Interview with David Mura

Jing Jian

David Mura is a memoirist, novelist, poet, and literary critic. He has written the novel Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire and two memoirs: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality, and Identity. I talked with David Mura over email about his newest book, A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity and Narrative Craft in Writing (University of Georgia Press, 2018).

Jing Jian: Your newest book A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing has an interesting structure. The first half is concerned with identity—how writing is an exploration of who one is and one’s place in the world. The second half is concerned with craft—how one should tell a story.

Most books on writing concern themselves with one question or the other, rarely both; yet you make a compelling case that the two questions are intimately connected. Did you set out to write a book that explicitly connects issues of identity with issues of craft? How did you arrive at this structure?

David Mura: Originally the book was more about what we traditionally call craft, particularly in terms of narrative construction and techniques. But in that period, I was also writing talks and essays on race and literature. And of course, since I was writing about writers of color like ZZ Packer, Maxine Hong Kingston, Garrett Hongo, and Hilton Als, the issues of identity and race were a part of my analysis of their work.

But when I gathered a collection of essays on creative writing to send out, I wondered how much material on race and identity I could put into a craft book, especially since earlier versions of the book were rejected by two publishers. So I limited the essays on race and literature. Fortunately, the readers assigned by the University of Georgia Press urged me to expand the material on race and identity, and I was thrilled to respond to their request.

At the same time, somewhere in the process of writing this book, I had an increasing sense that our shifting demographics and events around race were underscoring where my writing and thinking were moving. As I write in the introduction, the earliest essays were written around the time Obama was elected, when some deluded proclaimed America was now post-racial. I completed the introduction just after Trump was elected, with his rhetoric of racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and sexism, and even the most deluded white writer would not now proclaim we’re past the issues of race. Indeed, we’re just beginning a new crisis in terms of those issues.

These events dovetailed with certain issues I’m exploring in the book. For instance, writers of color generally delineate the race and/or ethnicity of their characters. The reasons white writers don’t identify their characters racially is that they regard whiteness as the universal default; everyone else is the exception to the norm. Moreover, they’re implying that the character’s racial identity is not significant to how that character thinks of their self or what that character’s experiences have been. Many white writers aren’t even aware of the assumptions concerning race built into this practice, and so they don’t see it as a political as well as an aesthetic position, but of course it is. And what happens when, sometime around 2040, whites are no longer the racial majority in this country and we all become racial minorities? Tellingly, if you inform whites about their coming loss of majority status, they react with a heightened sense of white identity and a heightened fear of people of color, and what’s more, they answer more conservatively even on issues not relating to race, such as climate change.

What all this means is that white identity will become more of a central question, not less, and white writers who don’t examine their own racial identity and how that was formed will be unprepared to deal with an increasingly diverse America. As Baldwin has instructed us, blacks didn’t create the racial categories or the n-word; it was white people who did this, and they need to figure out why that happened and what links them to that history.

At the same time, writers of color are creating a new vision of who and what American is and will be. Such work requires certain tools, including a knowledge of the history of race in our country and certain basic theoretical work that examines race both in the past and in our present. Such knowledge should now be part of the curriculum for writers of all colors since without such knowledge, you cannot properly contextualize and evaluate the work of writers of color. For white writers, ignorance—and here I’m talking ignorance about race—can lead to failures of craft. Toni Morrison demonstrates this convincingly in Playing in the Dark where she critiques canonical writers like Cather, Hemingway, and Twain and their depictions not just of black characters but also of white characters, since the white characters’ conceptions of themselves is based in part on lies and an ignorance of who the black characters actually are.

JJ: “Four Questions Considering the Narrator” is one of my favorite essays. One of the questions you discuss is “Who am I telling the story to?” As a writer of color and an immigrant, I am constantly confronted with this question, but I rarely see it discussed in writing workshops. Most instructors and participants assume and accept that the audience is white, born and residing in the United States, and of an educated class—like many literary gatekeepers in this country. In order to make my stories understandable to this particular audience, I often find myself explaining my own culture and, by doing so, presenting it as the “other.” What do you think is the right balance between making myself understandable to my likely readers and avoiding self-eroticization to a white audience? Do you believe in striking a balance between these two concerns?

