A Literary Burden

Are the works minority female writers applauded for the same ones that limit their potential? by Dina Lobo

Literature, poetry and the arts are platforms that welcome abstract, fictional and complex works, but is there a burden on minority female writers to discuss their experiences and their identities in their works? Are they limited in the topics they explore? Are abstract works of literature that go beyond identity, a privilege only given to white female writers?

In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she details how female writers with great abilities and potential were limited in exclusively writing about the sexism they faced and the anger they felt in being a woman in the 18th century. She names Lady Winchilsea in particular and says, “it was a thousand pities that the woman who could write like that, whose mind was tuned to nature and reflection, should have been forced to anger and bitterness.” Woolf adds, “her gift is all grown about with the weeds and bound with the briars. It had no chance of showing itself for the fine distinguished gift it was.” Woolf argues that Lady Winchilsea is burdened in writing about her experiences, which left no room to explore her writing beyond that topic.

Although Woolf’s argument applies primarily to white women, the implications can be applied to the circumstances faced by minority female writers working in today’s contemporary Western climate. Writing about identity, race and culture is valid and important because it takes space and reclaims space in a patriarchal society and a society dominated by white narratives. These stories are needed and are essential, but it shouldn’t be a limitation or an expectation for minority female writers. If it is discussed, it’s something minority women should feel the freedom to write about on their own terms, in their own way. Minority female writers are expected and sometimes pigeonholed, into writing about their racial experiences. This is the poetry and the work that is mostly popularized and celebrated, whereas white female writers have the ability and privilege to transgress boundaries due to their whiteness.

Imagine a best-selling book written by a minority woman about some fictional fantasy, in which culture and race are subtly embedded into the storyline as a fact, but is not the main focus. A book in which there is no message surrounding race to be sent or no lesson to be taught. When I read the more popular works of minority women, I find it to be a work of activism. There are plenty of writers in the western world that write stories beyond a racial lense, but they are less popular. There is rarely room for minority writers raised in the western world to succeed in writing about abstract or complex ideas and feelings that lie outside of a racialized lens, especially for 2nd and 3rd generation minority women, who are aware of their identities, but are still children of the western world. Their experiences are unique and not similar to someone with the same ethnicity who was born and raised outside the West. For example, the experiences and thoughts of well-acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, will differ from a 3rd generation Canadian with Nigerian roots. White women have the freedom to explore narratives without judgment and without the expectation and the burden of providing a certain narrative. Being an activist is a responsibility minority women take on just merely by existing and it’s not necessarily something they ask for or want. By the same nature, there is also a responsibility of successful minority female writers to represent a whole group of people in accuracy, which only suggests that every other race, that is not white, is a monolith. Although there are shared experiences amongst marginalized people or minorities, there are also personal experiences that don’t have to be relatable. If the work is not relatable, then it is usually teaching a majority white audience some lesson on oppression or some literary ‘porn’ on identity.  

Poetry by Jemima Khalli, credits to @azeemamag

Something that is never considered in the Western literary world, is the complex racial dynamics that exist outside the western world. This is probably because it’s not easily digestible and understood for a mainly white audience. I purposely refrained from using the term “women of colour” in this essay because white privilege exists in the Middle East and colorism exists in India and other non-western parts of the world. A Middle Eastern woman with privilege is not considered a “woman of colour” in context to a region that has its own racism and colourist issues. There is a whole narrative that exists outside the western world that is misunderstood, underrepresented and most importantly not explored in the mainstream literary world in the West. British writer Taiye Selasi says, “when I warn against grouping African writers together, it is not because I lack pride in the continent’s literary tradition, but rather that I am conscious of the west’s tradition of essentializing African subjects.” This is because, before entering a world and a complex context, it must first be introduced and understood. This responsibility of teaching a mostly white audience becomes a burden to a writer. To victimize, pity and sell these writers as one from the same, is implying a linear narrative for all minorities and people of colour.

It’s difficult for minority female writers to feel freedom in creating work within a society that only celebrates and applauds work that teaches the wider western community something new or valuable. Maybe this is a burden on itself. The burden is putting the responsibility on female minority writers to teach you about the world whilst using their personal experiences. African-American writer Audre Lorde said, “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

Maybe the works minority female writers are applauded for are the ones that limit their potential. I ask, is it possible for minority female writers to one day have work that transcend their race and identities in comparison to the work of white women in the literary world?

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