Shut Up Cause I don’t need to be Saved but Here’s how you can save Flannery O’Conner and the Literary White Canon
I first ran across Flannery O Conner’s short Storie in my 10th or 11 grade lit class. It had to be one of those two because I dropped out of IB lit after 11 grade. This is, by the way, is circa 2000, before wokeness, before the explosion of POC or BIPOC exclusive or centered spaces we see today where I likely would’ve had a plethora of affinity groups that weren’t just addressing deficits in brown communities. My lit teacher then loved southern literature. It was heavily Salinger, Faulkner, with this faint introduction to Flannery O Conner — which I remembered the most. Outside of my discriminating and unusual taste and because I had fostered an early appreciation for classic literature (Shakespeare to mid 19th century English authors to Vonnegut), I hadn’t thought too much at the time of what drew me to her. I could recognize literary talent when I read it whether it was white or black, a woman or a man, whatever the context, but I was also inclined, not exclusively however, to ones that were a first or underdog in someway. It was developed to the point that I could also be annoyed with literature that was meant to be “ethnically responsive” the Joy Luck Club was a prime example. It had it’s own merits and I could appreciate but also disliked it for the exact reason that it was thrust upon me as appropriate — the literary asian motifs and narratives that were meant to universal characteristics that I also knew not to be, personally.
I recently picked up a copy of Flannery O’Conner’s short stories, and while my exposure was brief then and might’ve only amounted to one story, the impression was lasting to this day. And from time to time, I would evoke her as being vaguely inspiring to something I wrote or did but I had never totally, fully fleshed out what it is that resonates with me. But now, here was an opportunity to form an opinion of substance and breadth, different from that vague first impression.
I know this draw to southern writers is not totally unusual. I recently came across a writer Porchista Khakpour, an immigrant Iranian who had an affinity for Faulkner from youth- and who later noted in her memorial (most of her writing is at least in part memorial or essay) that Faulker seemed to resonate particularly with Iranians — the ones who had resisted or opposed the Islamic Republic that overthrew the liberal, Western backed Shah.
Outside the southern gentility, the warm weather, and the lush savannah — Southern culture, it seems, allows for unique and unabashed opinionatedness about what is, particularly on race. A frankness that can be appreciated, apparently and ironically by brown people. In a recent trip to Tennessee I remember some one commenting that in the South one of the things that I might encounter, that would be both pleasant and unpleasant, is racism is in your face or not there at all. This of course was insight provided to me by a person of color who had significant roots in both the north and south, and could also intuit how much this southern characteristic stood out to the latent racism of the north. The northern racism that you don’t see except in statistics like the “achievement gap” between black and white kids in Minnesota being among the highest in the nation, and the disparity in wealth and home ownership in this region is not far behind. I think as brown people, we can appreciate this bluntness, and sometimes even need it over one that you can’t see. At least then, we know to avoid it or be prepared for it or fight against it. In light of how much pharphenalia boasting allyship or allegiance to some cause proliferating in stores and social media, I honestly appreciate the honest advertising. The honest racist, I suppose, is one way of looking at O Conner. I won’t examine particularities except to say, she gets a pass more often then not — and not just from white people — she was a contemporary of James Baldwin but didn’t like him for not just racist reasons but they were connected thru mutual friends.
At the bookstore where I decided to revisit my interest, I flipped through the first story, skimming til the end, and the last page prompted a “huh” in my mind — she didn’t disappoint as she didn’t then, but the ending and the clarity of vision, was just as impressive now as it was then. I didn’t settle on it right then however. I perused more books: Ishiguro, a recent memorial by a woman who’d grown up off the grid until she decided pastural life in Ohio wasn’t for her and went off to college, a collection of Simone de Beavoir stories, NK Jemison, a prolonged look at Viet Nguyen’s latest book which I decide I’ll read later when it’s so old that it’s at the bottom shelf of a used community book store for 1$ (exactly how I actually first came to read Nguyen by the way). I glanced over at the heavy weights — the recent NY Times best sellers, the Oprah Book Club picks. I have a taste that I decided long ago was very anti Oprah’s book club, even while some o f the titles and authors are interesting, or is something I would otherwise read, I am just as ready to put something down that is adored by roving fans of stay at home moms, and evokes images of woke white middle aged women, sipping wine in there weekly book club, dissecting their white privilege. Sorry, not me boo, but I do love you, Oprah. Then I go through periods where even reading is a luxury — not the expense, the time, and the very act of it — its a privilege indulgence coming from where I’m coming from.