DM: There are two issues embedded in your question. The first is more general and aesthetic: Whom am I writing for?—i.e., who is my reader? The second is more technical and particular to how one constructs a narrator, either in fiction or nonfiction: Whom is the narrating speaking to?

With either question, I believe the writer gets to make their own choice; there’s no one universal answer. But of course the nature and repercussions of that choice are different for white writers than for writers of color. Indeed, those in the dominant culture often don’t ask these questions in a racialized way because they assume the universality of whiteness. This is why Toni Morrison observes that, until recently, white authors did not even envision a reader of color; they simply assumed their readership was white. But as the field of literature diversifies, the question of race and readership will come up more and more, even for the white writers most in denial about the issues of race. In the 2018 Best American Short Stories introduction, Roxane Gay quarrels with the choices Richard Russo made in an earlier edition. So you as a white writer might not be thinking of a reader of color, but more and more, it may be a person of color who is also going to be judging your work, and if they have a different set of aesthetics, wouldn’t it be useful to know what that is?

The thing I tell younger writers of color is that being overly concerned with writing to a white readership can keep them from exploring their subject in ways they need to. Part of this is a question of process: you as a writer need to find out what you think and believe first rather than worrying about how others might receive that. You should be able to create this free space in your own mind and process.

At the same time, there are obviously questions of how your work is going to be received. But as I say often to my students, “You don’t have to write to the dumbest, most ignorant, or racist reader. You can write to a reader who is capable of empathizing and understanding your vision, who is as knowledgeable as you are, who doesn’t need things explained to them.” Similarly, in fiction, you can choose, as Junot Díaz does in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, to have your narrator tell the tale to members of your own community. This, of course, is no different than what Conrad is doing in The Heart of Darkness with Marlow and his select audience on a yacht on the Thames. One of the effects of writing or narrating to your own community is you’re not going to “self-eroticize,” in part because they don’t see you or your tale as “exotic,” and in part because you know they’ll call you out if you do exoticize.

So yes, we are all writers, but the literary/cultural and political context around our writing differs in part because of race. James Baldwin once remarked,

You see, whites want black writers to mostly deliver something as if it were the official version of the black experience. But the vocabulary won’t hold it, simply. No true account really of black life can be held, can be contained, in the American vocabulary. As it is, the only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which the vocabulary is based. But they won’t let you do that. And when you go along, you find yourself very quickly painted into a corner, you’ve written yourself into a corner . . .

Similarly, in The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. examines how African American linguistic and literary practices were shaped by a necessity to speak to the white master in ways that did not upset the white master but were designed to get the white master to act in ways the black speaker desired. The implication of all this is that, in certain ways, as long as we live in a racist society, you as a writer of color cannot write to please or, at times, to even make things understandable to a general white readership and still be true to your vision and experience. And remember: who your readership is at the start of your career or even in your lifetime can change with time. Marlon James’s first novel was rejected over and over, but he stuck to his vision and voice, and look where it’s led him.

There are times I write for a more general readership, which includes all readers, such as the book of essays on race that I’m working on now or A Stranger’s Journey. But there are other instances, especially in poetry, where I’m writing more for myself as an audience or to readers of color or even Asian American readers. This goes back to the question of whom you are telling the tale to: by choosing your narrative audience, you determine your economy of explanation. This doesn’t mean that readers other than that intended audience can’t enter your work, but it does mean you don’t have to explain or contextualize for everyone. And frankly, white readers in general need to read more widely and diversify their knowledge base; they need to work harder to understand the visions and context of writers of color just as I worked to do the same with T.S. Eliot.

