That Western Lens That Filters Our Words

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

I wasn’t 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 my protagonist—a Pakistani boy—questions Islam, 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 whose life my novel is based on. 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: “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 worked for an average Pakistani boy. 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.

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 speaker 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 [Country A] to write about people from [Country 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 into an average family in Shanghai, and it took me long enough to realise that that meant I was at least above average in the whole of China. So think about it, people born and raised in the West. You may be average 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 little relevance.

Americans all seem to know that a wealthy Seattleite has little to do with a farmer in Idaho. 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 them a tiny bit. A teeny tiny twist—that’s the extent I’m allowed to go to. 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 who have little to do with 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.


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