The earliest essays in this book were written just before Barack Hussein Obama was elected president, bringing some deluded persons to declare a postracial America. I write this introduction just after the 2016 election, in a nation where Michael Brown and Ferguson, Freddie Gray, Baltimore, and Black Lives Matter are now juxtaposed against the rampant racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and sexism of Donald Trump’s election.
How does a book on creative writing fit into such a context? Some might believe such matters have little to do with teaching creative writing. In part, I hope what I’ve written here will convince such people to reexamine their beliefs.
The purpose of this book is to instruct writers about their craft, particularly fiction writers and writers of memoir as well as creative writing teachers. In composing the book, I’ve considered how writers of color have altered our literary tradition and the ways writers practice their craft. One key shift has involved an increased focus on the issues of identity.
At the same time, many of the principles in this book are timeless, particularly in terms of narrative construction in fiction and memoir. And yet, in my instruction, I’ve encountered many writers, even graduates from prestigious MFA programs, who have not been taught the basic elements of story.
The book also explores the newly evolved aesthetic principles of memoir, which has emerged in recent decades as an established genre. In the process, I examine how memoirists can learn from fiction and how fiction writers can learn from memoir.
To a large extent, these essays stem from my own experiences teaching at the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA), the Loft, and the Stonecoast MFA program. The book also reflects my work as a memoirist, fiction writer, and poet and the ways my writing has interrogated my own identity as a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American.
In a sense, this book can be viewed as my third memoir, another recounting of my own stranger’s journey, to use a term from James Baldwin. Significantly, as I have undergone my own personal journey concerning my identity, the society in which I live has also been undergoing transformations regarding the issues of race and identity, not just within politics but perhaps even more so within culture and its practices.
To explain what I mean by this, let me cite Jeff Chang, the Asian American critic who wrote the hugely influential Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. In his second book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America, Chang examines the issues of race over the last fifty years, the post–civil rights era, within the context of cultural change. The book explores moments like the Black Arts Movement, the advent of multiculturalism, and the so-called culture wars; the election of Obama and the proclamation—and quick retraction—of a postracial America; the shifts in demographics and immigration politics; battles over textbooks and ethnic studies; and the rise of hip-hop. Chang’s book is a must-read for anyone involved with the issues of race or culture. In his introduction, he writes:
Here is where artists and those who work and play in the culture enter. They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable. Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Change presents itself not only in spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but in explosions of mass creativity.
So those interested in transforming society might assert: cultural change always precedes political change. Put another way, political change is the last manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.
Sometime around 2040, the United States will no longer be a white majority country. No racial group will constitute the majority. Artists of color, who are re-creating the past, exploring the present, and creating the future, know what it means to be a racial minority in America. This knowledge is embedded within our identities, experiences, and imaginations; we speak and write from that knowledge. That knowledge is out there for white artists to share, but whether they will avail themselves of that knowledge is another question, one they’ll have to answer if they’re going to prepare themselves for the America that is surely coming and is, in many ways, already here.
The most recent U.S. election bears strong evidence that a large number of whites still desperately cling to a national identity in which racism and the assertion of white dominance and supremacy remain the norm and in which sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and xenophobia are not just accepted but touted. Chang wrote Who We Be in the time of Obama’s presidency, so in late November 2016, his prophecy about political change remains that—a prophecy. But the work of artists—seeing the not yet seen, hearing the unheard, telling the untold—remains.
When I was younger, I was educated in an English PhD program where I read no writers of color, and the current literary issues arising from the increased diversity in American and world literature were not present. But as T. S. Eliot has instructed, each new work and author added to a tradition shifts our view of the whole tradition, alters our understanding of both the present and the past. This shift is occurring now both through the work of individual writers of color and through changes in our literary and intellectual paradigms.
A useful example of this shift is Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, which, along with her novels, has become a seminal work. In her critique of how white American writers have depicted black characters, Morrison makes a trenchant observation about the mind-set of these white American authors as opposed to the mind-set of black authors:
For reasons that should not need explanation here, until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white. I am interested to know what that assumption has meant to the literary imagination. When does racial “unconsciousness” or awareness of race enrich interpretive language, and when does it impoverish it? What does positing one’s writerly self, in the whole racialized society that is the United States, as unraced and all others as raced entail? What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be “universal” or race-free? In other words, how is “literary whiteness” and “literary blackness” made, and what is the consequence of that construction?
While white writers have not traditionally had to imagine a reader of color, writers of color have always been cognizant that their work would be judged and interpreted by white readers. This awareness did not necessarily mean that the writer of color had to write primarily with a focus on, or accommodation for, the white reader. But it did mean that writers of color understood that the very act of writing involved the divide and differences between themselves and white readers. For writers of color, race and consciousness of their racial Other has always been an issue. This was not the case, as Morrison observes, for white writers, even when they were writing about black characters.
What Morrison implies, but does not state, is a prescription for white writers: It is time for you as a white writer to begin imagining a reader of color. What this imagining does to your work and the way you go about your tasks as a writer is up to you. But it is time for the assumption of a monochromatic readership to end in the white literary imagination, which is also to say, it is time to end a view of our literary tradition as monochromatically white.
Both explicitly and implicitly, A Stranger’s Journey addresses the contrasts Morrison alludes to. Overall, the book departs from creative writing books that leave the issues of race and ethnicity beyond the boundaries of how creative writing is taught. My aim here is to broaden the essential elements of the writer’s craft. This book is for both writers of color and white writers, for it addresses issues of identity that anyone in the world of literature today needs to fully comprehend.
At the same time, the book offers practical craft instruction and advice on the writing life and the creative process. What links all the sections of the book, whether concerning identity, craft, or writing in general, is a pursuit of the truth, a hunger to break through to the complexities of our reality, and an understanding of how writing arises from the creativity and truth telling that resides in our unconscious.
