Sometimes my tongue feels inexplicably heavy.
Sometimes the weight of each word is the waxing moon, swelling and unveiling, made of rock and myth. Sometimes everything is semiotic. Sometimes the ink seems stained deeper than the fibers of the paper. Fathomless. Unfathomable. The tangle of prefixes and suffixes reaching down, entwined in the roots of fable and lore. Sometimes the fables and lore pull at me: culture, ancestry, society, history, blood, threads.
Sometimes, I don’t want to think about decolonizing literature or about challenging power dynamics in storytelling structures—I just want to tell a story.
This is our impossibility, the paradox of marginalized writers:
1. Women of color writers are not just women of color writers.2. Women of color writers are women of color.
Marginalization works by defining the marginalized only by the marginalization. What I mean is, the system relegates us into certain unequal categories. Some categories get to be flexible and expansive. They are the “default.” White. Male. Cisgender. Heterosexual. Able-bodied. Inhabiting these categories means you get to be dynamic and multifaceted. It means you are defined first and foremost by your personality, your style, your accomplishments, your abilities, your stories off the self.
The privilege of the “default” causes the rise and preservation of some stories over others.
And while those writers sketch their stories on blank slates, marginalized writers must work with pages that have already been tinted. We feel like the sub-category. We struggle to be seen in all our complex multitudes, to be represented fully and completely.
When women of color imagine and create, the products of our imagination and creation are seen as shallow reflections of our identity politics. They never stand alone. They can never be part of the universal context.
In mainstream reviews, Chinese American author Amy Tan’s work will always be compared to Chinese American author Maxine Hong Kingston’s work. The sprawling family drama and strong symbolism of her The Joy Luck Club will never be compared to the sprawling family drama and strong symbolism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or the sprawling family drama and strong symbolism of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Her work will only ever be defined by race.
Just recently, when I expressed my opinion that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric should have won the National Book Award for Poetry, a white writer told me, “She’s a good writer, but her stuff is too political for me.” I doubt he would have called Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World “too political,” despite their clear political messages.
White cis-het men writers are “writers,” while the rest of us are “__________ writers.” We can pull any canonical text from the shelf, written invariably by white men, and drone on and on about authorial intent, poststructuralism, and all that—yet, women of color creators are always beholden to their identities.
In her novel Beloved, Toni Morrison writes, “Definitions belong to the definers, not to the defined.”
Our work will continue to be pigeonholed and shoved aside. We will continue to have the burden of representation. We will continue to be “too political,” never universal. We will continue to be to be defined by others.
How do we challenge this? Must we become the definers? Must we re-define in defiance?
I accept that this is complex and even contradictory because this isn’t an easy topic. When we write as women of color, we reject narrow frameworks and shallow categories, but we cannot dismiss who we are. When the different axes of marginalized peoples’ identities become their primary signifiers, it perpetuates marginalization. However, we must not neglect that each axis is a vital part of someone's personhood.
As a child, I did not believe that girls like me could be represented on the printed page in any form. We could not be authors or editors. We could not even be characters.
I was so convinced of this that I believed Cho Chang was a white girl for years—after all, Harry Potter thinks of her as a “pretty girl” rather than a “pretty Asian girl,” and only the beauty of white girls are allowed to be unqualified. It was only until the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire movie trailer came out that I realized—jarringly, discordantly—that Cho was Asian.
J.K. Rowling meant for Cho Chang’s name to be the signifier, but a name was not enough evidence for me. That is how strong the definitions in place are. That is how powerful the “default” is.
Here is the worst part. Although I secretly rejoiced about Cho, I outwardly pushed away from her. I shied away from any discussion about her with other kids who loved Harry Potter as much as I did. I did not want to be associated with Asian authors or characters. I wanted to be “unique.”
It hurts me to the core to think about how other I bent to the definitions of others. In my hidden heart of hearts, I yearned to be an Asian girl version of Frodo Baggins or Jo March or Alanna the Lioness or Odysseus or Ella Enchanted. Yet, externally, I focused on erasing my race and gender to achieve “universality.”
When I was younger, I took it for granted that I would write under a pseudonym if I ever published a book. I planned to use first initials with a new “ambiguous” last name. I never admitted it to myself back then, but clearly this was contrived to make any future readers think I was a white male writer.
Words can never be simply words. Stories can never be simply stories.
Sometimes my voice feels inexplicably hoarse.
I never want another young aspiring writer to feel that they must hide away essential parts of themselves in order to be taken seriously. Do not let yourself be solely defined by the ways in which the system marginalizes you, but also never forget the significance of those aspects of your identity.
Thinking about that little girl of color, sitting in a dusty corner of the local library, leafing through fables and lore—I realize that all I ever needed was the world to tell me that my voice mattered. I didn’t need the academic language I have now—words like “intersectionality” and “praxis,” words I use as sword and shield.
I just needed to know that I was allowed to fall in love with the written word. That “the human condition” included me as well, despite all canonical evidence to the contrary. That girls of color could write about being girls of color and it could be literary. That my identity was important, but more so, that I was important.
The penultimate chapter of the anthology This Bridge Called My Back includes an open letter from Gloria Anzaldúa to women of color writers. “We cannot allow ourselves to be tokenized. We must make our own writing and that of Third World women the first priority,” she writes. “Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency I fear. Because I have no choice. Because I must keep the spirit of my revolt and myself alive. Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and hunger. I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you.”
It comes down to this: We should be able to write about our authentic experiences without being tokenized and objectified. We should be able to tell stories free of dehumanization and otherization.
It’s taken me (it’s still taking me) a long time to figure this out. The process continues, and there are still moments when I buy into that old myth of universality. Even worse, there are moments when I allow silence, the institutional silence of complacency, to invade my throat and hands. I must constantly remind myself—and remind the world—that my voice matters. My gender identity and my race are integral parts of who I am, but they are not the only aspects of who I am. Yet, I have to constantly fight for this basic declaration of my humanity. I will continue to write my stories because they are mine. My experiences in their entirety are valid. My imagination in all its entirety is valid. I’m still learning as a writer and a human being, but my voice is valid.
In her book Redefining Realness, Janet Mock writes, “I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act. It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion, and violence. It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence, and community. I hope that my being real with you will help empower you to step into who you are and encourage you to share yourself with those around you.”
I am finally taking this step, telling my story—to myself, to you, and to the world.
Julie Feng is a writer and educator. She is the recipient of the Joan Grayston Poetry Prize, the Arthur Oberg Prize for Poetry, and the Academy of American Poets Award. You can reach her at juliefeng.com.