Lucid prose from a talented poet..
Writing Like a White Guy by Jaswinder Bolina
Writing Like a White Guy
On language, race, and poetry.
BY JASWINDER BOLINA
My father says I should use a pseudonym. “They won’t publish you if they see your name. They’ll know you’re not one of them. They’ll know you’re one of us.” This has never occurred to me, at least not in a serious way. “No publisher in America’s going to reject my poems because I have a foreign name,” I reply. “Not in 2002.” I argue, “These are educated people. My name won’t be any impediment.” Yet in spite of my faith in the egalitarian attitude of editors and the anonymity of book contests, I understand my father’s angle on the issue.
With his beard shaved and his hair shorn, his turban undone and left behind in Bolina Doaba, Punjab—the town whose name we take as our own—he lands at Heathrow in 1965, a brown boy of 18 become a Londoner. His circumstance then must seem at once exhilarating and also like drifting in a lifeboat: necessary, interminable. I imagine the English of the era sporting an especially muted and disdainful brand of racism toward my alien father, his brother and sister-in-law, toward his brother-in-law and sister, his nieces and nephews, and the other Indians they befriend on Nadine Street, Charlton, just east of Greenwich. The sense of exclusion arrives over every channel, dull and constant.
At least one realtor, a couple of bankers, and a few foremen must have a different attitude. One white supervisor at the industrial bakery my father labors in invites him home for dinner. The Brit wants to offer an introduction to his single daughters. He knows my father’s a hard worker, a trait so commonly attributed to the immigrant it seems sometimes a nationality unto itself, and maybe the quietude of the nonnative speaker appeals to the man’s sense of civility. As a result he finds my father humble, upstanding, his complexion a light beach sand indicative of a vigor exceeding that of the pale English suitors who come calling. In my imagination, my father’s embarrassed and placid demeanor, his awkward formality in that setting, is charming to the bashful, giggly daughters, and this impresses the supervisor even further. But nothing much comes of that evening. My father never visits again. He marries my mother, another Sikh Punjabi also, a few years later, but that event is evidence that one Englishman considered my father the man, not my father the “paki.”
When he moves to hodgepodge Chicago nine years after arriving in England, he becomes another denizen of the immigrant nation, the huddled masses. He might be forgiven for thinking he will not be excluded here, but he isn’t so naïve. America in 1974 is its own version of the UK’s insular empire, though the nature of its exclusion is different, is what we call institutional. He knows that in America nobody should be rejected, not unabashedly and without some counterfeit of a reason, but all my father’s nearly three decades as a machinist at the hydraulics plant near the airport teach him is that economies boom and economies bust, and if your name isn’t “Bill” or “Earl” or “Frank Malone,” you don’t get promoted. You mind the machines. “Bills” and “Earls” supervise. “Frank” is the name the bosses go by, all of them hired after my dad but raised higher. So when my father suggests I use a pseudonym, he’s only steadying my two-wheeler, only buying me a popsicle from the cart at Foster Avenue Beach. This is only an extension of covering my tuition, of paying my room and board.
At the time, I’m only a year or so into an MFA. I stop by the office of a friend, an older white poet in my department. Publication to me feels impossible then, and the friend means to be encouraging when he says, “With a name like Jaswinder Bolina, you could publish plenty of poems right now if you wrote about the first-generation, minority stuff. What I admire is that you don’t write that kind of poetry.” He’s right. I don’t write “that kind” of poetry. To him, this is upstanding, correct, what a poet ought to do. It’s indicative of a vigor exceeding that of other minority poets come calling. It turns out I’m a hard worker too. I should be offended—if not for myself, then on behalf of writers who do take on the difficult subject of minority experience in their poetry—but I understand that my friend means no ill by it. To his mind, embracing my difference would open editorial inboxes, but knowing that I tend to eschew/exclude/deny “that kind” of subject in my poetry, he adds, “This’ll make it harder for you.” When, only a few months later, my father—who’s never read my poems, whose fine but mostly functional knowledge of English makes the diction and syntax of my work difficult to follow, who doesn’t know anything of the themes or subjects of my poetry—tells me to use another name, he’s encouraging also. He means: Let them think you’re a white guy. This will make it easier for you.