But when I do get around to it, finding a book has lately been an ordeal. And when I have been at it long enough, meaning to just pick something but finding myself unable to, I buy something impulsively, more then intentionally. Because as mundane as an activity as buying a book is, as it is with every activity when you are racially other, this was an activity fraught with meta thoughts like “choose something that is not stereotypically asian”, but “don’t choose something that is pejoratively white middle class — your not a oprah book club reader remember and you hate Harry Potter!” Avoid the sales associate, “you do not need help with finding a book that meets your tastes, you have a discerning literary sensibility, and it is likely more keen then the average book seller who will only deign to you while making “appropriate” suggestions. And also, how do they propose to know what I would read? I don’t even know if I can articulate my tastes! I don’t even know if I really know who I am! Who are you to presume? How dare you!!” I am, like lots of thinking brown people, lost in a sea of identities. So this is why I avoid you, the book seller, like a plague. To say the least, I am avoiding an awkward conversation of unnecessary existential dimension. I realize that I have a very extreme version of the problem of being brown in a bookstore, but it is by virtue of trying to be virtuous in my capitalist exploits — that I buy local and in person, I avoid unnecessary shipping and a guilty conscience but I walk into crippling existential calculus in choosing something to buy. I often times in the past have ended up buying black writers — popular black writers, because it’s not Asian, and it’s not too wierd, for an Asian person or any person for that matter. But then I also think its too cliche and middle of the road so occasionally I go the other extreme with black writers. (I once nearly bought a book written by a black women on their existential crisis with black hair justifying it as possibly being a gift for a black friend just to be way way on the other end of the spectrum of mainstream and what kind of books were “appropriate” for me.) But not always. Sometimes, I choose something odd, something that had been sort of piquing my interest in my subconscious, as was the case this time around.
Its worth noting, I wasn’t an English major, I’m not a writer by profession. My writing, right now, as you would define the level of my activities in this regard, is a hobby with which I have the greatest intention. Whatever that is.
I am hoping that I can sew together from my self taught discourse in the canon, even the outliers, something that can help me forge in writing my own disparate American identity. I realize this identity journey, has become such a brown person trope. That it’s so hip to be into your roots, to be caught up with the times, it almost shouldn’t be done anymore. Like the latest fad, is to not hinge your creativity on your identity. But what would be left then? We can’t lie to ourselves, whether we make a big stink of it or not. I also think it needs to be done, at least personally, for me. So here I am, with a copy of Flannery O Conner, in the crook of my arm, held in such a way so the author and title can not be read, because I am also self consciousness about my level of nerd dom or less judgmentally, my intelligence or more accurately, the whiteness in my intelligence, or in woke speak, the colonizer in my intelligence. This is a shame that I see more often in black communities. And what a shame that I have to do the walk of shame for appreciating white literature that I don’t want to appreciate but nonetheless have — and there is a rhyme and reason to it.
