[MUSIC]

jane coaston

It’s “The Argument.” I’m Jane Coaston.

This week, I’m joined by Times Opinion writers Roxane Gay and Jay Caspian Kang to talk about very important things, like musical theater. As someone who hates the musical, “Rent”—

roxane gay

Oh, get out. I’m sorry, but we —

jay caspian kang

Jane, I don’t hate “Rent” at all.

jane coaston

The older I get, the more I’m like, why didn’t they just pay rent? Anyway, that is not the point.

roxane gay

Oh, my God, Republican.

jay caspian kang

Oh, no.

roxane gay

Holy shit.

jay caspian kang

What? Come on!

roxane gay

I mean, we don’t all have good opinions.

jane coaston

I have great opinions, by the way. But I actually brought them together to talk about an issue that seems to crop up every year. Let’s call it “The Help” problem. Remember that book about Black maids in the deep South? People loved it, but I hate it. Want to hear why?

archived recording

You is kind. You is smart. You is important.

jane coaston

It’s a bad movie.

But separate from being a bad movie, the book it’s based on is a bad attempt by a white woman to write what she thought Black people in the South, at a different time from the time she lived in, would have been like. It’s a projection experiment all the way down.

But then it got me thinking, what if it had been good? Would that change how I feel about it? This is a debate it seems like we can’t stop having as a culture — who gets to write outside their identities, what we do when they get it really, really wrong and what does it say if they get it right? And that’s what Roxane and Jay are here to talk about.

Hello. Roxane, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for joining us. And Jay, it’s very good to see you again.

roxane gay

Hey, it’s great to be here.

jay caspian kang

Hey.

jane coaston

Roxane, I’m curious, to you, what jumps out at you about this cultural conversation that we keep having off and on?

roxane gay

I think the biggest thing that strikes me is that we seem to avoid the real issue, which is that people who tend to write across identity lines just do it very badly. I mean, it’s just bad writing. And that’s why we talk about it. That’s why we even notice because for good writing, I frankly, don’t know who the author is. I’m not even thinking about that.

But when you’re reading something and inaccuracies and just, like, wild things jump out at you, you’re like, oh, damn. Let me see who this person is. And then you realize, oh, of course. That’s why it’s so bad. And I wish we would talk more about the fact that, of course, you can — write whatever you want. Who cares? But when you do it badly, yes, we’re going to talk bad about you. That’s just — that’s the rules. And I don’t make them.

jay caspian kang

Yeah, I think that if the conversations are just about bad things, right, if that’s what it’s limited to, and part of the reason why the thing is bad is because the person doesn’t have a familiarity with subject matter or even the ways in which people live. All that’s fair game for criticism. And I think, you know, that I don’t think that many people would disagree with that, right? Bad things should be called bad.

But when I talk to young journalists now, which is somewhat often, right? It’s not that often, but it’s somewhat often somebody will email me or something like that. But I just see a lot of questions about a prescriptive identity where one is expected to write about the concerns of their group, right? And for me, I don’t know. I’m Asian, so I get a lot of Asian kids writing, right? And they ask questions that I don’t think I would have asked at their age, right? When I was 25, 26 years old, I wouldn’t have asked — I don’t know — what’s it like being an Asian person in the newsroom or something like that? I don’t know.

But there’s also kind of like a, how do you navigate your identity in a white publishing world or something like that, right? Just asking questions that portray such a level of angst and internal conflict and turmoil that it makes me feel crazy. I feel so bad for them.

And it’s like, well, why don’t you just write whatever you want to write and see if it’s good or not and try and make it better? Why do you feel the need to navigate through all these questions to even put some words on a page? Just write something. But I mean, I understand why they don’t feel like they can.

jane coaston

Right. Jay, people have been talking a lot about the experience of writing college essays, in which it feels like you kind of have to do this kind of confessional essay type to explain why you should be admitted to this university. It’s a funny thing because on the one hand, it is both this overcorrection, but it’s also, to me, I actually find it kind of offensive. I went to a majority white Catholic high school. And we read the book, “Native Son.”

