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On universality in literature

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In junior year, my English teacher asked me a question after reading my story: “why do you only write about white people?”

When I was younger, I read the typical books of my generation: “Harry Potter,” “Narnia,” “Percy Jackson,” etc. I grew up with characters that didn’t look like me and never thought twice about it. As I grew older and moved onto the works of Hemingway and Salinger, I had already unconsciously equated being white to the blank slate in literature. 

Last year, I read Toni Morrison for the first time and was completely blown away. Immediately after finishing “Sula,” I went onto Goodreads to rate it a shining five stars. While scrolling through the comments, expecting most people to rave about Toni Morrison, one stood out to me. Roughly paraphrased, the commenter kindly pointed out the “problem” with Morrison’s works to be that she only wrote about black people, and to truly be a great writer, she needed to confront her fear of writing about white people. In an early interview with Toni Morrison, one of the questions posed to her was, “will you ever write about white people?” 

For the interviewer and the Goodread user, the Western canon seems to be synonymous with the idea of universality: Shakespeare is universal; Toni Morrison is not. The history of Western literature brings forth a history of privilege and forgets that of oppression. The idea of universality is a powerful and important one in storytelling, but often defaults to exclude marginalized persons within “universal” stories. 

The art we choose to elevate is reflective of the times we are in. It is then not surprising that the canonical works mostly deal with middle-class, white, American males. And while no story is inherently strong because of its subject matter, it is telling that when describing a book about white families, we would simply say it is a story about a family. We’ve grown so accustomed to the elevation of stories of the privileged that we think these stories are what defines art, instead of realizing that our conception of art has been construed by the works past academics have elevated.

As poet Ocean Vuong writes, “They will tell you that to be political is to be merely angry, and therefore artless, depthless, ‘raw,’ and empty. They will speak of the political with embarrassment, as if speaking of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.” And, “They will tell you that great writing ‘breaks free’ from the political, thereby ‘transcending’ the barriers of difference, uniting people toward universal truths.” 

The first story I wrote after talking to my teacher was about a Chinese-American girl. I used Chinese words as dialogue along with English. I intertwined Chinese mythology with the plot. Once I had finished, I couldn’t explain the sinking feeling I felt. The story felt lesser than all my others. I felt lesser to have written the story because it was focused on ethnicity, on race, on culture and tradition. I was ashamed that I couldn’t escape the bounds of living in a non-white body to explore more universal issues like love or loss. Instead, I had written Chinese love and Chinese loss. 

All this is not to accuse Shakespeare or Hemingway, not to undermine their influence or not acknowledge their craft; they were men of their time after all. It is instead a call to diversify the literature and art we consume, to create space to accommodate not only the canonical works, but also the ones whose voices have been traditionally put aside. To represent marginalized groups in art and literature is to show us that we are human. 

Now, as I look to modern-day writers like Toni Morrison and Ocean Vuong, I realize that they have created their own space, and I am inspired to do so myself. While I still grapple with understanding the place of the “Western canon,” I know that Chinese loss is still loss, and stories both about and by marginalized authors are worthy of telling, of passing on and of being canonized. 

For more hot takes on books, movies and TV shows, contact Emma K Wang at ekwang ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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