Donald Trump is an anti-literary president. It’s clear that the man doesn’t read, outside of highly diluted briefings and tweets. He’s missing a core element needed for literature: empathy.
The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris signals a return to empathy in 2021. But empathy’s only an emotion, and we should never mistake it for action. Barack Obama’s warmth didn’t reorient the world toward justice as much as some of us would have liked. Nonetheless, the literary world embraced him. It took Mr. Trump to awaken it to politics.
Many writers, like me, texted voters, donated to activist causes, got into bitter fights on social media and wrote Op-Eds attacking the Trump administration. Their political fervor impressed me. But if these writers retreat to their pre-Trump selves, then the lessons of this era will have not been learned at all.
American literature has a troubled relationship to politics. The mainstream — poetry and fiction written by white, well-educated people and regulated by a reviewing, publishing and gate-keeping apparatus that is mostly white and privileged — tends to be apolitical. Most American literati associate politics in literature with social realism, propaganda and all the other supposed evils of Communist and socialist literature, missing the galvanizing aesthetics of political writers like Aimé Césaire, Richard Wright and Gloria Anzaldúa.
To the extent that mainstream publishing wants to be political, it focuses on nonfiction books about things like elections, insider tell-alls and presidential memoirs. Other political targets that are acceptable to white liberal interests: the environment, veganism, education.
But Mr. Trump destroyed the ability of white writers to dwell in the apolitical. Everyone had to make a choice, especially in the face of a pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, both of which brought the life-or-death costs of systemic racism and economic inequality into painful focus.
But in 2021, will writers, especially white writers, take a deep breath of relief and retreat back to the politics of the apolitical, which is to say a retreat back to white privilege?
Explicit politics in American poetry and fiction has mostly been left to the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers, feminist writers, anticolonial writers.
That a number of major literary awards in recent years have gone to such writers indicates two things: First, they are writing some of the most compelling works in American literature; and second, literary awards function as symbolic reparations in a country that isn’t yet capable of real reparations.
It’s easier to give Charles Yu a National Book Award for “Interior Chinatown,” a hilarious and scathing critique of Hollywood’s racist representations of Asian-Americans, than it is to actually transform Hollywood. It’s also easier for the publishing industry to give marginalized writers awards than to change its hiring practices. James Baldwin wrote in 1953 that this “world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” but a publishing industry whose editorial staff is 85 percent white, and whose fiction list is 95 percent white, is still quite white.
In the Biden era, will the publishing industry do more than feel bad about that and commit to hiring a diverse group of editors and interns and building a pipeline for future diverse leadership?
“Diversity” itself, unless it occurs at every level of an industry, and unless it meaningfully changes an aesthetic practice, is a fairly empty form of politics. This is one of the big critiques of the Obama presidency. For all that one can blame Republican intransigence, Mr. Obama was fairly moderate, someone who tinkered with the military-industrial complex rather than transformed it.
That much of the literary world was willing to give Mr. Obama’s drone strike and deportation policies a pass, partly because he was such a literary, empathetic president, indicates some of the hollowness of liberalism and multiculturalism. Empathy, their emotional signature, is perfectly compatible with killing people overseas — many of them innocent — and backing up a police and carceral system that disproportionately harms Black, Indigenous and other people of color and the poor. It turns out that a president can have a taste for both drone strikes and annual reading lists heavy on multicultural literature.
And here, marginalized writers who tell stories about marginalized populations do not get a pass. Take immigrant literature. During the xenophobic Trump years, when immigrants and refugees were demonized, simply standing up for immigrants became a politically worthwhile cause. But so much of immigrant literature, despite bringing attention to the racial, cultural and economic difficulties that immigrants face, also ultimately affirms an American dream that is sometimes lofty and aspirational, and at other times a mask for the structural inequities of a settler colonial state. Most Americans have never heard of settler colonialism, much less used it to describe their country. That’s because Americans prefer to call settler colonialism the American dream.
Too much of immigrant and multicultural literature fails to rip off that mask. Yet the politicization of these populations does pose a threat to the white nation that Mr. Trump represents. White identity politics has always been the dominant politics of this country, but so long as it was ascendant and unthreatened, it was never explicitly white. It was simply normative, and most white writers (and white people) never questioned the normativity of whiteness. But the long, incomplete march toward racial equality from 1865 to the present has slowly eroded white dominance, with the most significant rupture occurring during the war in Vietnam.
Writers not only marched against the war, they wrote against it. Among white American writers, poets like Robert Lowell were the first to protest, along with prose writers like Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer.
In the aftermath of the war, however, the politicization of white writers faded, even if the politicization of writers of color did not. By the 1980s, the political energies of writers of color were focused on what became known as identity politics and multiculturalism, the demand for more inclusive reading lists and syllabuses and prizes. The counteroffensive against these efforts led to the “culture wars,” with defenders of the Western (white) canon arguing that multiculturalism was eroding the foundations of American culture.