It also occurs to me as I am reading it that it is the type of reading I should do when I am in the most balanced and/or brightest of moods. Her stories are disturbing — disturbing as they were then over fifty years ago in an America where the “n — — -“ was tossed around as casually as dude or man is today. And that’s the least of it. But also scathing with a rich inditement of southern white religiosity and culture. So on the other hand, I can appreciate that a lot of other white people must’ve hated her -
Which also must be why I like her. Like the small cadre of white friends I’ve curated in my life, they are all at least a bit betrayers to their race. They are not woke — wokeness is a performance. They are at least the ones who will see through the kitsch and hypocrisy and at best, they are the quietly working arm of the movement. None of these people, by the way, run shit. Some support the brown people that should. But mostly, and this is the most ingratiating part of their personality to me, is that they just are — people who see through the hypocrisy of whiteness and white supremacy like OConner saw through the hypocrisy of her fellow Christians, and called them out on it a way that also heaped derision and scorn on herself. More over, and most importantly, didn’t seek to benefit from it more then they deserved. She recognized the human condition for what it was, and she wanted you to see it too. This is where the real piety lies — it is not in catechisms, scripture, verse, or church attendance or in performative christian rituals. It’s in the nitty gritty of life, the details and realities we neglect in our everyday, in everyday people — those well meaning people, the racism in those well meaning people. Particularly, its in that Minnesota nice racism, the type of thinking that goes unchecked, and unexposed, because its surrounded by Minnesota nice whiteness or polite brown people, who don’t want to be “that brown person.” I know black women get the brunt of this and are ironically as ineffective as changing that whether they speak or don’t speak up. Its not for lack fo effort — it is sort of the worse double entendre of being a black woman. Which is perhaps why white people need to do something, white people that are maybe a bit more like O’Conner, or at least the idealized, best version of herself that I feel she sought to be. The author even said it herself, that her writing was her at her most pious, as a Southern Catholic. Her stories, some tinged with inditement’s of racism, are allegories that ask you to examine whether you are as good as you say you are, if you really deserved that much, if your really are that much better, and finally maybe you could afford to do more for your beliefs then what you are doing now. She also suffered from lupus til the end of her short life, and this, among many other contemporary observations, has led me to believe that there is corrolary between whites who suffer extraordinarily, (whether it is physical or existential or psychological) and where they stand on the barometer of racism. It’s not a new understanding, it’s the reason why brown people, immigrant, or marginalized people have been the scapegoat for white or native people when times are hard. Even in thinking people, it seems to cloud their reasoning, making a difficult circumstance that would otherwise be bearable or endured, such as desegregation or suffrage, impossible to suffer. Perhaps commiserating with the suffering of an entire race, was too much. After all she wasn’t a saint, never claimed to be one, and in fact, made a point of saying so in her writing how far we are from this holy totem that we’ve erected for ourselves for the sake of nationhood and peace for which she implied she was no exception.
This is also by the way, this city I write from, the same city that was the ignition point of the uprisings all last summer through today. I didn’t forget. My journey through this period was both removed and deeply engaged. I was thinking about how I was acting, being, constantly as I was not putting myself out there in any unnecessary or superfluous or self aggrandizing public context. It was, I think, what we all should’ve been doing, as much as possible. We, as in, those not prosecuted or subject to being prosecuted by the powers that be discriminatorily, the “allies” and I use that term so lightly — I know that we walk a thin line. Especially where I am coming from — as a not black descendant of slaves but a brown woman — that I have sometimes been lucky as much as I have been privileged. But I must admit, I have been vis a vis the victims of the movement, privileged.
