I don’t have a smooth introductory paragraph for this one, so I’ll just jump right in: this book is so very important, and I hope you read it.
Editor Sun Yung Shin has curated a powerful collection of essays from writers of color living in Minnesota. While experiences within the state of Minnesota is the core of this book, these stories should resonate across the country, where racism is on the minds and tongues of our nation. However, these essays aren’t told by mainstream media outlets or political candidates. These essays are personal stories. This is the crux of why this book left such an impact on me. It’s not a media outlet that I have to consider what their source is, or what their unintentional biases are…this is straight from writers who have experienced racism first-hand, have had to grapple with the complexities that is race and identity and culture. Each writer is telling their own individual story, and as a composite, this collection provides a larger, more honest and complex picture of race in Minnesota, which we as the reader, start to see with more clarity through each essay.
In the introduction from Sun Yung Shin, she writes:
It is hard to talk about race across racial lines. Race is ingrained in societal systems and institutions, conferring a system of advantages upon members of the dominant group. This means that people’s realities, their lived experiences, differ. Race is often invisible to those who benefit, willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly. It is entirely visible to those who do not benefit.
This gets right to the heart of it. I am in a class right now for my graduate program on diversity in the workplace, and this Tedx Talk from Dr. Helen Turnbull on blind spots was brought up in our last class session. As a white, straight, middle-class woman, the more I grow as a person the more I see blind spots that I didn’t even know I had. It’s horrifying and disheartening to discover the blind spots that mainstream white culture, and our own complacency, has sneakily bred into so many U.S. citizens, myself included. And it can be even scarier to talk about them openly when conversations about race can be so charged. This collection of essays opened my eyes to many subtle but deeply embedded blind spots, for which I am grateful. I am a firm believer that while admitting mistakes or blind spots can be incredibly scary and vulnerable, that recognizing, apologizing, and correcting for those mistakes is what triggers growth. Growth is what makes us more human, and allows us to connect to our fellow humans on a deeper level. This collection opened up countless opportunities for me to learn, listen, and grow.
Shannon Gibney‘s essay “Fear of a Black Mother” is the first one in the book after the introduction, and immediately opened my eyes to blind spots. I am not a mother, but it’s something I can see in my future and have had frequent conversations about with my partner. Realizing what Gibney has to think about with her son as a black mother is something I didn’t even consider having to discuss with my future child.
[…] My child is six and a half now, thoroughly engrossed in Rescue Bots and Ninjago and bugs, but I am already getting twitchy about the upcoming talks that loom large, talks about holding himself in the classroom, engaging with his teachers and peers, and, most of all, making sure he is giving no one, especially white people, any extra reason to view him as a Problem or Threat. As a mother, I know it is my duty to protect him. As a Black citizen in a country that has never viewed Black bodies as worthy of protection, I know I cannot.
I fell in love with Kao Kalia Yang‘s storytelling previously with her first book, The Latehomecomer, and recently again after hearing her read from her brand new second book, The Song Poet. Her essay about the complexities of identity and racism while being in an interracial relationship points out yet another facet that isn’t easily seen at first glance. Venessa Fuentes‘ essay starts from the perspective of her childhood self, and the moment when she started to see her identity through the eyes of the white surburban culture she grew up in, and even in the eyes of those closest to her. Bao Phi‘s essay grapples with the perception of some that Asian Americans are less discriminated against than other people of color when his own experiences contradict that. All of these individual experiences grouped together show just how complex race and racism are.
But I don’t want to keep talking. These aren’t my stories, and you’d do better to listen to these writers’ stories yourself. They are all very talented writers, and in their deft writerly hands, listening isn’t very hard. Please read this book, reflect on it, and really, truly listen. It’s a conversation that has to happen, and one that mainstream white culture needs to listen to more than speak, if we are going to find any equity in this world. As Sun Yung Shin writes in her introduction,
A society that systematically suppresses the stories and wisdom of certain groups cannot make the best decisions for a shared future. We need a future in this state that leaves no one out. We are interconnected, we are interdependent. In the long run, on our earth, we will thrive or fail together. Those of us who have not always had places at the table, so to speak, want to be heard and understood.
This book is one very important step in that direction.
What other writers are opening up space to tackle complex, emotionally charged, and/or difficult subjects?
This week, let’s take inspiration from an article of clothing: a striped shirt, to be exact! Here are three shirts to get you started. (Unless… it’s the same shirt!)
