In fact, you should want more for ethnic literature than mere existence -- you should want it to grow and flourish and send out a thousand literary tendrils into the world, including into the books your read. Because it will make those books better. Richer, more complex, more reflective of the realities of the world around, of the people you meet, of the people you love and the people you can't stand. Ethnic literature, if done well, makes art, and life, better.
This applies to more than ethnic literature of course -- you can apply this argument to literature by women, by queers, by the poor, by the disabled -- apply it to any literature by people who have been systematically excluded from publishing for a very long time. When those people write, when you get to read what they write, it makes for a better literature, and I believe, a better world.
Okay, you say. You would love to see lots of books out there by disabled, brown, poor, queer women. You would buy them and read them, you say. And it isn't your fault that oddly enough, you never seem to run into those books in the bookstore, or on Amazon. It isn't your fault that when those books are written, somehow they always seem to be poorly-printed hand-stapled chapbooks being sold for two dollars each at a poetry reading in a neighborhood you rarely venture into -- only when you need some strange spice from the little market there, so you can make delicious ethnic food at home (hoping it won't stink up your kitchen too much).
That's a little unfair, I know. And truly, it isn't your fault. I can't hold you, or me, responsible for every fault of the culture overall, the literary establishment that is still so dominated by certain kinds of writing, by certain kinds of people. I think *those* people should get to write books too, after all, and publish them. Many of my own students are healthy straight white men from nice upper-middle-class families, and I encourage them to write and tell their stories, although please, try to be as concrete and specific as you can be. Work not to fall into the so-easy assumptions of the literary culture that flattens out all specificity and wants us to think that we are all the same, all rich and white and healthy, and if we're not, we don't matter, we should just disappear.
Yesterday I went to a talk by the organizers and writers of Palabra Pura, a bilingual reading series here in Chicago. They made the argument, passionately, that it was critically important to support culturally-specific reading series. One young poet, Paul Martinez-Pompa, spoke eloquently about how he, third-generation hispanic-American, had felt tremendously isolated in his life and his material when he only spent time with the overwhelmingly white writers of his writing program. Palabra Pura exposed him to other writers from his culture; it was a safe space, where he didn't need to worry about how the cultural aspects of his work would be received. He could read before an audience and not have to *explain* everything. Certain risks he took, certain literary attempts were understood and appreciated. Culturally-specific nuances in the work came across. Having that space allowed for a greater complexity and richness in the writing than he might have attempted otherwise.
Another talk I attended was by Middle Eastern writers, including two really wonderful poets, Matthew Shenoda and Hayan Charara. I am brown, but I'm not from the Middle East, and I know very little about it. They talked about Islam, and Middle Eastern men, and violence, and about all the stereotypes the West holds about Islam, and Middle Eastern men, and violence. It was a nuanced, complicated discussion, and even though I know I didn't understand all of it -- they referred often, and casually, to political events that I knew nothing of -- I learned some things. My understanding of the world is bigger, richer, after spending ninety minutes in the room with them.
I know for myself, that writing *Bodies in Motion*, my own culturally-specific book, was made infinitely better by reading other literature from the culture. Although it was so difficult to actually find books from Sri Lanka, or by Sri Lankan authors. I read all the ones I could get my hands on, but that was a shockingly small number of titles. And the situation has improved, a little, as it becomes easier to publish online or ship overseas, but not enough, not even close. My own book is still not available in translation in Sri Lanka, because the one publisher big enough couldn't afford the licensing fee my American publisher asked. If I'd realized that was the problem at the time, I would have paid the damn fee myself.
There are so many barriers between us, so many obstacles that make it hard for us to talk to each other, to understand each other. So when you choose to come to a DesiLit reading, or buy a book by an ethnic author, or tell your friend about a story you read online in our magazine, that is incredibly helpful. That action supports these writers and their work; it helps create a space where they can grow and flourish. It makes it possible for them to exist in the world. So I'm asking you, if you care about literature, to make a choice to actively support these writers and their work.
One way you can do it is to answer my poll questions about the future of DesiLit, the direction we should follow next
Another is to read this poem, by Hayan Charara, published online in _Perihelion_ -- "Animals: On the Role of the Poet in a Country at War". He read it at the panel, and it broke my heart.
Thank you for reading.