And my English teacher, white older woman, asked me if I identified with the main character in “Native Son.” Now if you’ve never read “Native Son,” the main character in “Native Son” murders a woman and then puts her in a furnace. And I remember being like, well, no. No, I don’t. I’m curious to hear from you, Jay, about that experience of like, you’re talking about yourself. You’re talking about yourself as part of a group, but you also need to reflect that group in a very specific way, or else, you’re doing it wrong.

jay caspian kang

Right, and I mean, I think that this is pretty limited in some ways, right? It is in literature, I think in literary fiction. I think it’s in journalism, in some ways. And I think it’s probably very much so in elite college admissions, right? And then I think that in those spaces, yeah, I do think that there is an incentive for people to play up the sort of traumatic parts of whatever the people in power are going to associate with their group.

And so I remember reading this book. And it was by an Asian-American author and describing a childhood that was much like mine, right? Growing up with parents who had gone to graduate school, but not wealthy in any sort of way, living through the early parts of an immigrant life of struggle.

And then the way that it was depicted was just so radically different, you know, than how I think I would have chosen to depict it because it’s just so filled with endless amounts of — I don’t know. I guess I would just say self-pity, which is almost too pejorative of a way to put it, right? But I do think that that’s what I read. And I was like, to me, it was eye opening because it was just like, well, we’ve lived basically the same life. But I don’t know. I think that there is an incentive, right? Because I think that to sort of make yourself as sympathetic as possible by mining every single detail that you can to make your life seem as squalid as possible, those types of stories do seem to do better than stories that present a different spin on that reality.

jane coaston

So far, we’ve been talking about one version of this debate, how writers of color are incentivized to talk about their trauma a lot. But the other part is when people try to write about identities they don’t claim, generally white people. Roxane, you wrote a piece about the book “American Dirt.” It’s a book that came out in 2020 by a white woman. And it’s about a Mexican woman and her son, who leave for America to escape cartel violence.

And Roxane, you had big issues with this book. You said something I thought was really interesting, that, essentially, when you’re writing outside your own identity, perfection isn’t the goal. Accuracy and authenticity are the goals. But how do we arbitrate what’s accurate and what’s authentic?

roxane gay

I don’t think it’s that complicated. Again, it’s not that we divorce identity from the conversation. It’s that we treat it as inherent because we can’t separate out parts of ourselves. And in treating identity as inherent to the work that we do, but that there’s more to the story, we just create space for better conversations.

And when you look at a book like “American Dirt,” it’s a bad book. And that’s not subjective. That’s an objective truth.

There were things about the book and about Mexico that were just silly in how bad they were and how inaccurate they were. They were clearly written from someone who certainly knows nothing of what it means to cross borders undocumented.

And the beauty of fiction is that the author had every right to at least attempt it, but it wasn’t a good attempt. You know, when a reader is reading and thinking, huh, that’s weird. Why would she say that? That means the author has failed. When you are reminded of the author while reading a novel that’s supposed to be engrossing and immersive, then you know something has gone wrong.

So there is no tribunal, you know? And I’m not even Mexican, so I am no authority, but the fact that I’m not Mexican and I knew that some of that stuff was just bullshit was bad. That’s extra bad. Of course, for every person that thought that novel was terrible, there were clearly hundreds of thousands of people who thought it was just wonderful. Oprah thought it was wonderful, which you know, God bless her. Just, it is what it is.

But I think it would have been great for the book to be better so that we could have more interesting conversations about what it means to cross borders then. Oh, boy, this is just inaccurate. This is wrong. This is racist, et cetera.

jane coaston

This is going to sound extraordinarily stupid, but I have a weakness for the “Jack Reacher” series of novels.

roxane gay

I love them.

jane coaston

One of the random things about “Jack Reacher” novels is that they are written by someone who had never really been to the United States before he wrote them. So there are so many parts of books in which he’s just walking down the side of highways to go from town to town, a thing which people don’t do. Now, granted, I’m willing to let that go because he also is a military police officer, but appears to have the power of 1,000 suns behind him. So I’m OK with that.

But Jay, my concern here is twofold. One, I think — and I’d be curious to hear from both of you, as people who have been writing for a long time, because I think the thing about so much of criticism that takes place on social media and other venues — you know, I’ve been on Twitter since 2008, so I am completely insane. I’ve been on there for 14 years. I am baked in the internet. And it’s not been good.

