Interview with Roj Amedi: “OFTEN THE VOICELESS HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO DEMAND, DISRUPT AND PROTEST” in the Victorian Woman’s Trust
- What Indigenous Art Workers Wished You Knew in Arts Hub
‘I think for me, as a non-Indigenous Australian, it’s being able to go in with an open mind and an open heart to what some of those complexities are around Indigenous art. And understanding that you might never know, but what your role is around supporting, facilitation and creating platforms and spaces for people to self-determine and decide for themselves what they want to create and how they want to tell their story.’
…’We would like non-Indigenous people to understand that remote Aboriginal art is unique with a history different from mainstream art history. It has a traditional history steeped in a different culture, law and meaning. It derives from ancient tradition in ochres, rock, sand, water and is symbolic and ritualistic in origin. There is indivisibility of Aboriginal art forms – dance, painting, language, story, music – traditionally one form doesn’t exist fully without the other,’
The activity has to be relevant and designed in conversation with the people we work with.
Where the female gazes in Arts Hub
- The Raw and the Cooked: The Aesthetic Principle in Aboriginal Art by Judith Ryan in NGV Art Journal 36
One of the most important considerations in looking at an Aboriginal work of art is its otherness rather than its affinity with western art. The work asserts its strength through its grounding in country and law: that is, its politics, blood, life, identity. Its power is its knowledge expressed through an inherited visual language of signs and symbols learnt from within the culture. We hear artists saying: ‘This is my country’, ‘This is my Dreaming’, ‘From my father, from my grandfather, my mother bin tell him’. This direct, plain-speaking language, not dressed in intellectual conceit, artspeak or anthropological jargon, is not about metaphysics. It lays bare an essential difference, of cultural identity and perception, of ‘blakness’, which separates us from indigenous Australians and cuts very deep, as Muta, a Murrinpatha man, put it:
White man got no dreaming
Him go ’nother way
White man, him go different
Him got road belong himself.
one of the difficulties faced by non-Aboriginal critics who in attempting to make aesthetic judgements about indigenous art have been silenced by its quality of truth. The anthropologists’ earnest quest to understand the meaning of indigenous art from the inside has also diverted attention away from matters of aesthetics. Nevertheless, as I will argue in this article, quality distinctions are appropriate to discussions of Aboriginal art, and to make such distinctions the critic needs to be objective, rather than locked inside the cultural perspective of the artist concerned.
Unfortunately, most of the terms coined in an attempt to come to terms with Aboriginal art do not address its quality and have outlived their shelf-life. In their tired monotony, the empty categories squeeze the life out of the individual works that confront the viewer. Our constant obsession with the traditional, the ancient, the sacred, the ancestral and the totemic has blinded us to the dynamic innovation characteristic of current Aboriginal art. The terminology is like clay covering the viewers’ eyes, preventing the work from being seen and assessed in visual terms. We read about a continuing tradition, a living tradition, a traditional community, a traditional art form, a ritual tradition, so we are constantly asking: Is the work traditional, is it authentic? Is it traditional or contemporary? Are these terms mutually exclusive or can a work be both?
…In considering the quality of a work, there is far more to discover than the meaning of the iconography, which is but one part of the whole. We also need to consider the painting as painting, in terms of its visual elements. Paint is applied to surfaces, colour is mixed, ideas are made manifest through a visual language of mark-making. Art is perceived through the eyes, beats with a human heart, has a potent voice and acts as a metaphor on our consciousness, emotions, visual imagination and dreams. It needs no explanatory text: the object is reward in itself. Yet most of the writings on Aboriginal art focus on narrative content, telling us what it is about rather than why it compels the viewer as great art compels the viewer.
…Art also derives from art, from what has gone before, but each finished work upon what was once a bare surface is a new beginning for the artist and the viewer. It is unpredictable and involves risk, as Picasso stated: ‘Art is never chaste … we forbid it to the ignorant innocents, never allow a contact with it to those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous and if it’s chaste, it isn’t art’.
- On Being Likable by Mel Campbell in Overland
poetry is frequently sidelined, overlooked by prizes, publishers and other writers. But if these are radical diverse spaces where writers of colour feel represented, where experimentation is cultivated and new literatures are invented, then shouldn’t we be paying attention?
We invited four Australian poets to reflect on race in the world today and, specifically, on the ways that racism manifests in the intellectual and literary fields, particularly in poetry, where thought and representation are crystallised and magnified.
