I’ve started a ritual to dispose of personal essay ideas I know I won’t write. It involves saying the phrase aloud — “personal essays I won’t write” — like it’s a punchline, or a prayer. I say it when I’m tempted by bits of the quotidian that have that special glimmer: reading Malcolm X on public transit. Blasting 50 Cent while driving through a white suburb with my mother. Letting people touch my hair for money. Personal essays I won’t write.
The refrain is a joke, mostly, a loving dig at how easy it is to make googly eyes at your navel. But it’s also a minor exorcism: By articulating the urge, however fleeting, to seize an idea, pin it down, and parse its innards, I make myself evaluate the kernel at its heart. Say I started drafting one of those essays-that-weren’t, the one about blasting The Massacre with the windows down. Once the scene was set and it was time to lay down something like a thesis, I’d have cornered myself into uttering the same phrase, one I hadn’t planned to spill ink over, but without which the essay might lack some logical or emotional core: “As a woman of color…”
What might we gain from thinking of our writing as an ongoing project to worry at the same wound? Self-awareness, for one thing. Jess Zimmerman, writer and editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, posed this question on Twitter: If you had to boil down your personal essays into a single refrain, what would it be? Zimmerman noted a trend in the responses: Many people use their writing “to send constant, repetitive signals of personal distress.” Across multiple essays, writers transmit versions of the same call — “I’m scared,” “I’m hurt,” “I’m grieving” — in an effort to be heard and understood. But the best refrains did something else as well. More than just trying to translate the writer’s struggles, they looked outward to consider what value it might offer to a reader. In Zimmerman’s figuration, it’s the difference between an SOS signal and a lighthouse — not just a signpost of your pain, but a warning to prevent another’s suffering.
My own refrain — “as a biracial woman, my experience of x can leave me feeling hopelessly in-between” — was textbook SOS. Gazing through that lens, I told the story of myself, and certain scenes snapped into focus: That was violence. That was not benign. That one shapes me even now. For a while, the relief and the fury of this naming were enough.
But soon, I began to feel that the pressure to make my mixed-race identity my rhetorical crux was as much externally imposed as it was self-inflicted. In my work, I posed a range of questions to which my body’s unreadability kept resurfacing as the often unintended answer: Why did I leave the music industry? What does it mean to see yourself represented in a text? Why is my juvenilia so white? These pieces — all ones that I stand behind and worked on with smart, sensitive editors — gave way to others, where the choice to serve up suffering wasn’t always mine.
Things get tricky when your refrain is tied up in an identity claim, and trickier still when that identity is an axis, or several axes, of marginality. You offer your pain up once, and if an editor asks you to do it again, to work that angle a bit harder, it seems disingenuous to deny them. It’s still true, isn’t it? What if that’s the thing they love most about the piece? What’s more, not every editor even asks permission to press on the bruise — I’ve made brief nods to my blackness for context, and they’ve spotlit the mention and pushed on it hard, to the point that it drowned out my argument.
In her new book, Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings, writer and theorist Mari Ruti discusses the role of our traumas in our stories of self-making. There’s no doubt, to quote Ruti, that “who we are has a great deal to do with how we have been wounded.” But that’s qualitatively different from building our bodies of work around this original wound. As I placed more work online, I came to understand something that continues to shape my thinking: Despite the position from which I write, and the need for it to inform my work, I also want that work to bloom around a richer core than the supposed pain of racial difference. If each writer chases a singular question, then I need a refrain that does more open-ended, unexpected work than just announcing the color of my skin as the intellectual bottom line — even if, or especially if, that tortured pose is the kind of work that editors expect.
As writers of color slowly gain greater visibility, it’s important to consider what kinds of narratives we keep asking these artists to tell. Today’s media market has a tendency to demand versions of the same story from all marginalized writers, and that’s especially true in the personal essay economy, a certain sector of which is defined by its hunger for suffering. As Sarah Menkedick reminds us, the continual potshots taken at the personal essay form — as the lazy, nonliterary exposure of trauma and identity — are reductive, and arguably just symptoms of condescending reading. But the pressure to perform minority trauma does put writers of color at an especially high risk of being pigeonholed. If, as Soraya Roberts argues, the personal essay isn't dead, it's just no longer white, then it’s incumbent on both writers and editors to ensure that this increased visibility doesn’t occur at the expense of depth, or lead to tokenization.
