Tiny White People Took Over My Brain

Learning to rethink the canon and find my own voice as a mixed-race writer

Hiding out in the suburbs, on the hard drive of the Windows desktop that still lives in my childhood bedroom, are the remains of the world’s whitest novel. We’re talking upper-middle-class-ennui white. Picket-fenced, silently-seething-marital-dissatisfaction white. Where every person is conversant in Cheever’s entire catalog and has started, finished, or seriously contemplated a Ph.D. These characters don’t just see psychoanalysts, they are psychoanalysts.

I fared no better with short fiction. My head was crawling with enough tiny white people to populate several years’ worth of stories, many of which wound up published in Canadian literary journals. If I ever felt brave enough to mention race at all in my writing, it was either as an awkward conversational topic, or worse, a minor plot point — the functions to which the world had consigned it in my own life. Implicitly, every character in the work was white. Explicit mention of a person’s race was more to point out what they weren’t, which was white.

You’d be forgiven for expressing surprise that the author of these fictions was an eighteen-year-old woman of color — one who seemed to view the world with the blinders of an old white man.

My stories were evidence for the imagined judge and jury  of how many tiny white people could dance on the head of my pen.

“Who wrote this shit?” is a common sentiment among writers confronting their past work. There’s a distinct pleasure to this bit of theater, namely due to its silent implication — that the writer has improved since then, transforming her sentences in the crucible of craft. But the work is also genuinely hard to face. I struggle to charitably imagine my way back into my teenage psyche, that of a girl so averse to taking on race in her fiction — despite its status as, arguably, the most visible thing about her — that she took to tone-deafness instead; a clumsy, not-so-knowing wink at the reader that this was A Sensitive Subject. I’m told we should be kind to past versions of ourselves, so here’s my attempt at being charitable: these overwrought fictions were attempts to excise my intellectual anxieties, a glib performance of my vocabulary and theoretical smarts to prove my fitness for authorship. They were also an exercise in fanatic emulation, further evidence for the imagined judge and jury — who probably looked a lot like Wallace, Franzen, and Roth — of how many tiny white people could dance on the head of my pen.

But there was a deeper kind of anxiety at play than mere questions of talent or intelligence. These self-serious slices of white life were also a diversion, a bit of razzle-dazzle to distract the world from the writing that, just by looking at me, it might expect me to produce.

As a mixed-race woman, I inhabit a body that people have either too much or no fun trying to read. To make an explicit claim to my own heritage is often seen as an invitation to call my belonging into question. The places where I could easily opt out of facing such social torsion were the worlds where I was sovereign. So in my constructed realms I aimed for neutrality, and to my younger self, under the sway of a knotty mess of factors — reading habits, course syllabi, peer group, role models — “neutral” meant “white.” (Once, in a terrible writing workshop, one of my colleagues described my characters as “WASPy” — though only to ask why I’d bothered to make them Jewish).

As far as acts of intended subversion go, this one was a perfect failure. In seeking to circumvent the question of race, I wound up replicating the same ideologies that had cornered me into feeling like I didn’t deserve to write about it in the first place. “Write what you know” took a hard backseat. Instead, I wrote what I read.

My reading taste was never formed with the expectation that I should encounter, on the page, people who looked like me.

My reading taste was never formed with the expectation that I should encounter, on the page, people who looked like me. I did not think to demand representation from the works that I consumed, and for their part, the authors I read were content not to offer it. Instead I trained myself into literary cipher-hood, learning to commune with narratives that focused on what I only much later came to call “white people doing white things.” I can think of a number of reasons why, as a young person, such a communion could have seemed so natural. For one thing, psychological realism has always been my Achilles heel — nail it and I may well forget that everyone in your book is white. It’s also hard to find people who look like me, so perhaps at some point I just gave up trying to find them — and anyway, circumstances had arranged it such that I spent my time in mostly white spaces. When I bothered to look up from the page at the world around me, given slight adjustments for time period and geography, the slide clicked neatly into place.