It’s important, I think, to radically decentre the strenuous aesthetic, poethical and political contests around conceptual writing that are occurring now. We must recognise that this is a transnational issue, one that reaches beyond US-American poetry and poetics; these issues resonate within increasingly linked poetry communities, filtering into literary networks that, feeling these ripples, need to respond in their own ways. We need to have a discussion about race in Australian poetry that is not ignorant of these global conversations and that takes into account the hemispheric (Asia-Pacific) contexts that, historically speaking, determine the currents and trends of contemporary poetics.
More troublingly, I found myself wondering about the poet created in these poems: the poet is always male (although incorporating, as Romantic poets always did, the feminine into the masculine self), the ‘other’ invoked too often female or feminised, and the feminine always sexualised and exotic.
…We can, and must, revive the counter-archive. We must explore the radical emancipatory possibilities of experimental, innovative and exploratory writing. We need to revive the communal, choral and social aspects of writing (for me, this means moving beyond the narrowly expressive ‘I-poem’). We need to reassert the multiple subjectivity of the silenced – not as bad appropriation, but as sampling, in loops of de-appropriation that re-politicise the discourses we inhabit. All the powers of social and cultural critique can condense to this: we need a race revolution. Things need to change. These are insurgent times for race politics (the police are killing Black people, both in the US and Australia). It needs to be said very clearly: Australian poetry is still plagued by racism and neo-orientalism…It needs to be recognised, then boldly critiqued and repudiated.
At the same time, I want to pick at these definitions of poetry. Why is it that so much work by people of colour pushes the definition of poetry, crosses and strains traditional conventions and genres, and yet struggles to be considered literature or to be regarded as experimental?
Writers of colour in Australia are producing incredible site-specific, cross-genre multimedia performative texts; spoken word, song, broadcast, choreopoem and multimedia work; verse that is plastered on walls and chanted in megaphones; verse that is urgent and potent. I’ve performed at several spoken word events that were majority or entirely writers of colour; I’ve programmed a few, too. But this work is largely ignored by publishers, critics, prize judges, anthology editors, curriculum writers.
Work that draws from non-Anglo cultural references befuddles institutions (festivals, venues, funding bodies) whose understanding of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ is structured around Western practice. Countercultural is always counter to a specific culture. You can only be regarded as innovative when the envelope you are pushing is, well, white.
Even then, probably not. It’s not enough to be reshaping Western form unless you appear to be doing so from the inside, to be rejecting your inheritance. Otherwise the experimental becomes merely broken, inept.
…To be fair, race is boring. Boring into every part of everything else you would rather be thinking, boring channels through your mind until it leaks its stain everywhere. I never wanted to write about it, but it’s inescapable. I wanted to write about it first to get it out of the way, but it hasn’t gotten out of the way. I’m thirsty for the next thing.
Confession: I write ‘narrowly expressive I-poems’. Often on race – or, rather, on nostalgia, grief, sexuality and nationhood, from a racially particular perspective. Actually, were I white, I’m not sure they would seem so narrowly expressive.
Most people think poetry is boring. And most who don’t are poets. I’m not sure what this means, but it makes for a very small, very charged space.
Is Australian poetry very white? It depends what you are reading, and what you are reading as poetry.
When I first started writing and performing, all the Australian poets I read were Indigenous women. Lisa Bellear, Romaine Moreton, Charmaine Papertalk-Green. But I’d only come across their work through other women of colour.
All the Australian poets I was taught in school were white. In their poems, Indigenous people were either absent, mythical, dead or dying. Everyone else was white. Nature motifs featured prominently, usually conjured into service for an eager, greedy and ahistorical settler nativism. For a long time I avoided Australian poetry because I supposed that it would all be descriptions of trees and white endurance, a romantic and archaic nationalism.
To what extent are we to assign conceptual poetry any significant meaning? Not just among our local poetry scenes but in a broader context, beyond its historical moment. What purpose does conceptual poetry serve as a concept? The difficulty of extending this to Australian poets is to be expected, despite practices in the origin of what some have called a ‘movement’ (others, practically a religion).
A frustrating reality of white supremacy and racism is the difficulty in bridging that crucial gap between its systemic, all-encompassing character and its banal quotidian occurrences. To this extent, it’s difficult to think about dealing with race in poetry communities because race is everywhere, and we need to abolish race before we can fix poetry, really. I’m probably supposed to have more faith in words than this.