JJ: I love this idea you present in the introduction: cultural change precedes political change; not only does writing aid political change, it may be the very thing that makes political change possible by enabling a collective leap of imagination. As both a fiction writer and memoirist (and a poet), in what ways do you think fiction and nonfiction, respectively, contribute to this collective leap of imagination? In what ways are they similar? In what ways do they contribute differently?

DM: The statement that cultural change precedes political change comes from Jeff Chang’s book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America, which explores key cultural movements in the post–Civil Rights era. He argues that artists “help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable.” Certainly, in a culture where the dominant narratives are white, heterosexual, and male, those who are not part of this group are creating work which speaks to realities still left out of our society’s image of itself.

Thus, in the first half of A Stranger’s Journey, I’m making the case that writing and literature do have a political effect on the world even if that effect is not part of the author’s conscious intention. The novelist and Marxist critic John Berger observed: “Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate its own practices (to establish habits) and partly to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to those with power.” So literature can at times put up a façade or screen out certain realities. This is part of the case Edward Said makes in Culture and Imperialism; there he observes that the wealth of Mansfield Park or Heathcliff’s reincarnation as a rich man both stem from slave plantations, but in Austin’s and Bronte’s novel, the sources of that wealth are hidden and never examined. Similarly, if the voices and experiences of people of color have been kept out of literature, then later, when we enter, we bring lives, experiences, and ways of interpreting and judging a society that have not been expressed before, that have been silenced. And this certainly has a political effect.

But it is not just the cliché or the truncated version of reality that new literature and culture can challenge and complicate. There is also pleasure. As Michel Foucault explains:

What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.

So political change can involve new forms of knowledge or artistry, new pleasures.

Thus, when a white writer in a workshop says to a writer of color, “I just don’t get anything from poems about identity; isn’t the whole point to get beyond race?” he is in part rejecting a new form of pleasure—assuming the writer of color’s poem possesses aesthetic qualities—but his rejection is also predicated on the fact that for him to let in the poem on identity would entail a fundamental revamping of his own identity and a re-examining of his own position in the world, particularly in regards to race and ethnicity. If he lets in the poem, he opens himself to struggle and doubt, yes, but he also opens himself up to a new pleasure and a new way of looking at the world, a world where the voices and the lives of people of color are regarded as equal in value to those of white people. We can certainly see this effect in music; Chuck Berry and the pleasures he created did as much to integrate this country as the civil rights activists.

To some extent, I haven’t responded here to the part of your question that calls for a distinction between fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. For me, the forms an individual writer from a marginalized community might choose are less important than the fact that the voice from a marginalized community has entered the dialogue of literature. A corollary of this point is this: for certain writers of color, they looked at the house of literature and felt, “Well, there’s no door for me.” But then they encountered the door of spoken word or hip-hop and thought, “Well, I can enter there.” And once they enter the house of literature, they’re much more likely to think, “Hey, I might write a novel or a memoir or a book of essays.” August Wilson, for instance, started out as a poet.

JJ: In “The Idealized Portrait and the Task of the Writer,” you argue that “creative writing is the search for and creation of a language that will express what the writer unconsciously knows but does not yet have a language to express. In this process, the writer may at times upset any number of people and groups.”

In an era where those in power vilify marginalized groups such as immigrants, when representations of nonwhite communities are often reductive, there is perhaps a mounting pressure on writers of color to paint their communities in a positive light. It can be extra difficult, in a moment like today, to say something negative about one’s group in one’s writing. How do you reconcile the need to write the world as you know it and the desire to use your writing to bring about positive change?

DM: Those who call for “writers of color to paint their communities in a positive light,” do so from a position that is understandable: in a society of white supremacy, people of color are constantly portrayed in ways that are negative and racially biased; the society then uses those negative images not just to denigrate our communities but to justify political, economic, educational, and cultural practices which marginalize and oppress us. These practices and patterns of thought are embedded in our culture and history (c.f. The Condemnation of Blackness by Khahil Gibran Muhammed where he demonstrates how pseudoscientific sociological studies in the nineteenth century purported to prove the inherent criminality of the black race).