The one thing I least believe about race in America is that we can disregard it. I’m nowhere close to alone in this, but the person I encounter far more often than the racist—closeted or proud—is the one who believes race isn’t an active factor in her thinking, isn’t an influence on his interaction with the racial Other. Such blindness to race seems unlikely, but I suspect few of us entirely understand why it’s so improbable. I’m not certain either, but I’ve been given some idea. At a panel discussion in 2004, a professor of political philosophy, Caribbean-born with a doctorate from the University of Toronto, explains that he never understood why the question in America is so often a question of race. A scholar of Marxist thinking, he says in nearly every other industrialized nation on Earth, the first question is a question of class, and accordingly class is the first conflict. He says it wasn’t until he moved to the United States in the early ’70s—about the same time my father arrived—that he intellectually and viscerally understood that America is a place where class historically coincides with race. This, he says, is the heaviest legacy of slavery and segregation.
To many immigrants, the professor and my father included, this conflation between success and skin color is a foreign one. In their native lands, where there exists a relative homogeneity in the racial makeup of the population or a pervasive mingling of races, the “minorities” of America are classed based on socioeconomic status derived from any number of factors, and race is rarely, if ever, principal in these. You can look down on anybody even though they share your skin color if you have land enough, wealth enough, caste and education enough. It’s only arriving in England that the Indian—who might not even recognize the descriptor “Indian,” preferring instead a regional or religious identity to a national one—realizes anyone resembling him is subject to the derision “coolie.” It’s only in America that such an immigrant discovers any brown-skinned body can have a “camel fucker” or a “sand nigger” hurled at him from a passing car—a bit of cognitive dissonance that’s been directed at me on more than one occasion. The racially African but ethnically Other philosophy professor understands the oddness of this as well as anyone. He explains that in the United States, as anywhere, the first question remains a question of class, but the coincidence between class and color makes the first American social conflict a conflict of race. As such, for the racial immigrant and his offspring, racial difference need be mitigated whenever possible, if only to lubricate the cogs of class mobility: nearer to whiteness, nearer to wealth.
If the racial Other aspires to equal footing on the socioeconomic playing field, he is tasked with forcing his way out of the categorical cul-de-sac that his name and appearance otherwise squeeze him into. We call the process by which he does this “assimilation.” Though the Latin root here—shared with the other word “similar”—implies that the process is one of becoming absorbed or incorporated, it is a process that relies first on the negation of one identity in order to adopt another. In this sense, assimilation is a destructive rather than constructive process. It isn’t a come-as-you-are proposition, a simple matter of being integrated into the American milieu because there exists a standing invitation to do so. Rather, assimilation first requires refuting assumptions the culture makes about the immigrant based on race, and in this sense assimilation requires the erasure of one’s preexisting cultural identity even though that identity wasn’t contingent upon race in the first place.
The first and perhaps essential step in assimilating into any culture is the successful adoption of the host country’s language. What’s unusual in America is that this is no different for the immigrant than for the native-born nonwhite. This is most obvious when I consider African Americans, whose language is variously described as “urban” (as in “of the slums of the inner city”), “street” (as in “of the gutter”), and “Ebonic” (as in “of ebony, of blackness”). These descriptors imply that whatever it is, black vernacular isn’t English. Rather, it’s “broken English,” which is of course what we also call the English of the nonnative speaker. I’m tempted to categorize so-called “countrified” or “redneck” dialects similarly, except I remember that any number of recent U.S. presidents and presidential candidates capable in that vernacular are regarded as more down-to-earth and likable rather than less well-spoken or intelligent. It seems that such white dialect serves as evidence of charisma, charm, and folksiness rather than of ignorance.
In 2007, the eventual vice president campaigning in the primary election against the eventual president says, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” The ensuing kerfuffle is almost entirely unsurprising. Though the white candidate believes he’s merely describing the candidate of color and doing so with ample objectivity and perhaps even with generosity, the description implies that the black man’s appearance and eloquence constitute an exception to his blackness, which is a function of genetics, which only further suggests that the black candidate is an exception to his basic nature. The implication is that he is being praised for his approximate whiteness. Not shockingly, this very conflation of his eloquence with white racial identity leads pundits in another context to ask the obnoxious question, “But is he black enough?” The conundrum the candidate faces is that he need be an exceptional speaker and writer, but part of the “exceptional” here is the idea that he’s an “exception” to his race. He has co-opted the language of whiteness. If he then neglects to take on the subject of race with that language, with the fierce urgency of now, he might further be accused of rejecting his own racial identity. Is he a candidate or a black candidate? If it’s the former, he might not be “black enough.” If it’s the latter, he can’t win.