A case for creative PhDs by Erin Hortle in Overland
I find it difficult to answer these latter two questions, mostly because the questions themselves are deceptively complex: they’re abstract questions about knowledge production and value, and more often than not the people who are doing the asking aren’t actually interested in meta-disciplinary discussions about research and writing. We need to get interested. As Donald Trump ostensibly steers us into a ‘post-truth’ world, it’s becoming increasingly important that we think about how knowledge production is more than just a straightforward process of proving facts. We need to think about it as a flexible and dynamic tool, in order to better understand the world as it is, and to dismantle the recent contradictory breed of knowledge production.
t this juncture in history, research is conventionally perceived as an act geared towards proving something. Research, as a concept, becomes less narrow if you transpose the word ‘prove’ for the word ‘produce’, because knowledge isn’t necessarily just a fact proven; it’s also something that structures our perception of social and political realities and correlative ideas of justice, and something that opens us to the world in a multitude of intangible and strangely tangible ways.
What’s important to remember is that research is a verb and knowledge is a noun. That is, research is the thing you do, and knowledge is the thing the research produces. Not all knowledge is the same and not all knowledge does the same thing, because research, as a practice, can be – indeed must be – infinitely varied.
Think, for a moment, about the world as a mess of elements that mesh, diffuse and wander through time and space. Matter forms relationships that never cease to unfold and change over time as discrete forms emerge, die and mutate. This is something philosopher Elizabeth Grosz terms the ‘chaos of materiality’ – ‘the whirling, unpredictable movement of forces, vibratory oscillations that constitute the universe’. Grosz suggests that humans utilise broad disciplinary techniques to enframe, however arbitrarily, chaos in order to render it, or extract from it, something consistent, composed and liveable.
Grosz contends that:
philosophy invents concepts to create a consistency from chaos, the arts frame or compose chaos so that sensation can be created and proliferate, and science functions to slow down chaos in order to extract from it limits, constants, measurements – variables it can use to generate predictabilities.
Figured as such, philosophy, art and science are understood as verbs rather than nouns: they are not the knowledge produced but the acts that do the producing. The distinction between philosophy, art and science then, lies not in what each discipline is, but in how each discipline acts upon chaos: in how each discipline produces knowledge and, relatedly, in the types of knowledge that are produced.
Philosophy can call out this damaging use of hierarchical conceptual oppositions, and both philosophy and science together (in the guise of different methodological approaches to history) can remind us what, precisely, those oppositions are capable of doing. Philosophy can also remind us that his ideology is not a reality, and philosophy can draw its own concepts from chaos and through them imagine and structure a more inclusive perception of being and the world.
Art also has a distinct and important role to play: it causes us to imagine and it makes us feel. Art can unite us in speculative horror and, thus, connect us in an urge to not settle for the world in which we’ve found ourselves, to not let ourselves and our capacity to imagine be blunted.
Let’s keep producing politically engaged art.
Consumed without consent by lia incognita in Writers Victoria
The act of being consumed, without your consent, while having your own subjectivity denied is typical of the gendered dynamic of racism experienced by women of colour.
- When poetry is white supremacist by Elena Gomez in Overland
When poets denounced Goldsmith’s poem as a desecration of Michael Brown’s body, they were not wrong, nor were they confusing ‘mere words’ for a body. The language of the body (that is, the autopsy upon which the poem is based) became the body in that performance – a black body, which, in the history of bodies, has had a lot of terrible violence inflicted upon it, mostly by white bodies. There is a smug, deliberate provocativeness in Goldsmith’s choice of title that has fuelled the anger of poets. Whatever conversation the act generated throughout the poetry and conceptual writing communities, it was not a conversation that was Kenneth Goldsmith’s to start. His is a white voice, in an area (and world) where black and other non-white voices are routinely silenced. Any critique of race–power structures cannot begin with an act that further silences black poets.
This is not only an argument for ‘representation’ – that is, the idea that if we decentre whiteness and increase representation of non-white poets everywhere, racism will be solved. But representation within poetry is a practical reality: who gets books published? Who gets asked to read or speak on panels? Who is offered residencies at major art/writing institutions? Whose books are added to teaching courses? I am all for the fluidity and malleability of language, and I want to always make a distinction between writing that is examining the relationships between language and peoples, versus language or writing that performs a colonising act.
…We might then ask: is conceptual poetry racist? Not quite. But Conceptual Poetry, insofar as it is a movement and genre with apparent gatekeepers, is racist. The Conceptual Poetry movement asserts itself through similar channels of white supremacy, though a set of practices that should be the blank terrain upon which any interested poet is free to play and experiment. Non-white writers such as Cecilia Vicuña or Kamau Brathwaite would possibly be far more widely known if not for those structurally white spaces.