All of which meant that I didn’t think to question the greatness, or the whiteness, of the works put in front of me. As a young person with undeveloped taste, I clung to the classics as a compass in the unknowable stacks of adult fiction. I convinced myself that consuming the texts of the titans was the work of becoming a writer. I affected, then developed, a taste for expensive sentences. An undergraduate English degree fed the beast. Mainstream creative writing wisdom, grounded in the principles of emulation, supported this parasitic hunger to inhabit the master’s sentences (see the famous commandments of author and god-aspirant Richard Bausch, with the numbers two and seven dictating, respectively, that thou shalt “imitate” and “eschew politics” — about the last pieces of advice any non-white writer should feel they have to follow). The sole force in my life that made an effort to diversify my tastes — if we’re not counting certain syllabi’s token inclusions of Beloved — was my mother.

I have always loved my mother unreservedly, but that doesn’t mean I was receptive to her suggestions. Any twinges I felt to read Maya or Toni or Zora or Alice were promptly stifled by the fact that to do so was framed as some kind of virtuous choice, like so many of the things my mother advocated but my adolescent self found personally offensive (curfews, piano practice, tuna casserole). More than that, I was deeply, destructively resentful of the idea that these texts were somehow “for me,” or “good for me,” in a way that the works on the Great Books Lists were not; that the shape of my taste could be predicted or in any way influenced by the way my body signified.

It’s not that I didn’t want to read Maya or Toni or Zora or Alice — it’s that I didn’t want to feel like I ought to read them. Like it was a duty that fell more heavily upon me and the people who looked like me than on those who could easily swap themselves in for a character in, say, Goodbye, Columbus. I’d settled for demanding less from the works that I read, which in all fairness should have guaranteed the logical opposite — that no works had more right than any other to make demands on me. Especially not while I was trying to conquer the classics. I read to know and understand, not to be known and understood. The relationship had only ever flowed in one direction. When it suddenly offered hints of the reciprocal I felt, more than anything else, offended.

It’s not that I didn’t want to read Maya or Toni or Zora or Alice — it’s that I didn’t want to feel like I OUGHT to read them.

While I insisted on sheltering my reading list from any forms of outside influence, I had absolutely no problem disrupting someone else’s. For a long time before I was brave enough to share my output with any kind of writing community, my mother was my sole litmus test. I’d push my fiction in front of her like a mouse I’d just killed, hungry for praise but usually just provoking the emotional equivalent of “I guess we’ve got mice.” My mom was always gracious when faced with this evidence of my mind’s infestations — gracious, but never in love. She’d read everything I gave her, compliment it, smirk at its smartass humour and coo over the diction, but it never seemed to touch her. Kind of like how I felt about Mao II.

But that wasn’t a connection I was capable of drawing at the time. I was merciless in my cross-examinations as I tried to plumb her responses for depths that, let’s be real, the work hardly merited. Things I wanted to know: Did she like it? Was it funny? Like actual ha-ha funny? Was it better than my last story? Did it remind her of any writers? Were they American? Were they men? (Being compared to men was always higher praise; my youthful priorities were misaligned along multiple axes.) Things I didn’t want to know: if she had any suggestions for improvement; if it hadn’t made her laugh; if it reminded her of anything Oprah liked. The wrong comment and I’d sulk for hours, certain of both the infallibility and the fundamental, enigmatic complexity of my tiny white people.

Other than the knowledge that she’d diligently fostered my love of language, I wonder if there was anything in this early work that my mother could even recognize, let alone connect with. Apart from taking place in a white suburb much like our own, my writing contained no tangible traces of our experience, not so much as a nod to our bodies or inner lives or cultural heritage. I wonder if she was struck by this absence; if it felt, as certain mid-century American writing sometimes makes me feel, like she’d mistaken a window for a mirror. If it was a jarring moment, reorienting herself to the awareness that this was the flat and awful lens through which her child perceived the world, as reflected in bits of test-tube lit where everyone was horrible to one another and also had no discernible day jobs.

As a younger writer, my pet fantasy took shape not just as literary fame, but as a particular question posed by a reporter: that authorial interview fixture, “what’s your relationship to your characters?” There’s a lot to be gleaned from a writer’s response. In a now-infamous conversation with the Kenyon Review, the novelist Richard Ford describes his relationship to his fictional creations as one of “[m]aster to slave.” As if that weren’t enough, Ford removes any traces of reasonable doubt by claiming to sometimes “hear them at night singing over in their cabins,” so caught up in his racist rhapsodies that he seems to forget the tenor of the metaphor: all the inmates of a Richard Ford cabin would be white, apathetic, and sleeping with somebody else’s wife. It’s an analogy that, in addition to being highly offensive, allows the writer to self-congratulate about both his discipline and the apparent reality of his creations — he can’t even escape their voices when he puts down the pen.

