The past year, my toddler and I started attending a mommy-and-me class. We deliberately picked one that focused on a diverse group of people—indeed, we found ourselves to be the only native English speakers in our class, save for the teachers. As an ESL teacher, this was perfect—hanging out with a bunch of women from all over East Africa (the cohort we ended up in) was the only way I would have been motivated to get my two-year-old and me out the door every week. Interesting, hilarious, devastating—the stories and discussions we had in our little group had me glued to my chair, every time.
One day the head teacher pulled me aside and asked me how I thought the class was going. I told her truthfully that I loved it, especially since we always veered somewhat off-topic (we were an opinionated, non-linear bunch). She cocked her head and looked at me, trying to size me up. “You know,” she said, “our program gets a lot of heat for not being diverse enough.” I knew that we were a blip on the radar, one class out of hundreds full of people who all looked like me. “But after teaching these classes for over thirty years, let me tell you something—people always say they want to be in a diverse class. But what they really mean is that they would like to look around the room and see people who look different from them, but who act exactly like them.” She sighed, and shook her head. “They say it, but they don’t actually ever want it.” She patted my arm, and wandered off to stop Mohammed from flinging himself off the plastic slide. And as she said it, I knew she was right. She was talking about me.
I am someone who claims to love diversity. I love to read about large Irish-Catholic families, hyper self-aware East Coasters, and Hmong refugee communities (sometimes in the same day). Indeed, some of my favorite books are about people very different from me: the addicts, the fanatics, the lost and the old and the restless. I love arresting non-fiction from an assortment of genres, veering from the fact-happy journalist to the slippery, boozy memoirist.
But I am starting to realize that a diversity of subjects doesn’t always guarantee diversity in content. After re-reading some of my old favorites, I have come to this conclusion which may be something more of a confession: what I really love are characters that match up to my carefully cultivated preferences and prejudices. I couldn’t give a fig about real diversity. I simply don’t have the time or patience for it.
I don’t think I am alone in this. In many facets of literary non-fiction (hard-hitting journalistic pieces about marginalized communities, tell-all memoirs about the famous, the addicts, and the unusual), the writer, with little regard to the people underwriting the entire piece, is the star. This in effect allows for the author to tackle all manner of diverse subjects and gentrify them, simply by imposing his or her own worldview so magnificently on the readers. I have noticed this trend, especially in the writers I most admire—the kind that litter the airways of NPR or the blog posts of the Millions.
In the humorous literary essay, it’s a given that anyone who is different from the author—be they extraordinarily average, or odd, or religiously or culturally dissimilar—will be mocked, both with wit and often profound yearning. The end result is a strange kind of gentrification; the author alone reveals their truth, which inherently changes everyone else in the story. And the bigger the differences between the writer and subject, the more propensity for damage there is. And we, the readers, love it, revel in the current mantra of literary non-fiction which declares all one has to do is be truthful to yourself! “Yes, yes, that is right,” we murmur, calming down any impulse for charitable discussion and engagement. What we saw, what we noticed, how we felt and perceived others to feel is the most important. Because it is our truth, and that is the only truth we know.
I am a Christian, and I try and write about people. What at first seemed so easy —write glib observations about your hilarious low-income neighbors, showcase the heartbreaking saga of your refugee friends— started to feel hard! It started to feel cheap, disengenious, and rather unlike what Jesus had told me to do. He told me to love my neighbor as myself, not sell them off for a gimmicky essay.
But it is just so easy, and it gets you noticed. It panders to our ideas of the world outside our borders, adheres to how we like our lines neat and clean.
I am not immune to these pleasures. I love reading about neurotic New Yorkers feeling alienated in a MidWest sea of overweight, contented middle men (the “butter-eaters”, as David Rakoff so bitingly and longingly writes). I also love reading about dispatches about artists, religious fanatics, farmers, street kids, prostitutes, immigrants, cartoonists, and charlatans—but only if it holds up to my own preconceived ideas. A little bit of empathy is good—but too much is overkill, a dash of cold water on my own vivid imagination.
David Rakoff and David Sedaris, for all their wit and humour, both come off as the loneliest people in the world–and not just for shtick (Rakoff entitled his essay collection Fraud, and Sedaris recently talked about how unrelentingly cheerful he has to be in his essays). David Foster Wallace, who sucked me in with his engaging essays on diverse subjects like cruise ships and state fairs, now reads to me as someone who doesn’t have quite as much empathy as I would like; he too, creates artificial distances between himself and his subjects, adds to stereotypes with his lack of nuance, and in the end (like Sedaris) didn’t try very hard to stay factual. Cheryl Strayed was very careful about the way she portrayed her fellow hikers in Wild, but as Dear Sugar she wrote candidly about the low-income youth she served as a guidance counselor.
With all of these excellent writers, one thought kept cropping up: yes, but how would you feel to know that someone had written a piece about you? The interplay of writer and subject never seemed to be an issue, and in fact it was assumed as a given: art triumphs personal feelings any day. Or, as Anne Lamott puts it: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” For many of the works of literary non-fiction that I love to read, the attitude is similar. If you had wanted me to write with your perspective in mind, you should have behaved like me.
Nobody wants to tell you not to write. But perhaps there are some stories that are better left unsaid, if the author is unwilling to do the hard work of trying to exhaust every perspective. For the Christian, entering into the world of writing non-fiction is a minefield. The things we like to read and write best–the tell-alls, the snarky observational humor, the pinpointing of the human condition–are the parts that read the funniest, sharpest, and saddest. And they all, to a certain degree, entail the objectification of other people.
There are a few writers out there blazing the (hard) trail of writing with their subjects in mind. Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is one of my favorite examples. She spent 4 years living in a Mumbai slum in order to write her gorgeous, crushing book on the residents there. Boo talks about the “earned fact”, and how the author must put in the time and effort into truly knowing their subject in order to make their work credible. It takes painful work to be this kind of writer. Most of us are not up to the challenge, but writing with our neighbors in mind is the most loving way–loving them as much as we love the sound of our own voices. We hunger to easily categorize people. It makes for better copy; nuance tends to slow a piece down.
Writing my own truth will only carry me so far. My own sorry perspective leaves precious little room for the truth of others, especially those whom I might have the most trouble understanding. But I am at the point in my own writing life where the “best” stories must go unsaid, at least by me. Relationships, not readers, are what I am staking my life on. I live and work with people on the margins of society, and while the world is hungry to know different perspectives, it demands that they be accessible, easy, a cinch to repair, none of which life ever is.