…poetry criticism assigns a whiteness to conceptual practices by highlighting the difference between, say, a Steinian conceit and poetic interferences with colonialism and its languages, which is not allowed into the canon of conceptualism.
…the status quo in regards to race is something that non-white poets must always confront, whether they choose to do so explicitly within their poetry or even in the choices they make about which poetry communities to identify with.
The whiteness of conceptual poetry is forged and formed through the structures of white, elitist establishments – the White House (where Goldsmith performed for Obama), the prestigious galleries, the academic institutions. The individual methods of its practice hold the potential to undermine said institutions, but the ‘remixing’ and de-authoring that a student of the Goldsmith school of conceptualism might advocate is one that assumes a subject whose survival, visibility and position in the world have never been questioned.
As someone practising conceptual techniques in my own poetry at the moment, I am constantly negotiating this erasure of the author-subject. On the one hand, I see this as a way for my poetry to exist separate from me, a non-white woman; to write in a way that lets my writing speak for itself rather than whatever experiences I may or may not have had. On the other hand, to pretend my work is devoid of subject or author is to participate in the erasure of my gender and skin colour. I’m not arguing that there’s a personal angle to this type of writing that must trump all other aesthetic and formal considerations. But conceptual poetry is just as white supremacist as any other type of literary genre or establishment that is primarily published in a western context. It is reflective of the world, possessing no inherent qualities.
- On whiteness and the racial imaginary by Claudia Rankine in Lithub
Here are a few of the tropes you would likely encounter if you started looking at writers writing about race these days. One: I met an other and it was hard! That is lightly said, but that is the essence of the trope: the anxious, entangling encounters with others that happen before anyone even makes it to the page, and that appear there primarily as an occasion for the writer to encounter her own feelings. Another: I needed to travel to “meet” race, I went to Africa or to Asia or to the American South or to Central America to look at race, as if it now mainly can be found in a sort of wildlife preserve separate from ordinary, everyday experience. Another: race is racism. And lastly: the enduring American thing of seeing race as a white and black affair, the scene where the real race stuff goes down.
The matter of craft comes up clearly when we encounter the various tropes that white writers take recourse to repeatedly when race is on the table… Here’s one: “The imagination is a free space, and I have the right to imagine from the point of view of anyone I want—it is against the nature of art itself to place limits on who or what I can imagine.” This language of rights is as extraordinary as it is popular, and it is striking to see how many white writers in particular conceive of race and the creative imagination as the question of whether they feel they are permitted to write a character, or a voice, or a persona, “of color.” This is a decoy whose lusciousness is evident in the frequency with which it is chased. The decoy itself points to the whiteness of whiteness—that to write race would be to write “color,” to write an other.
But to argue that the imagination is or can be somehow free of race—that it’s the one region of self or experience that is free of race—and that I have a right to imagine whoever I want, and that it damages and deforms my art to set limits on my imagination—acts as if the imagination is not part of me, is not created by the same web and matrix of history and culture that made “me.” So to say, as a white writer, that I have a right to write about whoever I want, including writing from the point of view of characters of color—that I have a right of access and that my creativity and artistry is harmed if I am told I cannot do so—is to make a mistake. It is to begin the conversation in the wrong place. It is the wrong place because, for one, it mistakes critical response for prohibition (we’ve all heard the inflationary rhetoric of scandalized whiteness). But it is also a mistake because our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are. They are not some special, uninfiltrated realm that transcends the messy realities of our lives and minds. To think of creativity in terms of transcendence is itself specific and partial—a lovely dream perhaps, but an inhuman one.
It is not only white writers who make a prize of transcendence, of course. Many writers of all backgrounds see the imagination as ahistorical, as a generative place where race doesn’t and shouldn’t enter, a space for bodies to transcend the legislative, the economic—transcend the stuff that doesn’t lend itself much poetry. In this view the imagination is postracial, a posthistorical and postpolitical utopia.