I want to emphasize that these questions on how to write identity are very much a two-way street, that it’s not all a conspiracy of cookie-cutter editorial practices under the guise of diversifying content. More importantly, I want these writers to get their work out and get their money, to feel the peerless satisfaction of clarifying a sensation or experience that was once kept opaque to them. For a lot of people, that’s going to hinge on an identity claim, and it’s a crucial time to be doing that kind of political work. But it’s also worth considering the refrain that writer and editor collaboratively produce: What lives at the core of the stories you tell about yourself? What narratives of trauma are you coaxing out of people who might be trying to express something else?
Of course, there will always be writers content to make trauma their calling card. The essayist Morgan Jerkins has been explicit about how writing on black suffering jump-started, and still structures, her career. With remarkable efficiency, she built a reputation for turning around rapid responses to acts of police brutality and anti-black violence. Again: Get your money. This is America. But where this approach becomes murky is when such a writer gets anointed by white media as the voice of a generation, thereby cementing one person’s views — in this case, an emphasis on racial trauma as central to living — as the definitive version of black womanhood. It reifies what writing about identity “ought” to look like, making it harder for writers in her wake to step from this path. Black women might read it and think, “But that’s not my story.” White women might read it and think, “I knew it.”
How might we help usher in more nuanced ways of writing identity, ones that don’t always demand that writers of color perform their suffering on the page? Last month, Porochista Khakpour offered us one possibility with the launch of her new Medium series, Off Beat. Khakpour aims to give writers the chance — or the challenge — to write about a topic that is, quite literally, “off the beat” that they’re usually tapped to discuss. Khakpour knows from experience that writers can easily get shoehorned by editors, magazines, and by their own pitches into covering particular subjects, a move that becomes especially pernicious for marginal writers. And being endlessly called upon only to recite the woes of a minority group is, as Cord Jefferson writes in “The Racism Beat,” exhausting to the point of being unsustainable. Khakpour notes that the stakes of such a narrow beat are also existential, provoking in its writers the urgent question: “Who am I outside of what they see me as?”
In addition to editorial strategies like Khakpour’s, there are ways to tackle the question as writers. Zadie Smith’s most recent essay collection, Feel Free, which came out in February, takes a different approach to broadening the ways we think about identity writing. In the book’s foreword, Smith plants herself firmly on the lighthouse side of Zimmerman’s dichotomy: “I feel this — do you? I’m struck by this thought — are you?” Her manner of reaching out to the reader is informed by her view of the self as unbounded and fluid: a “malleable and improvised response” to the world and language, as opposed to one fixed by physicality, ethnicity, or history. It’s a far cry from the call to carve up our bodies into their constituent oppressions, the all-too-common misuse of “intersectionality.” But Smith is also aware that her view of selfhood is somewhat dated, especially in the face of a political reality explicit about its assault on various identity categories, one that brings with it the pressure — even the need — for those identities to be boldly asserted.
The most sensitive, compelling approach to exploring the self I’ve encountered in recent writing is Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which came out in April. (You don’t even get past the title without the sense that you’re being directly addressed; it’s hard to get more lighthouse than “how-to” — though the book is less guide than dialogue.) Like sex shops or the dentist, books are not often places I walk into hoping to be called out and shown a mirror. But there’s a detail that seized me within the first few pages of Chee’s book, in the essay “The Curse”: While on a summer exchange program in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico, 15-year-old Chee is reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune. He is moved by the boy at the heart of the novel, the latest in a series of characters like Batman and Sherlock Holmes, “who went from being ordinary people to heroes through their ability to perceive the things others missed. I wanted to see if I too could obtain these powers through observation.”
