The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don't
Bill Cheng's first novel, Southern Cross the Dog, debuted in June. His book, a fine example of writing what you don't know, has been billed as "audacious" and "ambitious," but you'll be hard-pressed to find a review that doesn't wonder at the novelty of a Chinese-American man from Queens, New York, writing about rural black Mississippi.
Cheng's writing is strong. Take, for example, this quick characterization: "Cutter was unclean, one of the men said. Kept goofer dust in his shoes and a bag full of devils." Or this description of a storm: "Thunder rolled, and stitch by stitch, he could feel the sky unravel." Cheng's invigorating language makes every sentence thrilling.
Unfortunately, most reviewers and interviewers seem to care less about the quality of Cheng's writing than they do about the answers to these questions: Did the Chinese guy get it right? Can an authentic picture of the South come from a man of Asian descent who grew up in Queens?
Instead of addressing those questions directly, I would like to take a step back and look at the assumptions with which they're laden. In doing so, I can't help but recall the reception of another book I recently read, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. If it sounds familiar, that's because it won the Pulitzer for fiction earlier this year.
Johnson's book is about North Korea, even though Johnson is plain old American. Even so, there are few questions as to the authenticity of his account. In fact, the book has been billed as a, "nuanced picture of what life in North Korea might be like," that "open[s] a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea." Instead of being asked, "Why, as an American, are you writing about North Korea?" Johnson is praised for the depth of his research. Reviewers assume that the white author has done his homework, and can be trusted as an authority. With Cheng, on the other hand, eyebrows are raised. The underlying question isn't about authenticity. Rather, the question is: "Don't you have your own heritage to write about?"
How many celebrated white writers have written characters who were not exactly like them? William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Pearl S. Buck, Colum McCann, Yann Martel, and Arthur Golden immediately come to mind. In a society masquerading as post-racial, it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man. People of color, on the other hand, are expected to speak only for themselves.
Johnson's book is, arguably, more masterfully written than is Cheng's (Johnson is, after all, two books, a prestigious professorship, and a Pulitzer ahead of Cheng), but it isn't any more authentic. In fact, one expert on North Korea who reviewed the book said that Johnson's "setting is cardboard heavily salted with factoids from the internet," while another emphasized that it is fiction. Indeed, the North Korea of The Orphan Master's Son is so reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia that one can't help but wonder how many of Johnson's ideas about the Communist society come from residual Cold War stereotypes, rather than from North Korea itself. These implicit biases would be acceptable if the book were read strictly as fiction, but, too frequently, Johnson's themes have been interpreted as commentary on North Korean society instead of the insights into general human nature that they are. Worse, Johnson's book has been widely advertised as a work of freedom that shines the light of truth into the dark and evil corners of the world.
This type of rhetoric, which Johnson himself has unfortunately adopted in interviews, is far more dangerous than is Cheng's writing about the American South. Cheng, after all, is not only accountable to the entire literate population of Mississippi, but he is also in dialogue with a robust tradition of Southern literature. What's more, Johnson will most likely not confront many North Korean readers, whereas Cheng has gone on a book tour in the South. Because Johnson is one of very few novelists covering North Korea, his account will too easily be mistaken as definitive by an unknowledgeable audience. But, if anything, the paucity of voices that reach the West from places like North Korea should cause us to more rigorously challenge the authority of Johnson's work.
Ideally, the authority of a work of fiction should be judged against the standards of the world that it creates, not by its alignment with a rigid notion of reality. By this measure both Cheng and Johnson's books are empathetic, engaging, and deeply imaginative. Both are worth a read. Both are fiction.