. It was, perhaps, the single most important decision I made in my life (for it lead me to my wife, to this blog, to writing, and this writer’s path). But I had turned Aristotle’s advice about the “universal” into a rule about writing, one I tried to follow to a ‘T.’ I thought that good writing, literary writing, had no choice but to follow this rule. Looking back, I realize that Greenwell was more right than I wanted to believe.
And so, while I had set out to argue with Greenwell, now I find myself seeking a center-ground between him and Adiche. I find this ground to be a yearning to re-connect with my younger self, that avid reader who craved queer stories like I now crave caffeine in the mornings. And likewise, I want to uphold my responsibility as a writer to tell queer stories so that the greater audience can also read and engage with them. BUT, by toning down the gay, I was doing both Greenwell and Adiche’s advice a disservice. For how can I show a multi-faceted view of what it means to be a lesbian in today’s world when I’ve toned down the queer?
Since then, I’ve come up with a new mantra: Go gay or go home.
I say it every time I sit down to write. Now, another draft of the book finished, let's cross our fingers that there's an agent out there brave enough to take me on.
Please note: This post originally appeared on the Writer's March Blog
Samantha Tetangco is a writer and teacher living in California's Central Valley. In her dailiness, she struggles with what it means to be a queer person of color who rarely feels like writing about being a queer person of color.