In my first round of graduate school, I had to create a reading list of books put together from a more bigger list of books, stuff preapproved by the graduate committee for suitably educating their fiction writers in the ways of fiction writing. I made my list and submitted it and the committee rejected my list, made out of their list. They said it didn’t have enough female writers on it.
Because I don’t like rejection, I immediately and grumpily dismissed their dismissal as nonsensical. My list was perfectly fine, thank you. Bunch of jerks. After some cool-down time, I decided that I was not wrong in my reaction, because the logic of the rejection was unsound. This was a list of fictional works, after all, but the rejection was based on the authors’ diversity, not the protagonists or the plots or any of the characters. Content was not a factor. So the message here became white men can only write authentically about white men, black men about black men, and so on. Which I found offensive on a number of levels. To say Toni Morrison’s white male characters are inaccurate, or not as worthy of study as her black female characters, offended me. Now, the content of her fiction does focus more on the black female characters, especially the book on my list (Sula), so there would be less to study in the other races and genders, less nuance, fewer layers and complications, surely. But to suggest they are the only characters that can possibly matter because of Morrison’s race and gender would be ludicrous.
Furthermore, by that rationale, shouldn’t I be restricting myself to studying only white male authors anyway, if that’s all the diversity I myself would be capable of bringing to the academic table?
At the same time, the poet I was dating brought to my attention a scandal going on in the poetry community that offended her sensibilities as a female writer. Apparently some white male poet had written an epic poem from the perspective of I want to say a Caribbean black female. Like a whole big thing, lots of words, homeric, obviously he thought he had this voice nailed, which is what was so offensive about it to many people, the presumption. As she’s explaining it to me in her what-kind-of-asshole voice, I’m thinking, me. Me. I’m that kind of asshole. I cannot limit myself to my own race and gender, my own experience, for one because my own experience is not all that compelling, and for two because the whole reason I got into writing in the first place was to try to recreate the reading experience, which is to put myself in other people’s shoes, except with writing books, you get to pick the shoes. Size, color, laces, everything.
Flash forward to today, in which I see my favorite birthday-sharing actor (because fuck Chevy Chase, although Sigourney Weaver is pretty great too), Matt Damon, coming under fire for “interrupting a black female writer to explain to her what diversity is.” Which makes me a little nauseous because I love Matt Damon unapologetically, We Bought a Zoo notwithstanding. He’s one of the most tolerant, forward-thinking, level-headed voices I’ve ever heard coming out of Hollywood. If we’re going to have celebrities, they might as well be like Matt Damon, that’s my opinion.
I’m having a hard time finding an unedited clip of the conversation. Most articles are posting the same tweeted 20 or 30 second edited clips, where the actual interruption appears to be more due to editing than anything, so I’m reserving my opinion on that one. But what he seems to be trying to say is a poorly worded version of what my younger self was arguing. It’s not a matter of who’s telling the story, so long as the story is told well, as well as it can possibly be told. Erase the author, leave the story. That’s the entire job of the writers and production team. Gender and race cannot and should not factor into talent, vision, work ethic. The best director should get the job, and to inject diversity into the project, we should be more worried about the on-screen representation of diverse voices than a diversity that can’t be seen in the final project.
Except, I don’t think that’s what I was saying. Not exactly. In fact I think that’s pretty ass-backwards to what I was saying. I despise the token black guy syndrome that’s been the predominant way to preempt accusations of racism since at least the eighties, not only in movies but in sitcoms, commercials, magazine ads. So suggesting diversity is the responsibility of the casting, no, I can’t get behind that. The characters’ only job is to be the best characters they can be. I’m not even going to prejudge the fact that the only black character in the movie is a prostitute who gets slapped by her white pimp, even knowing this is a comedy and chances are high that there is supposed to be something funny about this scene. Which I’m having a hard time imagining. But, I can’t know that these aren’t the right character choices for this particular scene in this particular movie without seeing it in context first.
Because he is right, if Damon really is attempting to make this argument at all, that the goal should be to make the absolute best art you can make. To tell the best story, the funniest jokes, to dramatize the … most dramatic drama, I guess. You don’t get that by treating diversity like you do silverware at a place setting. Because sometimes the meal is soup! Just a big bowl of soup! Why even bother getting out the forks and knives!? Leave them in the drawer, that way we don’t get confused and have to wash them later for no reason!
