In this piece Alissa Funderburk discusses a challenge faced by writers of color as proposed by author and radio journalist Daniel Alarcón in his March 8th talk How to Listen, part of the OHMA workshop series, Oral History and the Arts.
Being a person of color and a professional in any field often leads to the scenario where you find yourself in a room, the only person that looks like you surrounded by a sea of lighter complexions. You could be a child taking ballet after school, a high school student in college prep courses, an attorney in a courtroom, actor on a Broadway stage, medical researcher in the lab, or author at a book talk. Author and radio journalist Daniel Alarcón has, like many others, found himself in that last scenario more than once.
Prior to his recent talk at Columbia University, Daniel Alarcón mentioned his feelings on the notion that his writing has been viewed as representative of the thoughts and views of Latino people. In response to the question "So which is it, a Peruvian or American writer?" he has been described as responding quickly, and quoted as saying, "Why should I have to choose?" In our conversation, he gave his thoughts on this common question as well as the headline "A Writer Thrives in Two Cultures” from a November 13, 2013 New York Times article.
According to Daniel, both the question and the headline are inaccurate depictions of who he is as a person and writer. Daniel, like many people and writers especially, doesn’t consider himself as creating for two different worlds. As an author and a journalist, Daniel’s work speaks to a multitude of people across color lines, geographic boundaries and language barriers. Though the content of his books tends to feature characters and settings in South America, the stories he tells are broadly relevant. And while the content of Radio Ambulante is mainly in Spanish, he travels to Spanish speaking countries the world over for a wide variety of interviews.
However others, particularly Americans, are prone to not only box Daniel into a category, but to give him the unyielding responsibility of speaking for the entire population of which he is part. Though not a noted journalist or author, as a black woman in academia, I have had the similar experience of being viewed as a spokesperson in an Ivy League classroom. As a 28 year old, Daniel wrote an article describing his experience at a fancy dinner party immediately following the publishing of his first book, War by Candlelight: Stories. The article, entitled What kind of Latino am I?, mentioned an older white woman who made him feel as if he had to explain his positioning on the socioeconomic ladder because of his race and literary success. While talking to OHMA students ahead of the March 8, 2018 workshop, How to Listen, he said he wrote that article “to point out something that I think is very problematic about the relationship between the mainstream culture and, Latino artists specifically, but more broadly artists of color, which is that we're thought of as stenographers to a culture. We're thought of as anthropologists and not as artists.”
Back in 2005, he wrote that “it's not that writers of color in this country don't have their work judged on literary merit; it's that we are not judged exclusively on these grounds.” Daniel explains: “When we should be judged on the basis of our ability to imagine worlds and empathize with our characters, we are instead reduced to merely representing that which we must surely know firsthand. When we allow ourselves to be praised for ‘being authentic’...suddenly we are dismissed as serious artists. It's no longer art; it's reportage and facsimile. It's real.” I posit that not only does “it” become what’s “real” about ourselves, but it comes to be what is “real” about everyone who looks like us, too. In order for our literary or journalistic endeavors to reach their full potential, do writers of color need to demand an audience that recognizes our creative talent?
This same question applies to writers within the field of oral history. As I conduct more and more oral history interviews, I’ve developed a desire to share the stories of my narrators in creative and thought-provoking ways. I am currently in the process of interviewing a number of young black men in New York City, each unique in varied ways, having lived very different lives. I view an oral history as a small window into their lives, past and present, but I fear that the stories of each of these men might be seen through the same lense of the race, class, and culture to which I belong.
Though the topic of an oral history narrated by a black person might not be directly about race, the end product created from that oral history, be it a podcast, documentary, book, etc. could, again, be seen as less of an opinion and more of a factual representation of the typical African-American perspective. Though, as oral historians, we record and preserve the memories of others, what we do with the knowledge and information gained from those encounters often involves creativity and writing.
I believe, with the power and potential inherent in writing using the narratives of others we must strive to be seen by our audience (often academic and more often white) as also being great storytellers. This means working with our narrators intently to co-construct a narrative that is intersubjective. This intentionality will result in an end product that is not just relatable to others but can reach the kind of broad audience that won't reduce the work to a tokenization but will rather appreciate the artistry that went into creating it. Otherwise, like Daniel and other writers of color, we run the risk of being viewed as no more than stenographers typing transcripts.
Alissa Funderburk is a part-time Oral History MA student at Columbia University currently serving as one of OHMA’s communications fellows. A Columbia College graduate (2012) and New Yorker, Alissa is currently producing an oral history on the dichotomy between religion and spirituality.