A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.
Like most of America, the higher up you go in Academia the whiter it gets. With that comes the white privilege of criticism and writing, whether intentional or not. The vast majority of writing anthologies and handbooks are written by white authors, which reemphasizes certain styles, modes, and approaches. Editor Sherry Quan Lee’s How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse (Modern History Press, forthcoming May 2017) is a new creative writing anthology by writers of color. Through what are essentially literacy narrative essays, the writers share how they struggled to write in an environment where they “are to listen, be silent, and be awed by the ‘right way’ to tell a story as defined by those in the ruling class going back to Aristotle” (Stark 51). These writers are doing what writers in the past have done: teaching us how to read literature. They educate us, though this education is not on an artistic aesthetic, like Imagism or Vorticism, but for cultural aesthetics. As a white, heteronormative, cis-male who tries to check his privilege, I was often surprised at certain privileges I had that I was not even aware of, such as how “italicizing non-English language contributes to otherizing our tongues” (Gómez R. 87), and more of which I’ll point out below. This book is eye-opening, critical, and personal.
The first essay after the introduction perfectly lays out what will lay ahead: “the personal is political” (Falcón 9-10) and “[a] need to interrupt the narratives of domination” (10). Kandace Creel Falcón writes as a Chicana (she identifies to “Chicana” as opposed to “Xicana,” which she explains) academic navigating the “cis-male white privilege” (11) embedded in scholarship. She points out “the assumed neutrality of whiteness translates into invisible authorship” (11), an invisible authorship that neutralizes voices that aren’t cis-white males. This privilege was one I was not aware of, and it became eye-opening moment for me. Falcón then explores how she inserted the “I” back into academic writing and that her “scholarship is rooted in an agenda of liberation [. . . a] liberation for us all” (11). At this point, I reconsidered how I might change my approaches to teaching Composition I and II, among other courses. What new texts will I use and how can I teach a criticism that validates approaches from a variety of identities? How can I emboldened the critic’s “I”?
Jessica Lopez Lyman in the following essays builds on the idea that knowledge can come from an individual, as “we are all producers of knowledge” (17), and there doesn’t need to be preceding archival materials to sift through for validation. As a result, she tries to be heard, to be unerased, to not feel like an impostor, because as she says, “non-existence is the most dangerous violence” (19). This erasure, according to Chris Stark, who identifies as “a mixed Native lesbian” (49), also occurs in the creative writing workshop. She points how in a piece of fiction she
was criticized for writing about someone similar to me, for writing about myself. Never once, in the MFA workshops or in other writing groups I have been in has a white man been “accused” of writing about himself, even when he clearly is writing about himself and his experiences. (50)
On top of it all her, her professor read a story clearly based on his experiences, “but no one said a thing” (51), which highlights the hypocrisy. This makes me hypothesize that this is also true in literary criticism. If a person of color writes fiction that is based on their life events, then it’s critically looked down on as not truly fiction, but when a white male writer does the same thing, rarely is he called out on it. Stark also reveals another type of privilege like an apocalypse (in its etymological sense “to uncover”), where a story needs to have a “climax” to be considered a successful story, whereas native American writers tend to tell “stories in a cyclical fashion [that does not follow the] the checkmark structure [. . .] taught since elementary school” (51). Or as Anya Achtenberg points out in “Notes in Journey from a Writer of the Mix”:
[W]riters of the mix/writers of color, with this high degree of deterritorialization in our language, exhibit high potential for radical and revolutionary work. With language less “representational,” more expressive, marked by intensity; there is “a whole other story vibrating within” the story [. . .]. This critical language speaks of a condition perfectly familiar to me, and offers a way to refute those judging our works within old, biased parameters. (100)
This reasserts a major thesis of this anthology, which Achtenberg synthesizes down into a sentence, that writing “calls for seeking other story structures that work with that consistent level of tension [as opposed to building tension, relieved by “a perfect screaming climax,” and then dissipating in denouement and “comfy resolution”], and open story to the spectrum of experience of life in this tension [. . .]. I must go with story finding it unconventional organic form in motion and constant tension” (99, 103).
Perhaps the heart/heat of the anthology lies in Marlina Gonzalez’s “Dancing Between Bamboos or The Rules of Wrong Grammar:
How does one speak or write or exist, survive or even dare to thrive in an environment rich with diverse cultural perceptions, when our cultures are blind to each other and one culture insists on taking over the dialogue? (67)
The personal and critical essays provide answers to this question and others, such as learning how to claim a place in a “white male dominated (WMD) literary ecosystem” (Vongsay 118).
This anthology can easily be used as a supplementary text in a creative writing workshop environment, especially at the graduate level or upper-level undergraduate courses. Not only are the essays informative and make the reader consider new manners of writing and reading, but each essay is also followed by a writing prompt, so the reader can put a theory to practice. I can even see this anthology being used in a composition class. No matter how it is used, I recommend this book for all writers and those who write about literature, and when you do, be sure to have a lot of sharpened pencils, as there will be a lot of underlining. I know I will be a better teacher of writing because of editor Sherry Quan Lee’s How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse.//
Lee, Sherry Quan. How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse. Ann Arbor, MI: Modern History Press, May 2017.
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