E.M. Forster gives us a similar humblebrag when he describes his characters seizing the reins and galloping off with the plot, a conceit Nabokov is quick to dismiss as derivative and “trite,” deadpanning instead that he works his own subjects like “galley slaves” (surprisingly, this one checks out — it’s tied to a very narrow context of European penal servitude, the second most severe punishment after execution, with a bonus Nabokovian pun on “galley” as the proofs of a book). Colson Whitehead’s decision in The Underground Railroad is both more interesting and more sensitive, rewriting a fugitive slave bulletin to proclaim of Cora, his main character, that “SHE WAS NEVER PROPERTY.” Within the narrative, Whitehead offers his protagonist a kind of apology for putting her through the traumas of the preceding pages, according her a freedom that neither the text nor history was able to provide.

My interviewer, I imagined, would ask the question for a different reason, expecting a different kind of answer: intending to sniff out the scent of autobiography in my work. The perfect metaphor to shut down such an invasive reading, I long ago decided, was to claim a parental relationship and call my characters my children. Nabokov would probably also find this figure trite and derivative, and he wouldn’t be wrong, but necessity trumps originality. The analogy propped up a number of crucial truths about the umbilicus between me and my tiny white people: I created them, they contained a part of me, any flaws of theirs I claimed as my own, but at base, we were separate and distinct.

This is not to say that love for my characters was absent, any more than a parent’s love for a child she created but does not completely understand. But it feels telling that I was so prepared for this criticism — do you honestly see yourself in these people — and so invested in defending myself against it. It feels telling that drawing a clear line of demarcation between the me and the not-me was my chosen defense.

At the same time, it seems a bit chilling to invoke the parent-child relationship as the basis of differentiation rather than affiliation. You’d think that after going through a process as birth-like as the one Hilary Mantel describes — one of physically “pull[ing]” her characters from “out of [her] own self” — that a writer would be a little prouder to claim the product as her own. But in my case, claiming my characters too openly might have invoked the same judgment that I’d been hearing on and off for my entire life: that the child looked nothing like the parents.

Claiming my characters too openly might have invoked the same judgment that I’d been hearing my entire life: that the child looked nothing like the parents.

I hadn’t read all of Cheever. My house was not edged by a picket fence. I did not stare moodily out of windows, nurturing dark thoughts because it had been weeks since I’d slept with my wife. The parental metaphor was a bit, I guess, like Forster’s autonomous characters, meant to indicate that these dear, horrible little people had lives of their own. But in my case, the claim came with a silent addendum — “and their lives look nothing like mine.”

Crucially, neither did their bodies. In my writing, I saw no room to engage with the fraught question of how I saw myself, or how the world struggled with seeing me, as a racialized person. With my own racial identity so often questioned for its legitimacy — encapsulated by the constant demand by strangers and acquaintances to identify my “background” — to tackle that dynamic in fiction didn’t seem worth the exhaustion. To write at any length about non-white characters would have been to risk retreading that same terrain. But I’m wary of making it sound like I actively suppressed the urge to diversify my writing, when my omissions and missteps were closer to unconscious. I did not write white characters at the deliberate expense of black characters; it was just what my mind defaulted to as the most acceptable. It was a stone that earned me two dead birds: a swerve around personal pain, and an offering to the world of what it seemed hungriest for.

It took me a while to twig to the fact that I had serious competition for the heart of my first reader, that there were heights of aesthetic bliss to which my tiny white people were not capable of transporting her. There was one book in particular that my mother carried around with great care and for some time; one she’d curl up with on the couch and snicker into quietly, as though the two of them were shit-talking everyone else in the room. While sidling past, I cut my eyes at the cover and promptly wrote the whole thing off on the basis of its graphic design — boxy white letters over a color-blocked background of pink, lime and aquamarine — and my unfamiliarity with the author’s name. If I hadn’t heard of a title, as my watertight logic went, then it must be the fault of the book.

A couple of weeks passed. Between raising five children, my mom found the time to finish the novel’s 400-something pages. Still the love affair didn’t end. I caught her Googling the writer’s name and doing the same shit-talking snicker over a lengthy interview. Hovering behind her shoulder in her home office, I caught my first glimpse of my mother’s funnier friend, who I’d come to think of as a kind of personal antagonist vying for the role of pseudo-daughter: young, turbaned. Killer cheekbones.