This is another thing I can appreciate about O Conner, she knows her place extremely well. She’s, in modern terms, a relatively privileged white bitch with an education, from the south. But this is not the place I refer to so much as, while she harbored beliefs that were “progressive” for her time, she understood her role was not as an “activist” but that through her writing she aligned herself in a sense with white activists (who were also her friends) -in the references which frowned on even polite acceptable forms of racism. It was in how she pointed fingers, through her characters, to the high browed or Low browed white christians parading as paragons of morality and intellect, revealing through their stories, their lies and baseness. Through the criminal characters she twisted into protagonists and heroes — her role was revealing, even if that audience would only come to appreciate it later — their own crimes, their own superficialness, their clinging to traditions and the way things are, over what it is right, or more right, or more noble, at least. As in her famous short, “A good man is hard to find” — a family is on vacation, becomes road sided by a wrong turn made at the behest of the infallible morality and knowledge of the lady, as represented by the grandmother, the pious and racist matriarch. They are “saved” by three escaped convicts, which you some how come to appreciate a bit more then the adults in the car, by virtue of their honesty. My impression, is that while O’Conner had criticisms of proper society, and made these clear in her stories, she really was not entirely sure what was right, either, in the end. The telling part is that there is sometimes not a clear conclusion — as in “The River” where the child of two neglectful parents, disappears down a river or in “The Life You Save Maybe Your Own” where the disabled handyman drives into a storm. One is left wondering if they have died by their own design or if this act is the beginning of a new story. That is the task of the reader — her purpose was just to point out the error or the irony of our ways, and how egregious it is, and how obvious, if you are outside looking in, much like a reader.
Her stories illustrate an effect not unalike how white supremacy operates in every institution in the world, to different degrees, granted. It’s so embedded, it’s hard to see what is wrong from the inside. As for Oconner, there are agents within and agents without — and I am coming to appreciate for the second time the timebomb of the agent within, who might not even consider themselves agents for the cause. I know that O’Conner resurfaces from time to time in some discussion of the literary giants or in re-evaluating who that should be. If in that process, those curators are asking for a little recognition for her work, even if it will only reach the a very niche group of people( including one 1.5 generation Cambodian American immigrant as far removed from Flannery O Conner’s Antebellum south as could be), than I do understand and I do agree. This woman deserves a little soap box in the canons of American literature. Because for some, that recognition, came years, decades, centuries after their time, when the world changed enough to be open to embracing their genius — and following along with them, the activists among them, their beliefs and extraordinary humanity. That embrace is a sign that times have improved, that humanity has reached another milestone, and that is worth celebrating. They are, wouldn’t you agree, worthy of being recognized. And as humans (of the Western sort) isn’t that what we do — canonize them? Even if you disagree, lets face it, it doesn’t carry as much import or permanence as we think it does.
Case in point.
Even when my English teachers chose great literature, I hesitate to credit them to any part of my burgeoning development in appreciation for the fine literary arts. Alice Walker was also introduced to me in a 10th grade English class. Walker alone opened so many doors for me, but I wonder if I had the luxury of perusing, curating, and purchasing my own books — that I wouldn’t have selected her myself. A lot of my professional activities have revolved around education, so I have a very well developed sense of what is responsive and not responsive educational practices for brown children — and it is not so black and white. And it is true what they say, they learn not from what you teach, as much as who you are. Consider this: I now recognize the richness of the canon of South East Asian American literature. Something that has grown more exponentially in the two decades since I was a school child/teenager, but I am wondering also if it would resonate with me as it does now, or if I would feel the sense of connection as a adolescent as I did the first time I heard some scant part of my second generation Cambodian American roots spilled out on stage at a spoken word performance for the first time in college as an adult -
I’m honestly thinking probably not. But I’m an outlier.