In a country where class and race structurally overlap, what we call “standard” English reflexively becomes the English of whiteness rather than simply the English of the educated or privileged classes. When I adopt the language I’m taught in prep school, in university, and in graduate school, I’m adopting the English language, but in the States, that language is intrinsically associated with one race over any another. By contrast, in the England of history, the one prior to the more recent influx of immigrants from its imperial colonies, Oxford English is spoken by subjects as white as those who bandy about in Cockney. Adeptness of language usage isn’t a function then of melanin but of socioeconomic location. Color isn’t the question; class is. Unlike the Cockney of England or the dialects of India, none of which are contingent upon racial difference, alternate dialects in American English are inherently racialized. Assimilation in America then comes to mean the appropriation of a specific racial identity by way of language. The conundrum for the poet of color becomes no different than the one that faces the candidate of color: Am I a writer or a minority writer?
The day I’m born, my father engages in the American custom of handing out cigars to the “Bills” and “Earls” and “Franks” of the factory floor, even though he has never smoked in his life. Smoking is anathema to his Sikh Punjabi identity. Drinking, on the other hand, is most certainly not, and he gets gleefully and mercilessly drunk with his brothers at home. He boasts everywhere, “My son will be president.” He believes it. Twenty-four years later, in 2002, when he counsels me to use a pseudonym, he knows I’m already adept in the language. I’ve been educated in it, and in spite of all his diligence and intelligence, this is a key he’s never been given. I talk like them. I write like them. I’m an agile agent in the empire so long as nobody grows wise. He no longer expects a presidency, but he sees no limit to potential success in my chosen field, except for the limits placed on me by my racial difference from the dominant culture. He doesn’t consider the possibility that I write about race in my work, that I might want to embrace the subject, because he knows, like the candidate of black Kenyan and white Kansan bloodlines, I’ve been conditioned to resist making race the essential issue.
And it’s true. The manner with which I avoid the subject of race in my first book is nearly dogmatic. Race is a subject I don’t offer any attention to. To do so would seem only to underscore my Otherness, which would only result in the same sorts of requisite exclusions I experienced growing up in mostly white schools and neighborhoods. Assimilation in those circumstances isn’t a choice so much political as it is necessary. Some remnant of a survival instinct kicks in, and one’s best efforts are directed at joining rather than resisting the herd. To be racialized is to be marginalized. When another Asian kid joins the playground, we unwittingly vie to out-white each other. This tactic I learned from practice but also from my immigrant family. When your numbers are few, assimilation is the pragmatic gambit.
It’s not something that we engage in without a queasy feeling. When my father suggests I Wite-Out my name, he’s entirely aware that he’s suggesting I relinquish the name he and my mother gave me. This isn’t an easy thing, but growing up, I’ve never been kept from doing what the “American” kids do—though I’m born here and though my parents have long been citizens, “American” remains a descriptor my family uses to signify whiteness. Like the white kids, I join the Cub Scouts and play football at recess, I attend birthday parties at my American classmates’ houses and go to junior high socials. In high school, after years of elementary school mockery, I attempt—not unlike the young Barry Obama—to anglicize my name, going by “Jason” instead, a stratagem that those who become my friends quickly reject after only a few weeks. I go to the homecoming dance. I go to the prom. I stay out past curfew and grow my hair long. I insist that my mother close all the bedroom doors when she cooks so my clothes don’t reek of cumin and turmeric. I resist any suggestion that I study the sciences in order to prepare for a career in medicine or engineering. I never meet an Indian girl; there aren’t any in the philosophy and English departments I’m a member of anyway. My parents know I’m bereft of their culture. They must at times feel a lucid resentment, a sense of rejection and exclusion. Their son has become one of the English-speakers, as “Frank” or “Bill” to them as any American. But this, they know, is necessary. If the first generation is to succeed here, it’s by resisting the ingrained cultural identity and mores of its immigrant forebears. If their son is to become president, my parents know it won’t happen while he’s wearing a turban. This is why they never keep me from engaging American culture, though it quickly comes to supplant their own. Assimilation is pragmatic, but pragmatism calls for concessions that compound and come to feel like a chronic ache.
It’s because of the historical convergence of race and class in America that we conflate the language of the educated, ruling classes with the language of a particular racial identity. If I decouple the two, as I might be able to do in another nation, I realize that what’s being described isn’t the language of whiteness so much as the language of privilege. When I say “privilege” here, I mean the condition of not needing to consider what others are forced to consider. The privilege of whiteness in America—particularly male, heteronormative whiteness—is the privilege to speak from a blank slate, to not need to address questions of race, gender, sexuality, or class except by choice, to not need to acknowledge wherefrom one speaks. It’s the position of no position, the voice from nowhere or from everywhere. In this, it is Godlike, and if nothing else, that’s saying something.
