I’ll start this as I must in the 21st century, by acknowledging my white privilege. While I do know what regional insensitivity can feel like (I grew up in a poor, white town many would–and have–mocked for its criminal population and abundance of “white trash.” I’m looking at you Anna Wintour. I’m looking at you, actress Julianne Moore, who trashed my town on Letterman.)
However. And a BIG HOWEVER…
I have no idea what racial insensitivity feels like. Thus my opening caveat before I voice my itched-brain annoyance at the backlash against Calvin Trillin’s poem published in The New Yorker in April (“Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”).
In case you missed it, Trillin’s doggerel laments the seemingly endless varieties of Chinese food available in America, all prefixed with any number of provinces in the Asian country (Szechuan, Cantonese, Mongolia)
Long ago, there was just Cantonese, the speaker reminds us. (Long ago, we were easy to please.)/But then food from Szechuan came our way,/Making Cantonese strictly passé.
Like an ISIS hostage reading a statement in front of a video camera, Trillin offered an interpretation of his poem faster than you can shout “cultural appropriation.” Suffice to say, his interpretation departs from mine. I read “HTROOPY” to be a commentary on ACTUAL cultural appropriation; the way American Chinese food bears no resemblance to ACTUAL Chinese food. I thought it was a tongue-in-cheek jab at that old American tradition known as marketing–the dishes named after provinces in China to give consumers that “authentic experience” marketers tell us we should crave. Trillin says the poem speaks more about foodie culture, narrowing his focus of ire on that weird population of people (mostly in New York City) who base their culinary choices on the latest buzz. As a New Yorker, I have unfortunately run into such trendy twats. I was actually part of a conversation on 3rd Avenue with a group of design students debating where to go for dinner when one of them actually said, nojokinginallseriousness, “I’m not eating there, nobody goes there anymore.” If we should ever meet in person, don’t EVER say that in front of me.
So Trillin’s forced explanation of his poem is actually more narrow than my own, and I suspect when he’s through running the gauntlet of Asian writers and professional offendees, he’ll have to run a new gauntlet of starving food snobs. Doesn’t Trillin know he should never punch down? (don’t worry, I just punched myself in the spleen for writing that last sentence.)
I first learned of the backlash against HTROOPY through a thoroughly enraging letter printed in the pages of the subsequent issue of The New Yorker; a letter written by Diana Keren Lee, an Asian-American poet and editor, who, as a poet and editor, should know how dangerous it is to start dictating a “standard” of acceptable poetry.
“Some may argue that, because the poem is intended as doggerel, there is no reason for offence,” she writes. “But perhaps they haven’t endured continual racism, in both subtle and direct forms, or maybe they aren’t reading the poem closely.”
Or, maybe they aren’t reading the poem with the same Reader Response Criticism that you employ, Ms. Lee, based upon your previously established sensitivity to racial bias. In all likelihood Trillin wrote this poem from a place of white privilege. He likely didn’t give racial bias a second thought, considering he was writing a poem that poked fun of foodies and used Chinese food because of its regional diversity. Could he have just as easily written the poem about American cuisine, rhyming Philly Cheese Steaks with Po Boy Sandwiches and Kansas City barbeque? Perhaps. But why should he have to? Answer: Because he’s white.
Which brings me to my bigger point. After reading Lee’s letter I dug around on the internet and found scores of reactions to Trillin’s poem from other Asian poets and writers, along with a sprinkling of black writers. All had a very similar tone. Shut up, Whitey and write about white stuff. Or better yet, don’t write at all. One reaction was titled “Have We Run Out of White Poets Yet?” Many of them took their obligatory jabs at what we understand to be white culture and others went a step further to throw some snark at “white MALE culture.” But it’s okay because it’s “punching up.” I’m so glad people who don’t like being punched have been able to dictate who is allowed to get punched.
The most reasoned approach to the outrage over Trillin’s poem came when one Asian poet essentially told people (perhaps people like me) to “allow them their anger” over the poem. Fair enough. I can’t sit here, still feeling the sting of the nationally broadcast Opie & Anthony Show trashing my town for hours, and not allow others to feel the sting of someone else’s words. But I will take issue with this growing notion that A) White writers should only write about “whiteness.” B) White writers should not even write about how they have come into conflict or confusion with otherness. C) An even better solution to the white problem is for white writers to just go away.
Are these attitudes becoming the new ABCs of literary and show business culture? It sure seems that way. The combination of anti-white vitriol and the sincere efforts of editors at publications across America to include diverse voices in the American conversation could very well create a climate where it’s perfectly acceptable to dismiss someone’s voice because it’s a white voice. Which is the opposite (I think) of what progressive thinkers want. Unless, of course, it’s not what they want and it’s really just about securing their own seat at the table and building up new parameters of exclusion. As George W. Bush once lip-fumbled “If this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of alot easier…as long as I’m the dictator.” This isn’t exactly plight of the white man stuff, I know, but it’s kind of the intellectual equivalent of stepping on a wet towel with socks on.
For another poet to suggest the few remaining beacons of the literary arts should self-censor in order to accommodate everyone’s sensibilities is not only enraging; it’s short-sighted. Are we going to embrace this idea when people start demanding The Slate, and The Stranger and Salon and Jezebel ice out op-ed pieces they think are inconsiderate toward white men? Not to mention these guns are pointed at the wrong outlet. Of the 26 short stories published by the New Yorker since 2016 began, 15 of them were written by women and ethnic minorities, including at least two Asian writers. It’s a shame there has to be such policing of literary magazines, the way VIDA monitors every year, but it’s become a necessary evil. I get it. Many editors of major magazines are men, raised in white enclaves who attended the Ivy Leagues or other white-dominated colleges. They like to read their own reflections in the mirror and that has resulted in a lot of white male monologue pumped into our culture. Progress is long overdue. But don’t let progress mean we should strip all context away from a poem and focus on the color of the poet’s skin (white) what hangs between their legs (a penis) and the subject of their poem (anything NOT white) in order to decide their voice isn’t legitimate and should be silenced with rejection letters.
I would even go so far as to say if Calvin Trillin intended to insult Asians: let it rock. Then, when an Asian poet writes a poem called “Kill Whitey:” let it rock. And when a female poet writes a poem calling for the enslavement of white men: let it rock. The conversations that spring from those poems will be all the more healthy for our literary culture, than the opposite proposed by Diana Keren Lee and others, who would rather not see the poems anywhere on our landscape. Which is to say they’d rather we not write about our differences. Which is to say they’d rather we pretend we never encountered cultural differences. Which is to say they’d rather we lie to one another.