I glimpsed a version of myself within this perfect moment, in the desire to make sense of your world while swimming in the soup of a still-forming identity; the proto-hope, not yet quite articulable, that writing will bring this sense of clarity; the knowledge of the reader and the narrator — but not yet the boy — that, yes, it will. There are more ways to reach from the page than the mere fact of seeing your identity represented. I was thrilled to have my cover blown.
The motif of the observant outsider continues to resurface throughout that essay — Chee, half white and half Korean, is one of the only nonwhite students on exchange — but he resists the narrative of pained in-betweenness. Chee admits to being less exoticized in Mexico than when he’s at home in Maine, but he presents the predictable mixed-race story as an option rather than a given, one that he rejects rather than embraces. Here’s Chee, avoiding the easy answer: “In the United States, if I said I was mixed, it meant too many things I didn’t feel. Mixed feelings were confusing feelings, and I didn’t feel confused except as to why it was so hard for everyone to understand that I existed.” He’s not hopelessly lost as a result of his identity; rather, it lends him a chance for exploration. In a memorable scene toward the essay’s end — and it seems crucial that Chee’s work moves in scenes, driven as much by novelistic description as by a rhetorical bottom line — he uses his newfound fluency in Spanish to convince a couple of party guests that he is a boy called Alejandro from Tijuana. This act of theatrics sets the tone for many of the pieces that follow, foregrounding the pleasure and power of the masks that we don to perform versions of ourselves, both on the page and off.
In an essay called “The Writing Life,” Chee describes the semester he spent taking Annie Dillard’s literary nonfiction class at Wesleyan University. In Dillard’s teaching philosophy, the literary essay was “a moral exercise that involved direct engagement with the unknown, whether it was a foreign civilization or your mind.” Rather than closing on the expected story, writers are bound to face the unfamiliar. When Chee arrives at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he announces that he’s “taking this parade down the middle of the road,” carving out space for himself as a gay Korean American writer amid the program’s stifling whiteness. Throughout the collection, he continues to center his body and politics in what he brings to the page. But such detailed, specific self-exploration can still look outward, welcoming another into the unknown of writing yourself, rather than foisting a map on them right off the bat and marking all of the intersections that meet at the point where you live. I want to quote Chee once more, on confronting the story the world foists onto mixed-race people: “[It] felt like discovering your shoe was nailed to the floor, but only one of them, so that you paced, always, a circle of possibility, defined by the limited imaginations of others.” Let’s stop nailing writers’ shoes to the floor.
Not long after I noticed the pattern of my personal writing — that all my inquiries were reducible to the same bottom line — I decided that I was going to withdraw myself from my work entirely. I scrubbed my prose of anecdotes or personal pronouns; I wrote careful reviews that hid those bits of opinion at risk of being traced back to a body. You’ve grown, I told myself. You’re a real critic now. But this stance, too, turned out to be untenable. Even if I’m not writing a piece that explicitly lassoes in the personal, I can’t stand to cut that channel off entirely; it’s not much better than having my work rewritten to convey a sense of pain that I don’t feel. I come to the page to attend to the specificity of my experience — to achieve clarity by explaining myself to myself, whether I’m staging my encounter with a text, a fictional scene, or a woman in line at the grocery who wants to touch my hair.
I want to let myself into my work not in droplets or fragments or anything so jealously guarded, nor in the unfiltered gush that shapes the clichéd idea of the personal essay. And here, Chee’s use of scenes offers a guide for the kind of writer that I’m working to become. If I told the story of my Kafkaesque law school years, I would want to dwell on their curious characters and emotional textures, alert to how such things were shaped by the institution’s whiteness, but not feeling pressed to shuffle every detail into line behind a clickbait claim of violence. I’m trying to keep an eye on both halves of the equation: not just the intimacy of exposure, but the act of the telling — the idea that, if we follow the scenes of our story closely enough, we might find twists that generate conclusions different from the ones our bodies suggest. We might reach no conclusion at all. ●
Tajja Isen is a Toronto-based writer and voice actor. Her recent work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Rumpus, Electric Literature, and Catapult, where she is also a contributing editor.