That Western Lens That Filters Our Words

At the Muse and the Marketplace conference, someone said American publishers are looking for stories not filtered through the American lens. I almost laughed out loud. Well said, but it was a false statement.

I’m not the only one upset. After Maurice Ruffin’s session on writing taboos, I had an unprecedented conference experience: Throughout the day, attendees came up to me to thank me for my question. This was my question: “I’m in trouble. An agent told me that since I’m not Pakistani or Muslim and my protagonist sees Islam under negative light, given the political climate, she doesn’t want my book out there as it feeds into [Western] stereotypes. You said we’re worried about writing taboos for the fear of betraying our loved ones. Well, if my protagonist does not question his religion but simply accepts it all, that is what betrays my Pakistani partner. I’m not American, but if I want to be published here, I’m forced to talk through the lens of American politics. This stops me from telling a true-to-life story. Advice?”

Maurice had no solution but said that if you are honest to your work, it will come out—even if you don’t get to witness it yourself. His answer was the most positive one I got.

Let me backtrack to the agent. Though she called herself South Asian, her comments on my pages showcased her lack of understanding of how things work for a middle-class Pakistani boy. (Ask me for examples.) Well, she is by no means an anomaly. The people of colour Americans hear from today are only a select subset of all people of colour. They are the ones who know little about average people living in the country their great-grandparents had come from; they are the ones who hold up that Western lens as they walk around telling their stories.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about these storytellers, but rather, the listeners. Will they give a chance to the lens-less colourful people (i.e., most of the world) as well? When they say they want “diversity,” do they actually mean some oxymoron along the lines of “the diversity that suits American liberals”? That Western lens kills not only artistic creativity but also stories of people who already have little voice in this crazy world.

In one session, a third-generation Asian-American focused on the two-sided coin of white people VS people of colour. I said to him, “I’d like to get your thoughts on something you haven’t addressed. Your background is much closer to that of a white American than a person born and raised in [Country A]. But you get more credibility here than a white person raised in [A] to write about people from [A]. In fact, the latter can be accused of cultural appropriation. What do you think about this situation?”

He said: “I only consider race in the American context.” He quickly looked away and pointed to someone else who had his hand raised.

In this era of globalisation, a writer who ignores everyone outside of America is invited to talk at one of the biggest writing conferences in the world. Wow. I had to be quiet. POC #1 with an American lens shutting up POC #2 without an American lens—sounds new to you? Not to me.

Luis Urrea, the keynote speaker, knows to put down that Western lens. He said he thought he was poor, but he was not. What a great realisation! I was born in a middle-class family in Shanghai, and it took me long enough to realise that that meant I was at least upper-middle class in the whole of China. So think about it, people born and raised in the West. You may be middle-class in your neighbourhood, but in the world? In Tijuana, Luis talked to a garbage picker, and the man said: “You write about me. I was born in the garbage dump . . . they’re going to bury me in the garbage. You tell them I was here.” Yes! Stories like his are to be told. And the writer must go there, speak with the man in his native tongue like Luis did, and understand him. Only then may he pick up his pen. His skin colour? That has no relevance.

A wealthy Seattleite has little to do with a farmer in Idaho. We all know that. But most Westerners don’t see that a “Pakistani” born and raised overseas does not know the small town my partner came from. Neither does a wealthy Pakistani from (say) Clifton, Karachi. (Huge differences divide people of the same racial background. See my old article: So You’re Not Racist, What Next?) Try to understand that it’s not about just one’s name or colour. To earn extra credit, the writer must breathe the (non-Western) air of Country X; speak the (non-Western) language(s) of X; interact with the (non-Western) people of X—not just anyone, but those at the same social/economic class as the ones she represents.

A novel that confirms the typical view of today’s American progressives can be a good novel. But a great one? One that would last beyond current politics? I doubt it. Sadly, if I want my book published here, I have to conform. Conform to American liberals’ current ideologies and twist it a tiny bit. A teeny tiny twist—that’s the extent to which I can go. Stories not filtered through the Western lens? I’m not sure.

I didn’t meet one conference attendee who had spent at least half their life outside the West, who’d had their education in a non-Western language. Sandwiched between colourful and colourless people at the Muse, I was alone.

And lonely. In a way those with the lens can’t quite understand.

But I don’t lose hope. I will be heard, and when I am, a lot of people will be. People from all corners of the world unaffected by American politics, who carry no Western lens in their pockets.

In the meantime, recognise it’s that lens of yours that’s making you judge people based on their colour in a bad or good way. Our languages, our schooling, our friends and neighbours. The shows we watch, the books we read. Way too many factors shape us.

8 comments

  1. Lily writes with the clarity of the physicist she is, the broad and informed perspective of the world traveler she is, and the courage of —
    Well, what makes someone courageous? It is so unusual to witness the real attempt to speak truth to power that it is a bit hard to recognize the phenomenon when it comes up. (Also, I imagine, she is understandably pissed.) Shouldn’t we pull her aside and teach her to be sanctimonious, preach to the choir, and join in the unrecognized censorious aggressions of the Enlightened Group?
    I admire her pluck and fear for her.
    She is a citizen of the world but I claim her love of liberty as American, because I am a reader and I can do what I want.

  2. Shalene

    Oh Lily, this is so heart-breaking. I completely agree–and more than that, I’d say, the Western lens is very very narrow and very very prescriptive: only certain people are allowed to tell certain stories in a certain way. I too got shredded at Muse by agents and editors but because I was writing about a white protagonist. Agents thought I should only be writing about a race I belonged to. One agent spent 20 minutes telling me to trash my book. (Writers were very supportive.) What amazes me though, is all of this (censorship) is done in the name of protecting diversity.

  3. Julia Archer

    This needs to be said, loud and clear. It is a new kind of colonialism that says who from the the non-West can be heard in the West, and what they can say (and not say). I studied a book on Pakistan written by an American academic. He admitted, in the book, that he had lectured on Pakistan for 25 years before he even went there, and found when he did, his “idea of Pakistan” was very different from the reality. I also saw, in 10 years in Pakistan, that the middle and upper classes have really no idea of the lives of the poor and marginalized. Yest the educated West accepts them as the voice of the mass of Pakistanis. Press on, Lily, you and other like-minded writers from outside the American lens world. We need your voices.

  4. Michelle Hoover

    A necessary argument that needs to be heard far more often and much more loudly. Thanks for writing this, Lily. I truly wish you didn’t have to go through this mess to publish your beautiful book.

  5. Juliet Chen

    Greatly said!!!! You’ve put it so well, everything a person knows is also a boundary that boxes this person in. Majority of us is unwilling to step outside this box and acknowledge what we don’t know, or acknowledge what we know is not actually the truth. I think a person’s knowledge of the world and his views define who he is, so it is hard for people to give up what defines him and view the world outside himself. But doesn’t matter, what you are doing is making it possible for people to view the world outside that box, even if it means to just enable a few people but for those people what you allow them to do is tremendous. You’ve definitely enabled me to view the world outside myself and with a completely different angle, I have learnt so much from your novel and it has stimulated my thinking and reshaped my view about the world. Doesn’t matter how many people you can influence, but those that benefit from your novel will be influenced deeply. Great job!

  6. Bonnie Waltch

    Thanks for writing this, Lily. It is truly discouraging to hear that so many agents and editors are dismissing novels written by whom they consider the “wrong” authors for the books. We’re living in a dark time of hard lines. I just hope some of them wake up and realize they’re losing out on fabulous books that readers actually want to read and stop policing based on misplaced notions of “diversity,”

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