The multiculturalists mostly won that fight, but Mr. Trump was the continuation of the conservative counterattack. Mr. Trump clearly wanted to roll back the American timeline to the 1950s, or maybe even to 1882, the year of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
What he tried to do politically and economically, he also tried to do culturally with his Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping, which prohibited federal agencies and any organization receiving federal funding from talking with employees about white privilege or providing diversity, equity and inclusion training. “Critical race theory” became Mr. Trump’s particular target of ire. He intuited correctly that illuminating whiteness is threatening for those who have rested comfortably in unquestioned whiteness, both conservatives and liberals, a point that the poet Claudia Rankine drives home in her 2020 book “Just Us.”
Jess Row makes a similar point in his recent book of essays, “White Flights,” where he shows how deeply entrenched whiteness is in American literature and how it can be traced directly to the country’s foundational sins of conquest, genocide and slavery. The Nobel Prize lecture by this year’s winner for literature, the poet Louise Glück, succinctly illustrates Mr. Row’s point. She talks about poems that were meaningful to her as a child but that are also problematic depictions of Black servitude and plantation life, an issue that Ms. Glück simply elides.
So-called genre literature has been better than so-called literary fiction and poetry when it comes to the kind of critical and political work that unsettles whiteness and reveals the legacies of colonialism. Smart crime writers, for example, are often political because they know that an individual crime is a manifestation of a society that has committed wholesale crimes.
Some recent examples: Don Winslow, in his trilogy of novels about the drug wars culminating in “The Border,” directly links those drug wars to military conflicts the country has fought or enabled, from Vietnam to Guatemala. Steph Cha in “Your House Will Pay” approaches the Los Angeles riots through a murder mystery that focuses on the relations between Blacks and Koreans, rather than their relations to the white power structure that set them up for conflict. Attica Locke in “Heaven, My Home” continues the adventures of Darren Mathews, a Black Texas Ranger, as he investigates crimes that boil up from America’s caldron of racism and desire.
The past four years have been marked by strong works of political poetry, like Layli Long Soldier’s “Whereas,” which confronts the United States’ treatment of Native people past and present, and Solmaz Sharif’s “Look,” which draws its vocabulary from an American military dictionary in order to throw sand in the eyes of this country’s high-tech war machine.
The inability of American writers and liberals to fully confront this war machine, especially when it was helmed by Democratic presidents, is testimony to what little mark was left by the literary insurgency against the war in Vietnam. Besides genre writers, it’s mostly been veteran writers like Elliot Ackerman, Matt Gallagher and Phil Klay who have written about the Forever War. This is because most Americans are insulated from the deployment of the war machine and prefer not to think about their implication in it.
For Native peoples, however, the history of the American military is omnipresent. Natalie Diaz, in “Postcolonial Love Poem,” raises the question of whether the United States even is postcolonial, and if so, for whom. Perhaps for white people, who would rather forget colonialism, but not for Native people who are still fighting it.
So what will 2021 bring forth from the literary world?
Hopefully more poems like Noor Hindi’s 2020 clarion call “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying,” which simultaneously attacks M.F.A. culture and crosses the brightest red line in American politics: Palestine. For all the liberal pearl-clutching about “cancel culture,” which is just a bruising exercise in civic society and free speech, the real cancellation on this issue has come from the state. It’s no surprise that there has been no collective (white) liberal uprising against Mr. Trump’s executive order last year to crack down on criticism of Israel on college campuses, which is a form of state censorship, or against the efforts of many legislators to do the same.
The United States, as a settler colonial society that disavows its settler colonial origins and present, sees a like-minded ally in Israel. The only Americans — many of Palestinian descent — getting canceled by being fired, denied tenure or threatened with lawsuits are the ones who denounce Israeli settler colonialism and speak out for the Palestinian people.
Lectures on craft, including the craft of multiculturalism, can be insipid when contrasted with politics of this kind. My problem with “craft” is not only that it’s not even art, but also that it’s espoused by writers who speak of the labor of craft and the workshop but who generally have no theory of labor, its exploitation or the writer as worker. No surprise that writers without such a theory have little to say about politics, and why the norm for writing workshops is not to deal with politics.
“Colonizers write about flowers,” Ms. Hindi writes. “I want to be like those poets who care about the moon. Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.”
This is my kind of poem.
“I know I’m American because when I walk into a room something dies,” Ms. Hindi writes. “When I die, I promise to haunt you forever.”
Writers like Ms. Hindi are an exception in many workshops, where they are often forced to explain themselves to the normative center of an apolitical literature. But this poem doesn’t explain anything, and that’s one of the reasons it’s on fire.
“One day, I’ll write about the flowers like we own them.”
Someone give Noor Hindi a book contract.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Committed.”
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