Certainly then there are positive narratives and lives which are marginalized or left out of the white or dominant culture’s portrait of people of color. In If Beale Street Could Talk, both the novel and the movie, the central couple, Tish and Fonny, manage to keep their relationship intact through his incarceration due to false charges and a corrupt justice system, and it is, in part, precisely because theirs is a situation which cracks so many relationships, that the strength of their love for each feels so revealing and moving. And to a certain extent that love runs against various negative narratives concerning the black family and black relationships.

At the same time, Baldwin also observed, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” and although we can certainly picture him saying this to white America, he was also saying this to black America. In an interview, the director of Beale Street, Barry Jenkins, cites Baldwin’s line from the novel, “The kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit, and everything they saw around them proved it.” The justice system is the place where this message attacks the hardest, and few would deny this. But what’s harder to get at is the toll racism takes internally at the spiritual and psychological level. Here’s how Jenkins describes the conversation between Fonny and his friend Daniel, about Daniel’s time in prison:

At its simplest, for me, it’s this thing that happens between young black men when you see each other and you have this conversation. “Hey, how’re you doing?” “Oh, I’m good.” But if you keep talking, it goes, “I’m good, and . . . ” And if you keep talking, “I’m good, but . . . ” And if you keep talking, it’s, like, “You know what, actually, I’m really not good.” And a lot of times we don’t allow ourselves to have that conversation all the way through until the end, when the actual work that needs to be done, to release some of this trauma, is possible. But I felt like, in this sequence, with those two characters, Baldwin gifted us with this very lived-in experience, where you do see the character get to the place where he can release some of it.

So: we need to get to those conversations and writings where we can explore the ways we are “really not good.” We have to depict and enter into those places we ourselves or those in our community are not doing well, are messed up and fucked up—and yes, we have to also create a context for those problems; we are trying to portray ourselves and our communities in ways that are three-dimensional and explore both our faults and weaknesses as well as our strengths and ability to survive. But you can’t censor what you see and know. And you have to be prepared for those in your own community not wanting to hear or explore certain truths.

After I published, Where the Body Meets Memory, which explores the connections between my life, the internment, and the issues of race and sexuality, there were those in the Asian American community who criticized or rejected the work. One prominent academic said to a writer friend, “Is that the type of work we want our young people to read?” Asian American males wrote to inform me that while I may have issues with race and sexuality as an Asian American male, they certainly had no such problems. Well, perhaps they didn’t, but that still didn’t invalidate my own experiences, and years later, it is precisely because that memoir deals with race and sexuality that it is now the most taught of my works. It took several years after Where the Body Meets Memory was published before I began to see more intelligent and nuanced assessments of that book.

We live in a time where it’s getting harder to write certain truths—much less to take a chance and perhaps screw up. But we can’t write only for the approval of the present, which has its own blind spots, whether in the dominant culture or in our own communities.

JJ: As a WOC, the scenarios you described in “The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program” very accurately depict my experience. (Less so at Iowa, where all of my workshops have had a high percentages of POCs students, but more so in the workshops I’ve participated in previously.)

I am especially grateful for this essay because, like the student described, I’ve also often wondered what my best course of action is when encountering instances of racial inequality in an academic setting. On one hand, I feel the responsibility to voice my criticism, to do my best to effect change. On the other hand, I am aware that as a student writer, my priority is to improve my craft and become the best writer I can be, and hopefully soon contribute to a literary landscape with few voices like my own; white students do not often need to use their writing time to battle for administrative change.

In your essay, you invoke Sun Tzu to explain that being an activist artist is a marathon instead of a sprint; that laying low in times we do not have sufficient power is not cowardly but wise. Indeed, you offer a third option for students of color in MFA programs beyond the two I previously thought I needed to choose from. Can you elaborate on what this third solution might look like? What range of scenarios can it encompass?