My younger self was not exactly correct in his animosity toward the graduate committee, either — though I was not wrong. I will not admit wrongitude in this case, no, but more a failure to take into account the bigger picture. Which is the necessity of such a committee in the first place. Someone has to have the responsibility the artist should not have to concern herself with, that the art itself shouldn’t have to address. Like, you can’t have soup for every meal. Or, you can, I guess, but not every meal is soup, if you look around the restaurant you’re going to discover that most of the meals are not in fact soup.
This does not change my original point, that I have the right to be a soup restaurant as much as anyone else. Even if making soup is not traditional for my ‘people,’ or whatever, if that’s what I’m feeling deep in the soul of my kitchen at that particular time, you can’t tell me that I also have to put a lovely tiramisu on my menu as well, nor can you expect it of me just because people of similar demographics have made some real mouth-watering tiramisu in the past.
However. That being said. Let’s say me and Toni Morrison come up with the exact same delicious soup, let’s call it Soupla, let’s say we have the same recipe publisher and the same deadline and we both drop off our creations on the same day at the same time and even say hello politely to each other in the elevator. I think Matt Damon and I would agree that the publisher would be wrong to say to me, Hey hey now, wait a minute, I was expecting a tiramisu from you, what is this delicious but unexpected crap? and he would also be wrong to say to Toni Morrison This is perfect! This is exactly what I expect out of you, and by ‘you’ I mean a chef of your particular genetic makeup, not ‘you’ as an individual person with a unique life and experiences.
**Disclaimer: if making delicious soups is a stereotype of black women, I am unaware of it and am using this example completely arbitrarily, let it be known.
Now let’s assume that the recipe publishing industry, like most industries, has been dominated by the caucasian male for a long long time, based not as much on merit but more on the legacy of a willful cruelty left behind by generations of caucasian male ancestors, sous chefs and sauciers willing to crush the competition by any means necessary until their brand of cooking became the standard. Tiramisu now, tiramisu forever! so sayeth the 18th century forebears of today’s aspiring culinary creators. True, we don’t live in that era anymore, we most of us recognize the folly in mistaking a lack of scruples in achieving popularity for inherent worth, but it’s a legacy that will continue to hinder the human species for a long time unless we take steps to rectify it. Which is what diversity is, I think.
I’m not telling Matt Damon he shouldn’t hire the best people for the job, here, but there is something to be said for the recipe publisher that picks Toni’s soup recipe over mine. Because what’s that going to do to the industry? What message will it send?
When Obama was running for president, I said to my friend Shannon that after looking at some of Obama’s policies and his voting record and his affinity for playing to the establishment sometimes and his participation in the military-industrial complex, I wasn’t sure that he would prove to be nearly as revolutionary a president as I had originally hoped. I was afraid things would quickly go back to normal, that he’d play the minority-diversity card for the elections but continue coddling big business and sticking it to the poor, he’d talk big but act little, he’d basically turn out to be every bit the politician I’d originally Hoped he’d be able to Change. And in a way I was right about that, but what she said was even more true, that it didn’t matter at all what his policies actually turned out to be when he was in office, that the historical significance of finally having a black president would far outweigh whatever mistakes he might make. Hopefully one day such a factor won’t be important, but I think she was dead-on correct, judging by the backlash against him and the rise in brash racism and the unbelievable rise in veiled racism I’ve seen in political discourse since the election. We are still years away from where Damon apparently thinks we are.
What Matt Damon is losing out on by ignoring race and gender before race and gender can be ignored is the benefit of dissension by more people like Effie Brown, which is, just, the absolute most valuable thing, I cannot stress that enough. Maybe he was right and the people he’s picked for his staff were smart enough to notice the white pimp/black prostitute issue, but evidently no one in the white room was disturbed by it enough to address it properly. Again, I’m just basing this on a 20-second clip, and maybe this will turn out to be the funniest scene in this movie. Somehow. But he’s not allowing for criticism, opting instead for the familiar safety and privilege of his process, and that gets you nowhere, that’s regressive, that’s worthless.
What would I lose out on by having my recipe rejected solely in the name of diversity? Would I have to get more creative? Would I be forced to go outside the soup box, go to other restaurants, experience other cuisines, delve into the unfamiliar, or otherwise be forced to reckon with the unknown? It’s very hard to admit that we don’t know what we don’t know. But without that influx of diversity into the production process, I may very well never invent tiramisoup.
I think maybe I should stop writing these entries when I’m hungry.