…Transcendence is unevenly distributed and experienced, however. White writers often begin from a place where transcendence is a given—one already has access to all, one already is permitted to inhabit all, to address all. The crisis comes when one’s access is questioned. For writers of color, transcendence can feel like a distant and elusive thing, because writers of color often begin from the place of being addressed, and accessed. To be a person of color in a racist culture is to be always addressable, and to be addressable means one is always within stigma’s reach. So one’s imagination is influenced by the recognition of the need to account for this situation—even in the imagination, one feels accountable, one feels one must counter. So a writer of color may be fueled by the desire to exit that place of addressability. At the same time one may wish to write of race. And again at the same time one may wish to do any or all of these things inside a set of literary institutions that expect and even reward certain predictable performances of race…But even if it conforms, the performance returns the writer of color to an addressability that at any moment may become violent rather than safe—may become violent if the performance steps outside or beyond those comforting conformities, or even if the performance stays within them. Because the “favor” of largely white-run literary institutions is founded on an original, if obscured, amassment of racial power: they can always remind you you’re a guest.
…If the imaginative sympathy of a white writer, for example, shuts off at the edge of whiteness. This is not to say that the only solution would be to extend the imagination into other identities, that the white writer to be antiracist must write from the point of view of characters of color. It’s to say that a white writer’s work could also think about, expose, that racial dynamic. That what white artists might do is not imaginatively inhabit the other because that is their right as artists, but instead embody and examine the interior landscape that wishes to speak of rights, that wishes to move freely and unbounded across time, space, and lines of power, that wishes to inhabit whomever it chooses.
…We acknowledge that every act of imaginative sympathy inevitably has limits. Perhaps the way to expand those limits is not to “enter” a racial other but instead to inhabit, as intensely as possible, the moment in which the imagination’s sympathy encounters its limit. Or: to realize one might also make strange what seems obvious, nearby, close.
Are we saying Asian writers can’t write Latino characters? That white writers can’t write black characters? That no one can write from a different racial other’s point of view? We’re saying we’d like to change the terms of that conversation, to think about creativity and the imagination without employing the language of rights and the sometimes concealing terms of craft. To ask some first-principle questions instead. So, not: can I write from another’s point of view? But instead: to ask why and what for, not just if and how. What is the charisma of what I feel estranged from, and why might I wish to enter and inhabit it. To speak not in terms of prohibition and rights, but desire. To ask what we think we know, and how we might undermine our own sense of authority. To not simply assume that the most private, interior, emotional spaces of existence—the spaces that are supposed to be the “proper” material of the lyric and the fictive—are most available for lyric and fictive rendering because they are somehow beyond race. To not assume that the presence of race deforms the creative act, renders the creative act sadly earthbound. We are ourselves earthbound. And race is one of the things that binds us there.
…Race enters writing, the making of art, as a structure of feeling, as something that structures feelings, that lays down tracks of affection and repulsion, rage and hurt, desire and ache. These tracks don’t only occur in the making of art; they also occur (sometimes viciously, sometimes hazily) in the reception of creative work. Here we are again: we’ve made this thing and we’ve sent it out into the world for recognition—and because what we’ve made is in essence a field of human experience created for other humans, the field and its maker and its readers are thus subject all over again to race and its infiltrations. In that moment arise all sorts of possible hearings and mis-hearings, all kinds of address and redress.
…This anxiety is fueled by the fact that racism, in its very dailyness, in its very variety of expression, isn’t fixed. It’s there, and then it’s not, and then it’s there again. One is always doing the math: Was it there? Was it not? What just happened? Did I hear what I thought I heard? Should I let it go? Am I making too much of it? Racism often does its ugly work by not manifesting itself clearly and indisputably, and by undermining one’s own ability to feel certain of exactly what forces are in play. This happens in reading as it does everywhere else. In a sense, it doubles-down the force of race—you feel it, you feel the injury, the racist address, and then you question yourself for feeling it. You wonder if you’ve made your own prison.
…for who can’t hear the aggression in “I have a right of access to whomever I wish?”—and says of whiteness instead “I have been unfairly characterized and misunderstood, I have been assassinated by someone whose motivations are political and who is thus disqualified from the human endeavor that is art making.” Thus the wound is paraded for all to witness, and whiteness gathers to itself again its abiding centrality, its authority, its “rights.” Its sanity.
…But we do think white people in America tend to suffer an anxiety (and many have written of this): they know that they are white but they must not know what they know. They know that they are white, but they cannot know that such a thing has social meaning; they know that they are white, but they must not know that their whiteness accrues power. They must not call it whiteness for to do so would be to acknowledge its force. They must instead feel themselves to be individuals upon whom nothing has acted. That’s the injury, that their whiteness has veiled from them their own power to wound, has cut down their sympathy to a smaller size, has persuaded them that their imagination is uninflected, uninfiltrated. It has made them unknowing. Which is one reason why white people take recourse to innocence: I did not mean to do any harm. Or: I wanted to imagine you—isn’t that good of me, haven’t others said that was good for me to try? Or: If I cared about politics, I would write a manifesto—what I’m trying to do is make art. Or: I have a right to imagine whatever I want, and it traduces or dirties art to limit the imagination. Or: I don’t see color. Or: we’re all human beings.
