Allow me to say, this was my mood today:
So if this post feels quietly frustrating, I apologize. I enjoy the rain, mostly. Especially this time of year. It makes me want to hide inside a poem.
Today was a simple day. I wrote in the morning, I read Teju Cole’s poetic prose on the train, I arrived at work and talked about art, and wrote a grant, and shuffled some papers, and did some other work things. At lunch, I strolled down an old alleyway for black tea and bookstore perusing.
I had already been listening to spoken word poetry in my headphones most of the day (interspersed with a bit of Badu, naturally), so was in the mood for some written poetry. I’ve been meaning to pick up Nikki Giovanni’s Love Poems for some time, but unfortunately every time I remember to buy it, it’s not around. Alas, the hunt continues as I hold myself back from just buying it on Amazon. I did, however, find this gem, which made for a lovely, brief read. I especially enjoyed Poem for Aretha, which contains the indelible lines:
nobody mentions how it feels to become a freak
because you have talent and how
no one gives a damn how you feel
No need for metaphor here. Ms. Giovanni speaks the truth. One of the many reasons to love her.
I perused some more, moved on to the massive fiction section, and found this gorgeous book, which felt like a brick and is so old I worried it may turn to dust in my palm, but my, what craftsmanship. Can we go back to this? Also, George Eliot, Ms. Mary Ann Evans, you’re brilliant in a million different ways. And your book is a treasure.
I floated on a bubble of literary peacefulness for the rest of the fiction section. But then things got weird. And by weird I mean odd and completely unnecessary racial and gender fiction strata began to appear, the likes of which I’ve frowned at in major book retailers, but hoped wouldn’t appear in my favorite used bookshops. Why, oh why, must we separate books by the racial and/or ethnic background of their author? This seems absurd to even say out loud, but there, plain as day, at the end of fiction section and after I couldn’t locate a certain author I was interested in reading, the “African-American fiction” section label appeared.
Let’s be clear: this does not mean that the subject matter of the fiction here is solely for African-American interests and couldn’t possibly appeal to a wider, less racially-specific audience. These are works of fiction that happen to be written by black authors. And so they are put in a separate section of the bookstore. Away from the rest of the fiction. Which leads one to understand that *all* the rest of the fiction, which spanned the length of one wall plus some, was written by everyone other than black American writers…?
But, it’s fiction? Who cares who wrote it? Is that to say that I, as a white person, would be less interested in reading it? Who’s dictating this?
And as I’m heading out, I see another incredibly narrow-minded segregation of books, this one entitled “Chick Lit.”
*Long exasperated sigh*
I’m just getting over the issue that women’s lit is still referred to as women’s lit instead of just fiction, but to take a (somewhat antiquated, at this point) and quite demeaning label meant to single out fiction written by women that tends to (but does not always) deal with things such as relationships, jobs, dating, being a mother, being a member of a somewhat crazy family (you know, things women deal with regularly, and also, I might add, not too far off from what men write about) and separate it from other “more sophisticated” novels, well, it just made me wonder why it is we classify literature in this way. Jennifer Weiner, who’s been on the bestseller list too many times to count, has been battling this negative labeling most of her career. (See here and here.)
Are there any other art forms that do this? Do we have separate areas for “African-American” sculpture, painting, or ballet? Do we make “women’s music” something distinct from that of what men listen to? No, of course not. Because the beauty of art is that it’s not restrictive. Anyone can and should experience it. It’s meant for everyone, up for a million different interpretations and perspectives, meant to be discussed, appreciated, analyzed simply for what it is, without any parameters placed on the audience it’s intended to reach.
There’s a larger discussion at play about who does this segregating and what it means for readers and writers. When I publish a novel, as a woman, will half of my audience be cut off just because I happen to be a woman? What if I wrote only male characters? What if I didn’t? It’s disingenuous and incredibly reductive to believe that a male audience wouldn’t relate to something written by a woman, or a reader who is white couldn’t relate to something written by a black author. By creating these designations we limit ourselves, we limit the power of the written word, and we close so many off to experiences that have the power to transform.
If it sounds ridiculous to be segregating books by writer’s gender and racial makeup (and as a byproduct, by intended audience) in the year 2014, it’s simply because it is.