Social media is inherently performative. And I would much rather get an email that’s like, hey, you suck, than have someone tweet with me, hey, this person sucks. It’s the way in which we’re performing for other people, like, a bad review of a book or a callout online about identity.

jay caspian kang

I think that social media definitely has a way of accelerating the type of toxicity around this stuff that probably does sit in people’s heads. But I don’t think that it’s the only or even the main reason why some of these conversations have gone this way. I think I agree with Roxane. We’ve had this conversation for years and years and years and years. And it doesn’t change. What I think is new is that anxiety, right? And I’m 42.

And like Roxane, when I was growing up or even when I was in graduate school, these questions about identity never crossed my mind. I didn’t think about it at all.

It was strange because when I was like 30 or so, I started dating somebody who was in an M.F.A. program. And she told me that they had these types of conversations about who gets the politics of the piece and who gets to write what all the time. And that was most of the conversations that people had. And I was just like, what? I was stunned. And doesn’t it seem somewhat restrictive?

And so I do think that while the conversation is not new, that I do think it has sort of somehow created some sort of anxiety. And I don’t really know why it is, but I don’t think it’s because of social media, because even when I had that conversation with this person, Twitter was like one year old, right? And Facebook —

roxane gay

Oh, the good days.

jay caspian kang

You were tweeting about what you ate for lunch today at that point.

jane coaston

Oh, my God. We got to go back.

jay caspian kang

Right, right, right. And so it can’t just be social media, right? That anxiety did come out of somewhere. Now I don’t have an answer for where it came out of, but I do think that that’s the big difference, is the sort of crippling anxiety that people feel.

jane coaston

So I’m younger than both of you. I’m 34. And I feel as if that anxiety has been with my writing experience my entire time of writing publicly. My only thought is that it comes from perhaps the idea of the more tenuous writing becomes, the more it feels as if, if you don’t do it right, you will never do it. I didn’t start out as a journalist. I was a press secretary. And I wrote about sports at night. And so any time you wrote anything for a public audience, it was like, if this goes wrong, you will never come back from this. I wonder if that’s part of that anxiety. I think that that’s what it would be for me.

roxane gay

I mean, in part, the anxiety is simply because the amount of opportunity in the writing sphere gets smaller and smaller with each year because we live in a culture that, honestly, doesn’t really value writing. It’s unfortunate. Friends and I talk about this all the time. Like when we post links to our writing, especially writing that isn’t necessarily news cycle-based and isn’t memoir, crickets. Nobody engages with the content on social media. It doesn’t really seem like anyone reads it.

But then you post some link to some nonsense thing, tens of thousands of likes. And it’s really frustrating, especially when you know, OK, I don’t have to feed the beast anymore. But nobody gives a damn about my little sort of niche interests. It’s hard to resist that sort of clarion call of what to do.

jay caspian kang

A lot of times, this stuff is, people ask for a personal opinion because they’re a personal slant to it because the way in which you are valued is that you’re like, oh, here, I am the voice in this place of this. And I’m going to make it personal. I’m going to explain myself to you, the white reader, right? That’s sort of the game.

And I do think that young people at this point, because they do feel such intense precarity, especially if they want to be writers, right? Like, how can you fault somebody really for going with what seems very obviously like the quickest path towards some sort of economic stability?

[MUSIC]

jane coaston

I was thinking a lot about the idea of representation. People talk about representation. And first and foremost, it needs to be a very specific type of representation. But also, what is the point? Like, what are we trying to do with representation? I remember when “Glee” was on television, and people would be like, whoa, there’s a gay couple on “Glee.” And I’m like, great.

But the idea seemed to be that, well, first, people will watch “Glee.” Then they’ll like the gay person on “Glee.” Then they’re going to go home. And then when they go vote, they’re going to be like, oh, I saw “Glee,” and, well, obviously, I’m going to be supportive of candidates who value marriage equality? Like, I feel as if on the idea of representation, we have kind of lost the plot a little bit as to, is the point here to be representative of what America or the world look like more widely? Or is it to be representative of an ideal?

roxane gay

I think that we put a lot of pressure on representation. We really do. I think what we need representation to do is to offer people different possibilities, different potential versions of themselves. When I look at the entertainment that was the most formative for me, it wasn’t that I looked and I saw a Catholic Haitian-American Nebraskan girl on the screen and felt affirmed. It was more like “The Cosby Show.” Ugh, what? Why do men ruin everything? But it was like —

jane coaston

Well, that was the take also of, like, the idea of “The Cosby Show” was like, these are these elite Black people. Isn’t that great?

roxane gay

Well, it’s more than that, to be fair. For a lot of young Black people and for middle class Black people, that offered a sense of possibility and also a reflection of lives, because normally, you don’t really see a lot of middle class Black life on television. And so, it was great. It was like, oh, a family that’s kind of like mine. And it was incredibly helpful.

