_ What will writers do when the outrage is over? Will they go back to
writing about flowers and moons? _
Donald Trump is an anti-literary president. It’s clear that the man
doesn’t read, outside of highly diluted briefings and tweets. He’s
missing a core element needed for literature: empathy.
The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris signals a return to
empathy in 2021. But empathy’s only an emotion, and we should never
mistake it for action. Barack Obama’s warmth didn’t reorient the
world toward justice as much as some of us would have liked.
Nonetheless, the literary world embraced him. It took Mr. Trump to
awaken it to politics.
Many writers, like me, texted voters, donated to activist causes, got
into bitter fights on social media and wrote Op-Eds attacking the
Trump administration. Their political fervor impressed me. But if
these writers retreat to their pre-Trump selves, then the lessons of
this era will have not been learned at all.
American literature has a troubled relationship to politics. The
mainstream — poetry and fiction written by white, well-educated
people and regulated by a reviewing, publishing and gate-keeping
apparatus that is mostly white and privileged — tends to be
apolitical. Most American literati associate politics in literature
with social realism, propaganda and all the other supposed evils of
Communist and socialist literature, missing the galvanizing aesthetics
of political writers like Aimé Césaire, Richard Wright and Gloria
To the extent that mainstream publishing wants to be political, it
focuses on nonfiction books about things like elections, insider
tell-alls and presidential memoirs. Other political targets that are
acceptable to white liberal interests: the environment, veganism,
But Mr. Trump destroyed the ability of white writers to dwell in the
apolitical. Everyone had to make a choice, especially in the face of a
pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, both of which brought the
life-or-death costs of systemic racism and economic inequality into
But in 2021, will writers, especially white writers, take a deep
breath of relief and retreat back to the politics of the apolitical,
which is to say a retreat back to white privilege?
Explicit politics in American poetry and fiction has mostly been left
to the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers,
feminist writers, anticolonial writers.
That a number of major literary awards
[[link removed]] in
recent years have gone to such writers indicates two things: First,
they are writing some of the most compelling works in American
literature; and second, literary awards function as symbolic
reparations in a country that isn’t yet capable of real reparations.
It’s easier to give Charles Yu a National Book Award for “Interior
a hilarious and scathing critique of Hollywood’s racist
representations of Asian-Americans, than it is to actually transform
Hollywood. It’s also easier for the publishing industry to give
marginalized writers awards than to change its hiring practices. James
[[link removed]] in
1953 that this “world is white no longer, and it will never be white
again,” but a publishing industry whose editorial staff is 85
whose fiction list
[[link removed]] is
95 percent white, is still quite white.
In the Biden era, will the publishing industry do more than feel bad
about that and commit to hiring a diverse group of editors and interns
and building a pipeline for future diverse leadership?
“Diversity” itself, unless it occurs at every level of an
industry, and unless it meaningfully changes an aesthetic practice, is
a fairly empty form of politics. This is one of the big critiques of
the Obama presidency. For all that one can blame Republican
intransigence, Mr. Obama was fairly moderate, someone who tinkered
with the military-industrial complex rather than transformed it.
That much of the literary world was willing to give Mr. Obama’s
drone strike and deportation policies a pass, partly because he was
such a literary, empathetic president
indicates some of the hollowness of liberalism and multiculturalism.
Empathy, their emotional signature, is perfectly compatible with
killing people overseas — many of them innocent — and backing up a
police and carceral system that disproportionately harms Black,
Indigenous and other people of color and the poor. It turns out that a
president can have a taste for both drone strikes and annual reading
lists heavy on multicultural literature.
And here, marginalized writers who tell stories about marginalized
populations do not get a pass. Take immigrant literature. During the
xenophobic Trump years, when immigrants and refugees were demonized,
simply standing up for immigrants became a politically worthwhile
cause. But so much of immigrant literature, despite bringing attention
to the racial, cultural and economic difficulties that immigrants
face, also ultimately affirms an American dream that is sometimes
lofty and aspirational, and at other times a mask for the structural
inequities of a settler colonial state. Most Americans have never
heard of settler colonialism, much less used it to describe their
country. That’s because Americans prefer to call settler colonialism
the American dream.
Too much of immigrant and multicultural literature fails to rip off
that mask. Yet the politicization of these populations does pose a
threat to the white nation that Mr. Trump represents. White identity
politics has always been the dominant politics of this country, but so
long as it was ascendant and unthreatened, it was never explicitly
white. It was simply normative, and most white writers (and white
people) never questioned the normativity of whiteness. But the long,
incomplete march toward racial equality from 1865 to the present has
slowly eroded white dominance, with the most significant rupture
occurring during the war in Vietnam.
Writers not only marched against the war, they wrote against it. Among
white American writers, poets like Robert Lowell
[[link removed]]were the first to
protest, along with prose writers like Susan Sontag
[[link removed]] and Norman
In the aftermath of the war, however, the politicization of white
writers faded, even if the politicization of writers of color did not.
By the 1980s, the political energies of writers of color were focused
on what became known as identity politics and multiculturalism, the
demand for more inclusive reading lists and syllabuses and prizes. The
counteroffensive against these efforts led to the “culture wars,”
with defenders of the Western (white) canon arguing that
multiculturalism was eroding the foundations of American culture.