To the poet, though, the first question isn’t one of class or color. The first question is a question of language. Poetry—as Stéphane Mallarmé famously tells the painter and hapless would-be poet Edgar Degas—is made of words, not ideas. However, to the poet of color or the female poet, to the gay or transgendered writer in America, and even to the white male writer born outside of socioeconomic privilege, a difficult question arises: “Whose language is it?” Where the history of academic and cultural institutions is so dominated by white men of means, “high” language necessarily comes to mean the language of whiteness and a largely wealthy, heteronormative maleness at that. The minority poet seeking entry into the academy and its canon finds that her language is deracialized/sexualized/gendered/classed at the outset. In trafficking in “high” English, writers other than educated, straight, white, male ones of privilege choose to become versed in a language that doesn’t intrinsically or historically coincide with perceptions of their identities. It’s true that minority poets are permitted to bring alternative vernaculars into our work. Poets from William Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads to Frank O’Hara in his “Personism: a manifesto” demand as much by insisting that poetry incorporate language nearer to conversational speech than anything overly elevated. Such calls for expansions of literary language in conjunction with continuing experiments by recent generations of American poets are transforming the canon for sure, but this leaves me and perhaps others like me in a slightly awkward position. I don’t possess a vernacular English that’s significantly different from that of plain old Midwestern English. As such, it seems I’m able to write from a perspective that doesn’t address certain realities about myself, and this makes me queasy as anything. The voice in my head is annoyed with the voice in my writing. The voice in my head says I’m disregarding difference, and this feels like a denial of self, of reality, of a basic truth.
It isn’t exactly intentional. It’s a product of being privileged. In the 46 years since my father left Punjab, the 40 or so years since my mother left also, my parents clambered the socioeconomic ladder with a fair amount of middle-class success. We’re not exactly wealthy, but I do wind up in prep school instead of the public high school, which only isolates me further from those with a shared racial identity. Later I attend university, where I’m permitted by my parents’ successes to study the subjects I want to study rather than those that might guarantee future wealth. I don’t need to become a doctor or a lawyer to support the clan. I get to major in philosophy and later attend graduate school in creative writing. Through all of this, though I experience occasional instances of bigotry while walking down streets or in bars, and though I study in programs where I’m often one of only two or three students of color, my racial identity is generally overlooked or disregarded by those around me. I’ve become so adept in the language and culture of the academy that on more than one occasion when I bring up the fact of my race, colleagues reply with some variation of “I don’t think of you as a minority.” Or, as a cousin who’s known me since infancy jokes, “You’re not a minority. You’re just a white guy with a tan.” What she means is that my assimilation is complete. But she can’t be correct. Race is simply too essential to the American experience to ever be entirely overlooked. As such, I can’t actually write like a white guy any more than I can revise my skin color. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that if a reader were to encounter much of my work not knowing my name or having seen a photograph of me, she might not be faulted for incorrectly assigning the poems a white racial identity. This is a product of my language, which is a product of my education, which is a product of the socioeconomic privilege afforded by my parents’ successes. The product of all those factors together is that the writing—this essay included—can’t seem to help sounding white.
Recently, I was invited to give a few poetry readings as part of a literary festival taking place in a rural part of the country. I borrow my father’s compact SUV and let its GPS guide me for a few days on the road. I spend afternoons and evenings reading poems with local and visiting writers in front of small audiences at community centers and public libraries. The audiences are largely made up of kind, white-haired, white-skinned locals enthusiastic to hear us read from and speak about our work, even when they’ve never heard of most of us. They at least appreciate poetry, a rarity I’m grateful for. During the introductions that preface each event, even the organizers who’ve invited me have difficulty getting my name right, and in one school library, I enunciate it over and over again. I say, “Jas as in the first part of justice; win as in the opposite of defeat; der, which rhymes with err, meaning to be mistaken.” I say, “JasWINder,” lilting the second syllable, and smile as about a dozen audience members mouth each syllable along with me until they feel they have it right. When they do, they grin broadly. After each event, I chat with them one or two at a time, and I do my best to reflect their warmth. They’re complimentary about the work, and though I don’t expect they’re a demographic that’ll especially like my poems—even when you write poems like a white guy, you might not be writing poems everyone will like—the compliments are earnest.