I explore two central themes or questions in this book. The first involves the question of identity: how writing is an exploration of who one is and one’s place in the world; how such exploration entails challenges to familial, cultural, social, or political norms and to one’s own psychic defenses and blind spots. Though the question of identity is obviously a consideration that a memoirist must often grapple with, writing fiction can also entail a process through which the writer examines her or his identity. But in whatever genre, a writer’s journey often requires investigating one’s past and present selves to create a truer and more complex articulation of the self. It involves acknowledging one’s current limitations—whether of knowledge, skill, experience, or psychic honesty—and fighting to overcome them.
The second central question of this book revolves around how one tells a story, whether in fiction or in memoir. What are the tools necessary for the writer to construct a narrative either for a fictional protagonist or for recounting a portion of the writer’s life? There are obviously differences in these two tasks but also similarities. In this way, particularly when writing first-person or autobiographical novels, writers of fiction can benefit from understanding how memoir works, and memoirists can benefit from understanding how fiction is constructed.
In my experience as a fiction writer and as a memoirist, I have found that most creative writing texts fail to adequately address narrative structure. Instead, I have discovered a more fundamental understanding of story in books on myth, playwrighting, and screenplays. The essays in the second and third sections of A Stranger’s Journey stem in part from my attempts to extend what I have learned from these books and from my teaching creative writers in fiction and memoir.
The title of the opening section, “The World Is What It Is,” is taken from V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. Early on Naipaul struggled to acknowledge that his own background and identity were essential to his growth as a writer. And yet he also came to see that his ultimate task was to know and acknowledge the whole world, not just the small population and community in which he grew up.
In this first section, I critique certain premises regarding race and the teaching of creative writing, how these assumptions presume a racial status quo that often goes unexamined and unchallenged. I begin with a précis of my own personal journey as writer through the lenses of identity, ethnicity, and race. In the second essay, I argue that for many—if not all—writers, an essential task is to question the premises and frameworks of the groups to which one belongs. In the third and fourth essays, I analyze the differences between the ways white writers and writers of color introduce and contextualize their fictional characters racially, and I investigate the implications of those differences in terms of literary judgment and of racial issues. In the remaining three essays of this section, I explore how race and literary practices play out in the teaching and practice of creative writing. In doing so, I outline how the teaching of creative writing must be transformed to address the needs of students of color and to acknowledge writers of color within our literary culture.
A central theme of this first section is that race provides an essential lens for interpreting and evaluating the work of writers of color, and that this lens has been instrumental in the development of most major writers of color. As such, racial issues cannot be considered as lying outside the boundaries of the teaching of creative writing. Indeed, the failure to question the ways whiteness has traditionally been defined and practiced in both literature and society can lead to failures in craft. Thus a consideration of race in writing and reading literature is an invaluable pursuit for all writers—not just writers of color but white writers too. To argue otherwise is simply a defense of ignorance, a refusal to acknowledge what now constitutes American and world literature. As T. S. Eliot observed, the tradition is always changing, and we must change with it.
The second section, “Story in Fiction,” focuses on the basic techniques of storytelling and narrative structure in fiction. These include the positing of a goal for the protagonist and setting up the protagonist’s irreconcilable conflicts; how and why protagonists lie to themselves and others; the gap between the protagonist’s plans and what actually occurs. I also explore how a fiction writer functions both like God in the book of Job, raining calamities on the protagonist, and like the devil offering temptations to the protagonist.
The examples in this section are drawn from a variety of contemporary writers, but the focus on writers of color here differs from many traditional texts on this subject. (I’ve also constructed the book so that a reader or a teacher need refer to only a few texts as supplemental readings.) In the section’s final essay, “The Four Questions Concerning the Narrator,” I address a question that, given our society’s increasing diversity, has become both necessary and sometimes confusing: Whom is the narrator telling the story to? This question is of a different order than the one posed by Morrison—who is the expected reader of the text?—but the two questions are certainly related.
The third section, “Narrative and Identity in Memoir,” examines the basic aesthetic principles of memoir and how the narrative techniques and structures of fiction can be applied to it. Where the writer of fiction creates story, the memoirist discovers story. At the same time, the question of the writer’s identity in memoir is almost always central. This section reflects my experiences as a writer of memoir and the various ways ethnic and racial identity may be explored in memoir—especially through the reflexive voice that comments on and analyzes the past experiences of the self. As the section progresses, I argue that the exploration of identity, whether in memoir or fiction, has become a central theme of our age, a theme far more complicated and layered than many realize.
The final section, “The Writer’s Story,” revisits the themes of the book in terms of the individual writer’s own journey and story. The first essay takes up the themes of the first section in charting the development of V. S. Naipaul, who grew up in the small community of Indian ancestry in Trinidad and who immigrated as a young man to England. I posit that Naipaul’s background and struggles represent an eccentric path that is, increasingly, no longer eccentric but emblematic; at the same time, especially early on as a writer, he engaged in what all writers struggle with: to see themselves and their place in the world clearly, truthfully.
The final essay in the book uses narrative and mythic structures to chart and understand the path of all writers. Whether in terms of identity or one’s development as a writer or in the task of finishing a book (particularly one’s first book), I see writers as constantly embarking on their own mythical journeys. Thus I view the process of writing as a call to change: We start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book.
Certainly, I myself have gone through this experience of change in writing this book. Indeed, through this writing, I have become someone I did not expect to be. That is one of the greatest joys of practicing my craft and finishing a book. It’s my hope that readers will find this book a seminal guide to their own transformative journey.*
* To assist in that journey, I’ve included an appendix with seven basic writing assignments I give to my students. These assignments are specifically designed to address issues or questions associated with the techniques and literary principles explored in this book.