And, you know, did it save my life? Absolutely not. But did it make my life a little bit better? Yes, it did. And I think that matters. And I also don’t think that every example of representation in film and television, I don’t think it has to be like vitamins. I don’t think it has to make your life better. I think it has to be entertaining.

jane coaston

It’s interesting to me, Roxane, about your point about seeing yourself and seeing yourself on television because I think that that was something that I really craved as a kid, even just little things. I will never get over seeing lots of people with my hair, even in ads.

I think that sometimes it feels as if when there is prestige television that’s made about L.G.B.T. people or L.G.B.T. history, there are some times where I’m just like, I feel, in some ways, like those stories are being exploited for an audience that is not a part of that story. I’m interested in how you, Jay, how you think about if there is a line, how to toe the line, is it a wide line — I’m not sure — between telling stories with empathy and telling stories that become exploitative.

jay caspian kang

Well, I don’t know. Some things are just corny, you know? And it’s like, you can just kind of tell. And maybe I’m more resistant to this than other people, right? But I do feel if the only thing that you are celebrating is the fact that there is something that is popular that has people who look like you in it and that you feel more of an acceptance in America because something that has people that look like you in it is very popular, I understand that impulse, but I think it’s ultimately somewhat shallow.

Like you said, “Cosby Show’s” number one show in America for however long. It’s not like racism was solved because of that, right? It’s not like the people who watched the — every single person who watched “The Cosby Show” suddenly wanted to integrate the schools in their town, right? So I think that that’s where a lot of that pressure that Roxane was talking about does get placed on representation. I’ll never forget this, right? I actually think I’m going to go to my grave remembering this line that was written in a piece in the Washington Post after the Atlanta spa shooting. And the line was saying that it was a particularly cruel timing, just right after Asian-Americans had gotten “Crazy Rich Asians” and felt like —

jane coaston

No.

jay caspian kang

— they were much more of — had a place in this country. And I was like, this is the craziest thing —

roxane gay

What?

jay caspian kang

— I’ve ever read in my life. You know? What are you talking about?

roxane gay

I mean, there couldn’t be two more extremes. Like, if every Asian could connect to “Crazy Rich Asians,” the shooting wouldn’t have happened. Oh, my goodness.

jay caspian kang

Right. I was just like, what? You’re talking about the — I have not seen that movie, but it’s just like —

jane coaston

It’s fun.

roxane gay

You haven’t seen the movie? It’s good.

jay caspian kang

— you’re talking about people in Singapore, right?

roxane gay

I mean, it’s fun. I liked it.

jay caspian kang

OK, but they’re in Singapore. And I can tell from the title they are crazy rich, right?

jane coaston

Yeah, that’s pretty much all you need to know.

jay caspian kang

So, yes, there is a way in which one can think about these things in a way in which I just think it’s, frankly, crazy. But I would not discount the idea that there are meaningful moments where you do feel like something has connected to your life in a way that you’ve never seen before, and that’s a powerful experience. The one thing — I think about it. I wrote about this in my book a bit. And I was like, the person who best portrayed the life of a Korean working class immigrant trying to navigate life in New York City and all the sort of confusion over race and everything like that was Spike Lee at the end of “Do the Right Thing,” the Korean store owner when everything is burning. And the group comes to perhaps burn down their store. He’s chasing them away with the broom, and he’s screaming, I’m Black, I’m Black, I’m Black.

And then there’s an argument that happens, and then the store is not burned. That scene is so powerful, right? It just shows the confusion that everybody has about this. It shows the newness of the immigrant and the way in which the immigrant will sort of change his affiliations based on circumstance.