The multiculturalists mostly won that fight, but Mr. Trump was the
continuation of the conservative counterattack. Mr. Trump clearly
wanted to roll back the American timeline to the 1950s, or maybe even
to 1882, the year of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
What he tried to do politically and economically, he also tried to do
culturally with his Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex
which prohibited federal agencies and any organization receiving
federal funding from talking with employees about white privilege or
providing diversity, equity and inclusion training. “Critical race
theory” became Mr. Trump’s particular target of ire. He intuited
correctly that illuminating whiteness is threatening for those who
have rested comfortably in unquestioned whiteness, both conservatives
and liberals, a point that the poet Claudia Rankine drives home in her
2020 book “Just Us
Jess Row makes a similar point in his recent book of essays, “White
Flights,” where he shows how deeply entrenched whiteness is in
American literature and how it can be traced directly to the
country’s foundational sins of conquest, genocide and slavery.
The Nobel Prize lecture
[[link removed]] by
this year’s winner for literature, the poet Louise Glück,
succinctly illustrates Mr. Row’s point. She talks about poems that
were meaningful to her as a child but that are also problematic
depictions of Black servitude and plantation life, an issue that Ms.
Glück simply elides.
So-called genre literature has been better than so-called literary
fiction and poetry when it comes to the kind of critical and political
work that unsettles whiteness and reveals the legacies of colonialism.
Smart crime writers, for example, are often political because they
know that an individual crime is a manifestation of a society that has
committed wholesale crimes.
Some recent examples: Don Winslow, in his trilogy of novels about the
drug wars culminating in “The Border,
directly links those drug wars to military conflicts the country has
fought or enabled, from Vietnam to Guatemala. Steph Cha in “Your
House Will Pay
approaches the Los Angeles riots through a murder mystery that focuses
on the relations between Blacks and Koreans, rather than their
relations to the white power structure that set them up for conflict.
Attica Locke in “Heaven, My Home
continues the adventures of Darren Mathews, a Black Texas Ranger, as
he investigates crimes that boil up from America’s caldron of racism
The past four years have been marked by strong works of political
poetry, like Layli Long Soldier’s “Whereas
which confronts the United States’ treatment of Native people past
and present, and Solmaz Sharif’s “Look
which draws its vocabulary from an American military dictionary in
order to throw sand in the eyes of this country’s high-tech war
The inability of American writers and liberals to fully confront this
war machine, especially when it was helmed by Democratic presidents,
is testimony to what little mark was left by the literary insurgency
against the war in Vietnam. Besides genre writers, it’s mostly been
veteran writers like Elliot Ackerman, Matt Gallagher and Phil Klay who
have written about the Forever War. This is because most Americans are
insulated from the deployment of the war machine and prefer not to
think about their implication in it.
For Native peoples, however, the history of the American military is
omnipresent. Natalie Diaz, in “Postcolonial Love Poem
raises the question of whether the United States even is postcolonial,
and if so, for whom. Perhaps for white people, who would rather forget
colonialism, but not for Native people who are still fighting it.
So what will 2021 bring forth from the literary world?
Hopefully more poems like Noor Hindi’s 2020 clarion call “Fuck
Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying,” which simultaneously
attacks M.F.A. culture and crosses the brightest red line in American
politics: Palestine. For all the liberal pearl-clutching about
“cancel culture,” which is just a bruising exercise in civic
society and free speech, the real cancellation on this issue has come
from the state. It’s no surprise that there has been no collective
(white) liberal uprising against Mr. Trump’s executive order
[[link removed]] last
year to crack down on criticism of Israel
[[link removed]] on
college campuses, which is a form of state censorship, or against the
efforts of many legislators
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do the same.
The United States, as a settler colonial society that disavows its
settler colonial origins and present, sees a like-minded ally in
Israel. The only Americans — many of Palestinian descent — getting
canceled by being fired
[[link removed]], denied
[[link removed]] or threatened
[[link removed]] are
the ones who denounce Israeli settler colonialism and speak out for
the Palestinian people.
Lectures on craft, including the craft of multiculturalism, can be
insipid when contrasted with politics of this kind. My problem with
“craft” is not only that it’s not even art, but also that it’s
espoused by writers who speak of the labor of craft and
the _workshop_ but who generally have no theory of labor, its
exploitation or the writer as worker. No surprise that writers without
such a theory have little to say about politics, and why the norm for
writing workshops is not to deal with politics.
“Colonizers write about flowers,” Ms. Hindi writes
“I want to be like those poets who care about the moon. Palestinians
don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.”
This is my kind of poem.
“I know I’m American because when I walk into a room something
dies,” Ms. Hindi writes. “When I die, I promise to haunt you
Writers like Ms. Hindi are an exception in many workshops, where they
are often forced to explain themselves to the normative center of an
apolitical literature. But this poem doesn’t explain anything, and
that’s one of the reasons it’s on fire.
“One day, I’ll write about the flowers like we own them.”
Someone give Noor Hindi a book contract.
_[Viet Thanh Nguyen is a contributing opinion writer and the author of
"Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War." @viet_t_nguyen
_This article is part of Let's Start Over
an Opinion series on what life will look like in 2021._