Still, in all this pleasantness, the awkward moment occurs more than once. It’s some variation on a recurring question I get in town after town. The question usually comes up as a matter of small talk while I’m signing a book or shaking someone’s hand. No one delivers it better, with so much beaming warmth and unwitting irony, than the woman who says she enjoyed my poems very much and follows this quickly with an admiring “You’re so Americanized, what nationality are you?” She doesn’t pick up on the oxymoron in her question. She doesn’t hear the hint of tiredness in my reply. “I was born and raised in Chicago, but my parents are from northern India.” Once more, I ought to be offended, but I’m not really. Hers is an expression of curiosity that’s born of genuine interest rather than of sideshow spectacle. I’m the only nonwhite writer at the events I participate in. I’m the only one who gets this question. It makes me bristle, but I understand where it comes from.
After my brief tour is over, I make the 500-mile trip to suburban Chicago to return the Toyota to my parents. I eat dinner at home, and after, my father drops me back in the city. Invariably, the trip down the Kennedy Expressway toward the skyline makes him nostalgic for his early, underpaid days in small apartments on the North Side, his city long before it became my city. He tells a story or two, and we talk as usual about the news, politics, the latest way my uncle annoys him. He goes on a while before his attention returns to the moment, and he asks how my trip went. I tell him it went well. I say the audiences were kind and the drives were long. I say, out there, the country looks like a painting of itself. I don’t mention what the woman asked, the recurring question echoed by others. “You’re so Americanized, what nationality are you?” It won’t matter that she asked it while eagerly shaking my hand. It won’t matter that she asked while asking me also to sign a copy of my book for her. It won’t matter that she offered her gratitude that I’d come all that way to read in her hamlet on the outskirts of America. Though she might have meant the opposite, he’ll hear the question as the old door closing again. The doorway, then, is both welcome and departure, is border guard and border crossing, and though I’m not on the woman’s side of it, I’m not entirely on my father’s side either.
Perhaps for this reason, there’s the continuing sense that I ought to write about race even as I resent that I need be troubled by the subject in the first place. After all, I should permit myself to be a poet first and a minority second, same as any male, white writer. But even as I attempt to ignore the issue altogether, I find myself thinking about it, and I realize now that this fact more than any other makes it so that I can’t write like a white poet. Writing is as much the process of arriving at the point of composition as it is the act of composition itself. That my awareness of racial identity so often plays a part in my thinking about my writing makes it so that I can’t engage in that writing without race being a live wire. Even one’s evasions are born of one’s fixations. More to the point, what appears to be an evasion might not be exactly that at all. John Ashbery doesn’t make a subject matter of his sexuality, but this doesn’t mean he’s unable to inhabit the identity of a gay writer. Similarly, even though Mary Ruefle might not take on gender identity overtly in a given poem, it doesn’t make that poem an adversary to the cause of feminism. I don’t bring all this up to absolve myself exactly, though it’s true I’m trying to figure out a way to alleviate a guilt I’m annoyed to feel in the first place. I imagine male, white poets will recognize this feeling. I bet any poet of conscience who doesn’t actively write about sociopolitical subjects knows this feeling, but the poet is trying to write the original thing, and that originality might not take up orbit around a more obvious facet of a poet’s identity. When any of us doesn’t take on such a subject in our writing, it might not be because we neglected to do so. Rather, it might be that the subject informed every bit of our deciding to write about something else.
More importantly, when it comes to writing about difficult issues of identity, especially those with far-reaching political and cultural implications, maybe the choice needn’t be a dichotomous one. Maybe I don’t need to choose between being the brown guy writing like a white guy or the brown guy writing about being Othered. Instead, maybe I need only be a brown guy writing out his study of language and the self—the same as the Paterson doctor, the Hartford insurance executive, the lesbian expat in Paris, the gay Jew from New Jersey, the male white poet teaching at the University of Houston, or the straight black female professor reading her poem at the American president’s inauguration. Though “high” English might be born of a culture once dominated by straight white men of privilege, each of us wields our English in ways those men might not have imagined. This is okay. Language, like a hammer, belongs to whoever picks it up to build or demolish. Whether we take language in hand to deconstruct itself, to confess a real experience or an imagined one, or to meditate upon the relationship between the individual and the political, social, historical, or cosmological, ownership of our language need not be bound up with the history of that language. Whether I choose to pound on the crooked nail of race or gender, self or Other, whether I decide on some obscure subject while forgoing the other obvious one, when I write, the hammer belongs to me.
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Jaswinder Bolina is the author of Carrier Wave, winner of the 2006 Colorado Prize for Poetry.Poems from his new manuscript—which can be found online here, here, and here—have appeared in recent issues of Ecotone, Columbia Poetry Review, Third Coast, and in The Best American Poetry 2011.
Continue reading this biography at the Poetry Foundation link