Part of the mistake the white writer makes is that she confounds the invitation to witness her inevitable racial subjectivity with a stigmatizing charge of racism that must be rebutted at all costs. The white writer, in the moment of crisis, typically cannot tell the difference. What a white person could know instead is this: her whiteness limits her imagination—not her reader’s after the fact. A deep awareness of this knowledge could indeed expand the limits—not transcend them, but expand them, make more room for the imagination. A good thing.
For one source of creativity lies in the fact that each individual is essentially strange. There is a deep strangeness, an alterity, in the individual human mind, a portion of ourselves that we never fully comprehend—and this is what writing taps, or is at least one of writing’s sources, one of its engines. This might explain the enigma of writing for so many of us, that the writing so often seems to know more than we do, that we are ‘behind’ the writing (“behind it” in that we make it, but also “behind it” in the sense that we can’t catch up with what it knows and reveals, that it is out ahead of us driven by energies in our possession but not entirely in our deliberate control). This essential strangeness, this unknowability, is a creative resource, perhaps the creative resource, the wellspring of art that shows us things we did not know but that are somehow inevitable and true—true to a reality or a knowledge we don’t yet possess, yet find in the moment of encounter possible, something we accept the fundamental being of even if its nature shocks or startles or repulses or unsettles us (Barthelme’s strange object covered in fur can only break your heart if you have accepted, in the instant of encounter, its essential being, even if you have not yet comprehended its strangeness, its otherness).
…For that unknowable portion of the human mind is also a domain of culture—a place crossed up by culture and history, where the conditions into which we were born have had their effect. Part of what is unknowable within us, at least until we investigate it, is the structuring of our very feelings and thoughts by what preceded us and is not our “own,” yet conditions our experience nonetheless. So the location of a writer’s strangeness is also the seat of history. A writer’s imagination is also the place where a racial imaginary—conceived before she came into being yet deeply lodged in her own mind—takes up its residence. And the disentangling and harnessing of these things is the writer’s endless and unfinishable but not fruitless task. Another way of saying this: the writer’s essential strangeness is her greatest resource, yet she must also be in skeptical tension with her own inclinations. Because those inclinations are in part an inheritance from a racial imaginary that both is and is not hers.
…And we want to acknowledge too: this is a nasty business. We should not pretend that our experiences of race are otherwise. As we write, as we read one another, the internal tumult is unavoidable. It might be soft or it might be loud, but it’ll be made up of some admixture of shame, guilt, loathing, opportunism, anxiety, irritation, dismissal, self-hatred, pain, hope, affection, and other even less nameable energies. The particular chemistry may differ depending upon one’s idiosyncratic mix of personal history and social location. For some it is nothing short of an assault, an assault no less painful because it is routine, an ordinary effect of negotiating a life in a world of people largely comfortable watching the assault go on, or at least willing to minimize its existence. It’s messy, and it’s going to stay messy. Because history is not an act of the imagination. Which is the condition from which we start.
What we want to avoid at all costs is something that feels nearly impossible to evade in daily speech: an opposition between writing that accounts for race (and here we could also speak of gender, sexuality, other enmeshments of the body in history) and writing that is “universal.” If we continue to think of the “universal’ as better-than, as the pinnacle, we will always discount writing that doesn’t look universal because it accounts for race or some other demeaned category. The universal is a fantasy. But we are captive, still, to a sensibility that champions the universal while simultaneously defining the universal, still, as white. We are captive, still, to a style of championing literature that says work by writers of color succeeds when a white person can nevertheless relate to it—that it “transcends” its category. To say this book by a writer of color is great because it transcends its particularity to say something “human” (and we’ve all read that review, maybe even written it ourselves) is to reveal the racist underpinning quite clearly: such a claim begins from the stance that people of color are not human, only achieve the human in certain circumstances. We don’t wish to build camps. And we know there is no language that is not loaded. But we could try to say, for example, not that good writing is good because it achieves the universal, but perhaps instead that in the presence of good writing a reader is given something to know. Something is brought into being that might otherwise not be known, something is doubly witnessed.