DM: I wrote this essay prompted by the experience of a VONA student in her graduate program, but I’ve heard versions from so many writers of color. Though writers of color are told the writing workshop is never political, the arguments concerning race and literature are both aesthetic and political; part of the essay deals with the latter area. The arguments are political because they involve conflicts between groups, not just the individuals in the workshop, and those arguments take place in similar ways, whether in a writing workshop or indeed, in almost any organization and institution. Richard Wright once remarked that black and white Americans are engaged in an argument about the depiction of reality. Why wouldn’t we then expect that argument to enter into literature, where we are attempting to describe our lives, our experiences and the society we live in?

So given that this struggle is both aesthetic and political, I wanted to invoke Sun Tzu because The Art of War can be useful in trying to change systems or engage in political work. For instance, Sun Tzu instructs us that we should not fight battles we can’t win—or that we should at least consider the possibility of not fighting a certain battle. The student in an MFA program doesn’t possess a great deal of power, and that should be taken into consideration as she contemplates whether or not to engage the powers that be. Sometimes it is best to lay low until you have the resources and power to properly engage in a battle—say, when that student becomes a successful writer or a tenured professor. That is, you take a long view of the battle—it is a marathon not a sprint. And then there’s a fact that some writers aren’t meant to be political activists; that’s not necessarily where their strengths lie.

At the same time, there are writers and artists who are energized and well-suited to artistic activism; they may be inspired by and stimulated by engagement. In this case, even though the student writer may not have a great deal of power, that student writer can still engage in a useful struggle to make the program more open to students of color. And some writers are also inherent provocateurs or view the very essences of their aesthetic vision as aligned with the political; that is their genius or talent. Certainly, we do have instances where students have definitely changed institutions just as we have instances in history where seemingly lesser powers—the colonized—defeated the seemingly more powerful—the colonizers. Moreover, if a student writer makes an issue and doesn’t succeed immediately, that work might set the stage for the next round of protests and activism.

So I’m not arguing in the essay against activist efforts by students to make creative writing programs more inclusive and racially equitable. There are reasons for doing this work, but it requires a certain type of strategic thinking and a certain temperament and artistic bent. And there are many roles in this work—if you’re not an organizer, perhaps your talent as an essayist can be just as useful in working for change (I do more work on essays and opinion pieces than in marching or organizing). Or perhaps you work on persuading people one at a time. Or you work on a journal or engage in other sorts of activism outside the university like teaching young people. Or you help choose the speakers for your program to foster the voices of writers of color. Not all change comes from obvious forms of activism.

On a more general level, the disengaged or apolitical artist is only one way of regarding our field, and it’s far more common among white writers than writers of color. Yet nothing in my graduate school training prepared me for some of the work I do now in my community as an artist and activist. For instance, a Twin Cities presenting theater brought in Miss Saigon three times over two decades, and all three times the Asian American community protested. But it was with the third set of protests that we forced the theater to promise never to bring the musical back and to apologize to the Asian American community.

In all three iterations of protests, many of us as artists felt inspired by these efforts. That work and history has shaped our artistic as well as political visions; and indeed the work is now part of our own life story. I myself lost a number of white friends over arguments concerning yellow faced casting and Orientalism in Miss Saigon. And yet in part because of those losses, I learned how deeply racial biases may be embedded in even the seemingly most liberal whites, and in my own writing, I went on to explore that resistance and questions of Asian American representation in ways that continue to this day. Certainly, our activism has taught us strategies not just of organizing but also of argument and testimony, of how to effectively yoke the personal to the political (take a look at the Tumblr page of the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon Coalition webpage). Finally, all this work has strengthened our artistic community as a whole and not just by making it more politically committed. For one thing, these campaigns emboldened the local Asian American artists and helped free them to speak their own truths, to lose or mitigate their fear of offending the dominant culture and its institutions. And that lesson echoes a lesson from Rumi that I often cite to my students: “Don’t move the way fear tells you to move.”

Jing Jian (JJ) is a fiction student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.