It also shows some genuine identification with Black people because this person understands fundamentally that he’s not white, right? In some ways, it doesn’t really have to do with whether something is accurate or not. It just has to do with whether or not the thing that is being said about this person or this resident of whether or not it’s true. And that’s something that’s very hard to codify.

jane coaston

We’ve talked a lot about examples of people writing across identities poorly. And Roxane, you were talking about how the problem was so much of this conversation, so we give so much attention to books that are bad. Like, we are not mad at good books. I mean, sometimes I’m mad at good books because I’m like, dang it. How did you do that? That’s unfair.

But are we just getting more examples to pick from? Where do you think we’ll reach a tipping point where we don’t feel like we need to assign so much importance to each example that comes out? Where we get to a point where it’s like, yeah, that’s a shitty book about a lesbian couple, but eh, we’re good.

roxane gay

Well, I mean, I think that’s actually the goal. That is the goal. It’s not that we should aspire to mediocrity. It’s that we aspire to there being less pressure. It’s the burden of representation that everything that marginalized people do has to be excellent in order for any other projects in that vein to ever exist. It’s unreasonable. It’s unfair. And it’s racist and homophobic, transphobic, et cetera.

And we do need to get to that place. And I don’t know how we get to that place, but we’re certainly inching there very slowly. And in some ways, we are kind of there, I would say maybe with regard to queer representation, where you can make a queer TV show, a queer movie that’s like, eh, not my favorite. And another queer project is actually going to get made.

jane coaston

Yeah, they made a Stonewall movie, and we all made it through.

roxane gay

Whew, listen. I mean, why does it have to be so bad? Oh, my God. It’s not necessary. Give us a good Stonewall movie. I would like us to get to a place where there’s less pressure placed on marginalized creators and there’s less pressure placed upon representation, where we are not discussing how effectively someone represents an entire identity, and we are reflecting more on, what is the quality of the story? What are the production values? We deserve a better level of criticism than, thank you for representing us well. We just do.

And as creators, we deserve that, for better and worse. I think most writers of color, we crave genuine, intellectual engagement with our work. Now, sometimes that engagement hurts when someone is criticizing you. But to have people robustly engage with the work would be so lovely.

I feel so bad for this sort of diminished critical culture that has risen where creators have to defend their subject position, instead of what they’ve put on the page or on the screen. You don’t work your entire fucking life for someone to be like, I don’t like what you said about Black men in that book. And it’s just like, wow, that’s what you took away from it? Did you read my sentences? Come on.

jay caspian kang

Right. I assume that both of you can do this, too, but when there is a work that is produced by a person of color, and I read the review, and if the review is positive, I can tell if the reviewer didn’t actually like it, but just feels like they have to pretend that they like it and just kind of want to give a pat on the head for being like, oh, this is wonderful that this exists and that you’re so cute that you did this.

roxane gay

Yeah, like, well done. You strung some sentences together. You can absolutely tell —

jay caspian kang

I can always tell. I can always tell when — because it’s very rare where the review is negative.

roxane gay

And that’s actually racist, too.

jay caspian kang

Oh, for sure, yeah.

roxane gay

The condescension. The condescension. It’s like they think they can’t, and also, they’re afraid. They’re afraid of what’s going to happen to them should they admit this book was bad. There have been some books in the past couple of years where it’s like, guys, come on. Let’s just all admit it was a bad book.

jane coaston

This has been a really helpful and good conversation. Roxane, Jay, thank you so much for joining me.

roxane gay

Thanks for having me.

jay caspian kang

OK, great. Thanks, bye.

[MUSIC]

jane coaston

Roxane Gay is a contributing Opinion writer and the author of multiple books, including “Hunger” and “Bad Feminist.” Jay Caspian Kang is a contributor for New York Times Magazine. He also writes The Times Opinion newsletter. Roxane and Jay have even more thoughts. You can read them in their pieces, “White Fever Dreams,” by Roxane Gay, published in “Gay Magazine,” and, “The Pity of the Elites,” by Jay Caspian Kang in his newsletter for New York Times Opinion. You can find links to all of these in our episode notes.

“The Argument” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez and Vishakha Darbha; edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon; with original music and sound design by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker; mixing by Pat McCusker; fact-checking by Kate Sinclair; audience strategy by Shannon Busta, with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *