Does (White) Privilege Need to Be Presented on The Page When it Comes to Contemporary Literature?

A friend handed me the new memoir The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy saying she thought I might like it. I had highly suggested Melissa Febos’ new memoirs Abandon Me thinking the same. I’d heard vague things about Levy’s book, more so due to the author’s status in the literature arena (she works at The New Yorker and before that New York magazine). Since she’s a writer for The New Yorker I figured I may dig it. I looked through the first chapter or so and then skimmed forward to get to the nitty gritty. Beyond my editorial comment of length, focus, and this being more material for a couple long-form essays than a full memoir, what turned me off immediately was the level of privilege present throughout.

The New Republic review by Charlotte Shane entitled “Ariel Levy’s Infuriating Memoir of Privilege and Entitlement” pretty much capped off my feelings very well, for the most part.

She doesn’t speak from inside one-size-fits-all feminine ambition but rather garden-variety white entitlement.

Yes, the white privilege irked me, a lot, but so did the cis-gender privilege from a woman who identifies as queer. She misgendered an ex who had transitioned to male. She made assumptions about their life and twisted whatever their mental state was with their gender, which may or may not be true in certain instances but I don’t necessarily need this narrator to take on those labels. I think Charlotte does a good job of noting that the white and socioeconomic privilege is a problem to read in that, it distances many of the readers. In seeing this book in print as is perhaps no one thought to mention this issue to Levy in the production phase, nor did they see it, neither did they care.

In a White, straight, cis, abled dominated industry, that is albeit “liberal” in many ways, publishing, as we know it, still has a long way to go in terms of true uniformity of recognizing privilege as well as being inclusive. These seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum depending on whom you speak to. Going back to books and films that I enjoyed, even music, when revisiting the work there are things I notice, aspects of character, points of plot, issues in dialogue and voice that stand out to me because I know more now and I aim to look for issues (i.e., problematic content) because I’m being paid to. Not only is this my life as an editor but as a writer and it is colored by my being a woman of color. My observations are heightened to moments of conflict such as a man in my work place continually telling me to smile during a business meeting, or noticing how PoC co-workers may be terse in response to fellow PoCs but completely saccharine to white counterparts. It’s a point where we refuse to pronounce people by their right name let alone preferred gender pronoun (PGP) because it’s “so confusing” or too “inconvenient.” To notice these things is to take us a step further towards equality, to ignore or dismiss or remain ignorant keeps us in stasis if not reverting us back to what those before us saw not only behind-the-scenes but in their face because it was perfectly legal.

With that in mind, is it fair for us to take this new lens and look at the past in literature as well as the present and future of it expecting the authors and thereby narrators expound on the issues presented but also being aware of privilege? Hell yes. I read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff soon after it was nominated for a National Book Award. I went in prepared to be let down by the fact that this was going to be a harangue of sorts in novel form about affluent, white, beautiful people with issues attributed specifically to them and not much else. Groff surprised me. For one, she admitted and showed the privilege of the white male character Lotto and also the struggles of his wife Mathilde who remade her life after not having much to begin with, especially in the way of love. They weren’t perfect in terms of looks or personalities but they had that je ne sais quo that garnered them a fan club and they could play a really good game. Within the first chapter Groff prefaced that this couple, in particularly Lotto, were white and privileged, and she didn’t hesitate to immerse readers in their life with strong writing but also by reminding me as reader that to be invested in this particular couple she had to run the gamut and also have people review their biases. Whether or not that meant things ended well you’d have to read. And while it isn’t a white privilege manifesto she did the favor, if not the necessity, of pointing out something that others were reading thereby bringing me further into this world instead of pushing me away from it. It ended up being one of my favorite reads of 2016.

One of the bigger struggles I’ve had with a linked story anthology I’ve been writing for longer than I care to say — definitely more than 5, 6, 7 years at this point — is one of the main characters: a white, well-off financially, good-looking, and intelligent man who is a doctor from a family of doctors. He is my polar opposite in any way that could be checked off on a Census survey. He is also someone people don’t seem to like. Not because he isn’t pleasant but because they cannot relate, or choose not to for reasons I respect, because he is everything that we are not. He has it all, so why, on a fundamental level, would his Black, working class wife (whom others better enjoy reading about, in that we see her struggles) be in love with him? I realized that to at least have some empathy for the most privileged of characters I needed him to reconcile with his privilege, not wholly because that’d be too easy and convenient, but in a way that lead others to see some sort of change with him. Also, I made him too perfect on the exterior that even if he did have somewhat of a broken interior it wasn’t enough of a balance in the fiction world. To make this guy who has a Black wife not necessarily teach him but show him and encourage him to notice that he has to grow up himself which, I’d hope, may not necessarily make him more likeable but readers would give him the benefit of the doubt with sticking with him for the bulk if not the entire story. Let’s be clear, this character is not the “bad guy,” but he’s representative of a larger issue many call out, and have always called out, and we need to face it, be it in media or in life.

I recall reading Eat, Pray, Love soon after it released due to hype. At the time, this was almost a decade ago, I could not quite articulate why I had issues with it. One of the biggest things that hit me was that the narrator, Elizabeth Gilbert, got paid to take her journey for enlightenment to get over her divorce and a relationship with a younger man. I just couldn’t connect as a young Black woman in a bad marriage working her butt off to make more money and move up the ladder in publishing. It definitely wasn’t the book for me at the time, but would it ever be? This is not a knock against Gilbert, it’s a knock against the industry that continues to celebrate these unremarkable (Shane’s words for Levy’s books) stories that are solidly written but seem so out-of-reach and out-of-touch for a good portion of people who will never have these opportunities. If this is what gets pushed through why do we not see more stories from other marginalized groups that are also “unremarkable” in their plot points and skillful in voice? It’s what also infuriates me about those white, straight, abled, and often male travelers who get to be the face of international exploration. They gain momentum on Instagram and Twitter, are interviewed on CBS This Morning for the fact that they decided to go see the world and how “the other half lives.” They receive praise, corporate ad deals, and currency for this when many of us will never have this opportunity to just go. Add to that many won’t feel safe enough to sojourn to various nations without being worried about our physical well-being as women, as transgender, as people of color/Natives, as Muslims, and so on. In fact it heralds back to the colonization of the United States that to travel and act as if you’re discovering something is valued whereas those who had been speaking on this do not have this access.

In Roxane Gay’s brief review of Levy’s book on Goodreads she gave it a favorable rating while also noting the issue of privilege and how it’s ignored. She said it wasn’t necessarily a requirement of the text itself, but how can it be so ignored when it’s so evident (I’m summarizing here). How can Levy’s cisgendered, socioeconomic (though that does waver in the book based on circumstances), and white privilege not manifest in a memoir of all genres in any way?

I’m sure Levy’s book is going to do well because of her status in the literary world and her privilege of her position — how she got the job even touches upon the nepotism and networking not available to others in the publishing industry. What concerns me is how often the issues for transgender representation aren’t mentioned (not even in Shane’s review) for this particular book and also that those who blurbed it, all white people, one white male, praise it for it’s depth and ability to change when the author doesn’t truly seem to be impacted by the latter is worrisome.

On Twitter, an editor for an imprint at a Big 5 publisher noted that when she receives material about/by white people their race is never mentioned, but when it’s a PoC it’s always mentioned (I retweeted this from my podcast account). This says more about the state of persisting the “majority norm” than the state of progress. Because we’re continuing to be averse to the critical reading, not solely criticism for the sake of it and certainly not criticism of people, to look at what is on record for those of future accord. What will we discuss when we look back at these memoirs of white privilege, of cis privilege and think on when we — the industry most prominently — desire to know more of marginalized pain and not much else? Where we have to constantly reflect on our state as marginalized whereas our white/cis/abled/Christian counterparts don’t have to? It’s not unfair for both sides to be reflective and it can only benefit all of us to bring us closer to the page.

Read the Fine Print: The Pawnee Treaty, Perception, and Questioning Rather Than Accepting “Truthiness”

Making my way to the next landing I saw the largesse of an oil painting of the Pawnee Table Creek Treaty of 1857 by William Haskell Coffin. In this painting, Native American men dance in an open field wearing nothing more than headdresses and loincloth of sorts. Some carry hatchets, others spears. The settlers, all white, stare stone faced, dare I say questionably, at those in celebration. The imagery itself disturbed me knowing the broad strokes of the history between colonialists and Native Americans (short version, the first group steadily massacred the second). 

On a table to the far right of this painting was a copy of the actual Pawnee Treaty of 1857. If the visual didn’t incite pause, the treaty itself had me stupefied. 

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Back On the Residency Game: Kimmel Harding Nelson (2017)

The last time I had a formal residency, one in which I applied for, was in 2013. The road to getting one has been rough. I had one year where I applied to 18--totaling over $400 in application fees--and got not a one, though I was a finalist for a 6-week residency with a stipend. That was a blow to the system, I have to say. Particularly the fees and some sense of expectation on my end. I didn't apply again for a year after that. There's a lot that goes into being considered for a residency as well as attaining one and then making use of said time when received. 

What I did learn was that every year residencies become more and more popular. Word spreads and the competition gets stronger. Also there's the fact that you cannot predict subjectivity. One part of your application can be super strong and another somewhat weak depending on the eyes looking at it. In fact, this is what I heard about an application last year: my portfolio was rated very high but my community project was rated in the middle. Unfortunately, I was given no further emphasis on what I could do for one area of my application as the ratings were purely numerical. 

By applying for less residencies I (1) was less stressed and less expectant and (2) was able to better plan how to do my applications and which ones I needed to tailor portions if I was working on the same project. 

Last fall I applied for 4 residencies, in winter I applied for 3. I was waitlisted for one and received another. I am on the last few days of the residency I did receive in Nebraska City, Nebraska at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. 

For the past two years I had been doing makeshift residencies thanks to friends generosity in San Jose, California for 2.5 weeks and then Portland, Oregon for 2 weeks. So getting back into a formal residency with rules and staff rather than someone's home was pleasant to get back in the groove of. I found I missed it. I got a good amount done at my friends' places on the west coast, but there's something about being in a space specifically classified as an "artists zone" with people you've never met that can help you thrive in ways. 

Kimmel Harding Nelson (KHN) Center is a smaller residency in a small town of 7,000 people. Nebraska City, as I learned, is known for it's farming and ethanol production (yay corn!) as well as for creating Arbor Day. A time I was lucky enough to be on residency for during celebrations, though Mother Nature didn't seem to care and rain, wind, cold would prevail.

At KHN five residents reside in the same building though a composer, or visual artist, will get a studio space downstairs, and a writer and visual artist will bunk up on apartments on the first and second floors. Writer's studios are within the apartment with windows facing the main street in front of the center. The composer's studio is in the gallery on the main floor, and visual artists have studios in the renovated garages outside. Don't worry, as my roommate told me, they are insulated for warmth in the colder months. You receive a $100 weekly stipend for groceries or whatever your needs are while in town and the director and assistant director, Holly and Pat will take you shopping soon after you arrive. 

I have to say I really dig this space. My roommate and I got along really well. (She made pancakes my first full day here! If that's not the way to someone's heart I dunno what is.) Each apartment is equipped with a kitchen, dining area, living room, and my roommate and I have our own bathrooms. The apartments are spacious and quiet, though us being on the first floor we could hear every step those above us made. The visual artist's studios are also not soundproof (as they warn). You get a kitchen stocked with utensils, plates, cups and pots along with whatever previous residents have left. You receive washed towels, bedsheets, comforters ready. You have to clean up after yourself during your stay, maid service only comes in for departing residents in prep of new occupants. There's a washer/dryer downstairs and an area to watch basic cable television or DVDs in the basement near the laundry where the composer's studio apartment is also nearby. 

The town itself is small and you can get to a lot in walking distance. Compared to NYC the city blocks are super short. So you'd probably feel like you made a lot more progress than I do when I'm walking up/down Manhattan blocks. There's a lovely place I got to work on a rainy, blustery Sunday called The Keeping Room two blocks away. (I highly suggest The Keeping Room for service and sweets alone.) There's a decent Mexican spot in a pink shack two blocks away. There are thrift stores and antique shops up and down Central Avenue, the main street in this area. Walgreens, BBQ, a place called Runza which is a big deal to some Nebraskans but merely okay as me and fellow residents determined are also very close. You're not in the boonies so to speak and if there's something farther away Holly and Pat may be able to take you. Oh, and there's a newly curated Lewis and Clark museum as you enter town, which Pat's husband helped create. There are parks and kick ass apple cider doughnuts.

I came in on Monday and will be leaving on a Friday. Those are the designated days of arrival and departure. So technically two weeks is really 11-12 days depending how you time it. Though you can request as long as 6 weeks here and as short as the 2 I did. I think one of the ideal timings of an artist residency are 3-4 weeks, but I'm already losing one week of wages being here since I don't have enough vacation time. Totally worth it though. The quiet, time away, community, and free headspace have been fantastic. 

I pushed myself to do a few things before my arrival: No social media (though I was admittedly on for a few minutes over the course of several days). No work for anyone else during this time (I declined 3 freelance gigs I was contacted about right before and during my time away). I also turned my phone off/set it on airplane mode so I wouldn't hear from anyone (the primary way to get in touch with me is email). I reserved one day and one day alone to do emails and will aim to be on email as little as possible my last couple days here. 

Essentially, my goal was not to be stressed about anything that wasn't my own work or that I'm not contracted to do since I had a short period of time. I also didn't want to be rushed back into other agreed upon responsibilities as soon as I stepped off the plane--many of those freelance projects were rush, so I'd be starting on them right after I got back or had to start them while I was away. I announced on social media before I left that people should not expect to hear from me. And as always set my out of office on my email accounts. I began every email I did respond to with "Hi from Nebraska, I'm on residency but..." to let people know: Leave. Me. Alone until I get back. Lemme tell you 'No' is a freeing word. 

At previous residencies I didn't totally log off. And when I did the makeshift residencies at friends' places I was still working, people continued to contact me as though me saying "residency" meant vacation where I could still be reached. For some reason people didn't respect the time away when I made it myself versus when I said I was awarded one. Go figure on that, but I also let those things seep into my time and that's my own fault. 

When you propose a residency you have an aim and hopefully, depending on timing, you'll still be working on and interested in the project proposed. For me I worked on what I proposed as well as short fiction. My goals were to provide final edits to the latest batch of contributors for the anthology I'm editing, work on my nonfiction project, revise short fiction, reading, exercise, and sleep. The problem for me is I'm always working on more than one thing and these 11 days were time when I was able to actually work on those things separately, dedicating hours to each with no regrets or nothing else tugging at me to take my focus away besides eating and sleep. It's great! While I would love another week if not another 3 days here I'm leaving with more off my To Do list than what I came in with and can look at my first weekend back home hammering out a couple things and getting right back to my own stuff.

Essentially, this is my long-winded way of saying I thoroughly enjoyed my time at KHN and I'd really recommend it for anyone who wants that space and time away without feeling like you're extracted from the rest of the world. You have options here and if you have a car even better, but walking isn't hazardous or arduous. And if you come by for Arbor Day be prepared for a lot of celebration since it's a big thing here. Big Thanks to those at KHN for granting me this time and also to Holly and Pat for availing themselves at every turn. This space means a lot to those of us who have the opportunity to be granted this time and this support. 

Italian Eatery Recommendations

I was in Italy for 8 days last month and ate, ate, and ate some more.

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#ArtistTherapy: Residencies, are they for you?

Needing space and time away is natural for the creative process. One way to get this is residencies, applying for them or making your own.

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