“She’s mixed,” my mom said. “And she’s hilarious. Look at her” — flipping over her copy of White Teeth — “so young. You should read it.”

The bliss, it turned out, wasn’t aesthetic at all — at least, not exclusively. My mother’s reaction to Zadie Smith’s writing, the feelings of recognition and communion the work produced in her, was so foreign to any effect I was trying to achieve with my fiction — foreign, even, to anything I’d thought of fiction as capable of doing — that it couldn’t even take root in me as jealousy. The undeniable gap in the joy she took between Smith’s work and mine was not just because Smith was the superior craftswoman, but because we were engaged in totally different pursuits — Smith to write the world as she knew it, me to write the world as others did. When I did read the novel, and more of Smith’s work, it was so much more to me than just a pleasurable lesson in empathy and sentence-making, delivered with the gift of narrative absorption.

Reading Zadie Smith was the first time I really thought of the author as a person, as bearer of a physical body that both produced and informed the text, and how the experience of encountering that on the page — whether it takes the form of candor, humor, or representation — can be a revolutionary one for your reader. Though at the time, you’d have been hard-pressed to get me to admit that my mother’s recommendation was actually right. Zadie would back me up on this — as a teenager, she had her own resistance to her mother’s prescribed list of books by black women. When she finally agreed to read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, her fourteen-year-old self’s grudging admission, after a reading experience that left her weeping, was that the novel was “basically sound.”

In a recent Harper’s piece on Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the Whitney Biennial, Smith admits that “[t]o be biracial at any time is complex.” The inner conflict that animates the biracial experience, Smith writes, can produce an anxiety about one’s authenticity, one that may result in “an unfortunate tendency toward overcompensation.” Smith is reflecting on her encounter with Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, asking what ought to be the “appropriate” response of a mixed-race person to this depiction of black suffering. “Overcompensation” might be one word that explains the genesis of my tiny white people. When faced with works by writers of color, my knee-jerk response was an overwhelming anxiety about the inability, real or imagined, to recognize myself in these depictions of black life. Instead I threw my literary lot in with the “canon,” trafficking in tropes both more easily recognizable and widely consumed. Whiteness as neutral. A curious, unfortunate symptom of what Smith might call the “yearn[ing] for absolute clarity: personal, genetic, political.”

This past December, I took my mother to meet Zadie Smith on the Swing Time tour. Standing in the signing line, I had some vague plan to introduce them by tracing some kind of lineage of her novels through our two generations, but when we reached the front of the queue it was Zadie who spoke first. She loved my mom’s outfit — camo pants, baseball cap — and told her she looked “like a nineties homegirl.” Before I had time to say anything, my mom broke in with an opening play of her own, sliding across the table a picture of her five kids like it was a code in a secret, shared language. I watched as the two of them bent over the signing table to study the photo, heads together, marveling at the “roll of the dice” that comes with biracial family making.

When faced with works by writers of color, my response was an anxiety about the inability to recognize myself in these depictions of black life.

“Your turn next,” Zadie said, looking up at me, meaning it now fell to me to ring in the next generation. I didn’t tell her that I do have children of a kind, and that I’m still trying to sort out how best to do them justice; how to fashion them into people I’m entirely proud to call my own. Depending on how brazen I’m feeling, sometimes when I meet an author, I’ll claim my writerly affinity (sometimes too passionately — I’m pretty sure I scarred Jonathan Franzen). But with Zadie I kept quiet, contented enough with those moments of recognition.

The world’s whitest novel, the one that still lurks in my childhood home in the suburbs, remains mercifully unfinished, which is how it will stay. A few years back, I cribbed one of its stronger subplots and turned it into a short story with a title — “The Anxiety of Influence” — that grows more cringingly symbolic as time goes by. I’m still learning, which is to say I’m still unlearning. Tiny white people are everywhere, bursting into every subgenre and ready to crawl into your ears — bored and affectless as they surf the true-crime wave, vomiting “all the feels” across your feminist long-reads, inserting themselves unceasingly between the words “great” and “novel.” I won’t be so gross as to give you a recitation of all the non-white characters in my work — I’ll leave such tasks to Jonathan Franzen. But I will say that I’m seeking to do my part as a writer as well as a reader. I demand more of my characters, now, because I demand more of myself.

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