Bo Bartlett, Allegiance, 2007. Oil on linen. www.bobbartless.com
Hope Gangloff, Serious Snack, 2011. Painting. www.hopegangloff.com
Robert Doisneau, The Lifeline (Detail), 1952. Photograph.
Ursula Le Guin offers praise for what she calls Lesley Wheeler’s “brief novel of misbehavior in academia” by considering the book’s reclamation of narrative poetry and fantastic fiction. And that nicely sets the stage for some of what Wheeler is trying to accomplish in The Receptionist and Other Tales. The book is broken up into two parts: The Receptionist is a series of poems following Edna, a receptionist in the English department at the local university. Perhaps because of the fantasy books she reads to her two children, or perhaps because of her own (and the audience’s own) love of those classic speculative stories, Edna sees herself constantly as a hero fighting or running from evil in all forms, the most persistent being the dark, dangerous Dean, called the “wolf in wool” and known for his sexual harassment of faculty. Along with the Dean, we have the University Counsel, described beautifully in a section titled “Hill-Top Ambush:
University Counsel loomed there, a pair
of lawyers, Blackberrys shining brighter than
the hide on their wings. This is the part where
the Riders attack you from their avian
steeds. The damned Voice tolled again in Edna’s
ear, and she looked up in surprise. A skin
of clouds was forming over faint stars,
a crescent moon. They want to steal your voice,
it warned. Not my amulet? Edna was
exasperated. Not my spell-book? Your choice.
Aesthetically, this section is beautifully put together: the rough terza rima gives the poem momentum and cohesion, and the images of these University Counsel, at once slick lawyers slinging Blackberrys and evil warriors glinting sharply astride their evil avian steeds, fill the scheme with rich substance. For me, moments like these are dangerous in that they play close, close, close to the line between rich characterization and overly easy stereotype. The Receptionist is, in part, a tale of academia, but it seems to have a curious and unsure relationship with its audience, and so there are moments where Wheeler relies on the low-hanging fruit of stereotypical academic life: a poet struggling to publish work no one wants to read, a dutiful medievalist working hard, a dramatic drama professor “billowing in.” And of course, the lawyers like hungry scavengers, shiny and dangerous. There is value in these representations: accessibility, trope reversal, play. But there is danger, too, of course, and I’m left wondering if that line is not, at times, crossed.
This section, too, showcases one of the really curious and cool things about The Receptionist: The Voice. Edna regularly communicates with a voice that at times seems to be in her head or on her shoulder, part sub-conscious and part demon/angel whispering in her ear. The Voice has a keen interest in Edna seeing her life, the struggles and little victories, as part of a grand narrative, as Frodo—the small, meek hero—overcoming great obstacles and triumphing despite it all. The Voice prods Edna into these models because for her, the quiet receptionist who sees all but has seemingly little power to do anything, these stories offer a framework for just action, for the honorable path. The inclusion of fantasy as a genre (and all the implications of that: form, content, characterization) suddenly makes sense with The Voice: the fantastic is at once a necessary model of thought and impetus for action, but it is also in need of critique and consideration.
In the midst of all the serious considerations in The Receptionist (sexual harassment, dangerous and gendered power dynamics in academia), Wheeler manages to have a ton of fun, and this is perhaps the best reason to recommend the book. The sense of play, whether linguistic, aesthetic, or generic, is always present, and reading this poetic narrative is at its core an act of joy. There are conceptual and critical wrinkles that pop up from time to time in the text, but the run-away train of Wheeler’s ecstatic play is always there to smooth them over, to keep the pages turning, to keep Edna moving on toward her fateful and powerful end.
The last chunk of the book is full of the Other Tales: a hodgepodge mix of fantastical poetry concerning tales we all know an love: Rumpelstiltskin, Peter Pan, and, of course, Zombie Thanksgiving. My favorite, though, is a poem written from the White Witch’s perspective (she of Narnia fame), in which she tells us,
I once was cold and ran with wolves, I confess,
but now I desire a legacy. Torture
is a fading art. My golden foe confuses
you. Learn that he is the misanthropic
metaphor, not I. Study my biopic.
After the interconnected intensity of The Receptionist, Wheeler’s Other Tales are a delightful dessert course: light, playful, and the perfect ending to a fun, challenging book.
What playful books have you been reading lately?
It has been a while since we’ve visited the dream world. This week, let’s spend some time in the surreal realm.
Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Train from Iceland series, 2004-14. Photograph. www.scarletthooftgraafland.nl
Gregory Maiofis, Children’s Album, 2011. Photograph.
Andrea Galvani, The Intelligence of Evil #5, 2007. Photograph. www.andreagalvani.com