Jaswinder Bolina on “writing like a white guy”

Indian American poet Jaswinder Bolina wrote an excellent article for the Poetry Foundation that starts with an anecdote about his father telling him to use a pseudonym:

He knows that in America nobody should be rejected, not unabashedly and without some counterfeit of a reason, but all my father’s nearly three decades as a machinist at the hydraulics plant near the airport teach him is that economies boom and economies bust, and if your name isn’t “Bill” or “Earl” or “Frank Malone,” you don’t get promoted. You mind the machines. “Bills” and “Earls” supervise. “Frank” is the name the bosses go by, all of them hired after my dad but raised higher. So when my father suggests I use a pseudonym, he’s only steadying my two-wheeler, only buying me a popsicle from the cart at Foster Avenue Beach.

He then discusses why he did not talk about race in his first book:

The manner with which I avoid the subject of race in my first book is nearly dogmatic. Race is a subject I don’t offer any attention to. To do so would seem only to underscore my Otherness, which would only result in the same sorts of requisite exclusions I experienced growing up in mostly white schools and neighborhoods. Assimilation in those circumstances isn’t a choice so much political as it is necessary. Some remnant of a survival instinct kicks in, and one’s best efforts are directed at joining rather than resisting the herd. To be racialized is to be marginalized.

Finally, he goes on to a broader the intersections of race, language, and class:

Race is simply too essential to the American experience to ever be entirely overlooked. As such, I can’t actually write like a white guy any more than I can revise my skin color. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that if a reader were to encounter much of my work not knowing my name or having seen a photograph of me, she might not be faulted for incorrectly assigning the poems a white racial identity. This is a product of my language, which is a product of my education, which is a product of the socioeconomic privilege afforded by my parents’ successes. The product of all those factors together is that the writing—this essay included—can’t seem to help sounding white.

The article is long but definitely worth at least a skim. The way he talked about “identity” literature and minority writers’ focus on race is particularly interesting. It’s almost expected that minority authors and minority scholars will focus on “their group.” Those who do focus on their group risk being marginalized and not taken seriously (what LGBT scholars of LGBT issues call the “lavender CV”). Those who don’t focus on their group also risk being marginalized because of this expectation that they focus on identity issues, and because of the lack of a large, supportive network of similarly-identified people doing related work. What, then, is the ideal path to take?

Photo credit: The Poetry Foundation.

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