Minority writers need not avoid ‘stereotypical’ topics

May 23, 2019 — by Kaitlyn Wang

Like many immigrant writers, author Chang-rae Lee said he bristles when people assume diaspora is a theme he thinks about while writing.

Too often are stories by minority writers lumped together and perceived as stories notable for exploring certain themes, including diaspora — the scattering of peoples after leaving their original homeland — and identity.

But following his reading of his nonfiction piece “My Father’s Face” at a recent event at Stanford, Lee explained that specific details, more so than a theme, is what makes a story memorable.

And there is no single story that minority writers are obligated to tell.

As is the case for writers of any minority, the label “Asian American writer” and, by extension, “Asian American story,” can be pigeonholing. For example, one point of criticism about “The Namesake,” a diasporic novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, was that it’s a common story about the immigrant experience. Relatable, yes. But not unique — and therefore replaceable in the English 10 curriculum, according to some students.

And when students read works by their peers, from Scholastic Art & Writing Awards winning submissions to works published in literary magazines, recognized pieces by Asian American students are often about immigration and identity.

With the abundance of such stories in popular and academic literature, people may grow hesitant to write about an “expected” or “stereotypical” topic. Even when a story comes from place of authenticity and personal significance, it may be dismissed as yet another “immigrant story.” Another story about being “the other.”

But if a story is a crucial part of who you are, even if it seems stereotypical, write it. Make it your own. Instead of self-censoring and worrying about how readers will react, tell those stories with authenticity and specificity. Share those stories, listen to them, value them, inherit them.  

Another reason minority writers may avoid “stereotypical” topics in their writing is the fear that their works will not be seen as universal. But it’s fine if a reader does not understand every reference or relate to every experience — unfamiliar specifics can still provoke thoughts about broader questions and issues worth consideration from any reader.  

In a 1955 interview, author Ralph Ellison said, “All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel — and isn’t that what we’re all clamoring for these days? — is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.”

Ellison’s words remain relevant 64 years later. Whether a story is universal also depends on the reader’s willingness to see — to recognize how a story can speak to any individual across cultures and communities. Rather than bending words in a way that satisfies what an audience supposedly wants to read, a storyteller can simply speak and trust that a reader will remain open to recognizing the truth that nonfiction and fiction both contain. There is no need to avoid certain subjects in an effort to create a “universal” story.

The protagonist of Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man” is invisible not because he is actually invisible, but because others refuse to see him. If a reader insists on blindness and does not consider how characters or situations can communicate a truth that can touch every individual, that’s not necessarily the writer’s fault.

If a reader insists on a single definition of diasporic experience, sticking to a rigid mindset of what kind of stories minority writers can create, they prevent themselves from having the opportunity to explore and appreciate how rich and varied works can be.

An individual can tell their story, their truth, without having to agonize over themes and expectations and doubts. Writing with authenticity is enough.

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