I was early discouraged by my English teachers not just because of the reading choice, but because how creativity was sacrificed for the sake of tradition and curriculum (if my writing was too good, I was more often accused of plagiarism then I was praised. The former was humiliating to say the least). But that’s also not the full story — It’d be nice if I could just fully blame my failures in life on my English teachers just as it’d be really nice if I could blame all the worlds problems on English teachers, you know, in the same way that America scapegoats brown people for stealing jobs and driving crime. But I’ve grown up. And the teacher in me realizes they were doing their job — poorly. As I have at times, as all teachers can do at times, but that shitty teachers do All The Time and make lasting impressions on already traumatized minds (ahem). The difference between myself and those teachers, is that I am brutally honest about myself, what I can handle, and what is effective. It’s a really emotionally and intellectually draining profession to be good, much less great. And it is mostly the work of this honest part of myself, that I don’t teach. It’s a shame that for some, teaching is still something one resorts to. That, in my mind, is one of white supremacy’s greatest privileges. A white person can resort to a cushy well respected middle class profession, suck at it, and still get away with it. While many brown educators or professionals, struggle with acceptance, much less success, in a profession that they CHOSE, and not resorted to. The point is I’m capable of appreciating art, in a way that transcends race, but overall, I think their is mistrust from the white curators of said canon or other artistic canons directed at people like me, who’ve taken for granted that we’ve just had to accept their curation, with no choice. In no other profession is this as evident as in education whether its compulsory or higher education — where the brown person can not be trusted to be objective. Another very taken for granted privilege of whiteness — the assumption of an ability to be unbiased. In simpler terms, the fear is that in a position of power such as in selection and nominating and voting committees for awards, in boards, in curating, in politics that brown people will resort to tribalism. When it is quite often been more the case, that white people in history have resorted to such tribalism — in putting the needs of other white people or other people within their class above the needs of other groups of people, whether it was conscious act of marginalization or not.
Additionally, there are many factors that determine where a student goes in life, I am no exception. I dragged myself through the “hard sciences” because I had been indoctrinated and had indoctrinated myself to the ideology that the only real intellectual work was in those sciences(and math) and therefore also the only viable reality in my adult future, consequently, art was fluff. Not that I didn’t have an ability, it came naturally. I finished the most advanced math class my high school offered by my junior year with only half the instruction, with two other classmates (a paltry Calc II IB) and we did great — between the 3 of us we were always the top scorers for the most part of the greater class. And I did fine despite the constant change up of teachers in my chemistry and biology IB classes — teachers with wildly varying degrees of ability. I wonder where my classmates are now — but I would bet that it can’t be too different from where I am — at least existentially. I don’t think in the long run, at least or for other factors of quality of life, that our advanced math classes mattered as much as our inherited social and cultural capital, and our own particular psychological or personality dispositions. We couldn’t have been more different — N. a French transplant of Hmong origins, J. the over achieving white daughter of a school teacher, and me of course, an angsty (shall we say crazy?) 1.5 generation Cambodian American, who also habitually (and deliberately) flunked her English and PE classes — saving herself only at the last minute. I imagine that we could all at least agree that we participated in a rat race at the high school level that didn’t contribute to our quality of life measurably later — that there was, as we all find out, so much more to life. And finally, for me also there was never any sense that I couldn’t just be this brat of a child and get anywhere with it. Art is a luxury and an indulgence — a white luxury and indulgence as history has taught us time and time again. I loved to write — but for some one whose humble origins dictates acting in terms of necessity and capitalism, this was not an option.
I do know however, that having known those things, that their were writers of my heritage engaging in this sort of creative intellectual work of creating x -(ethnicity) asian american fiction or nonfiction — that they would’ve at least have established that as a possibility for me. That in itself is encouraging. But it is not the only factor to producing writers of a certain grade, or writers at all. Not that I should’ve needed to prove it but clearly, that I have (sometimes to my chagrin) appreciated works by white people, like O Conner, and definitely not exclusive to her, that I am absolutely capable of the objectivity in assessing art for arts sake and by extension, purveying that appreciation and knowledge. Being one already inclined to it, put me in a different box then most adolescents and while I appreciate what was out there, it was prohibitive when it was the mold — that I was to write from or as — was nothing like what I had lived in or through. Could I do it — yes. Could I do it well — not consistently. Would it be honest — not entirely. The canon deserves more diversity then O’Conner, but she is one clever white bitch, and I can appreciate that. I can appreciate she is honest with herself — she’s not an activist, she made no great secret of it and more over, she was not the type of person to pretend otherwise. She was not, in modern terms, that BLM sign bearing performative activist. But she did something, as I am doing something, whether people appreciate it or recognize it or not. Regardless, when I think back to any high school students I’ve worked with, known in other contexts, and myself and the people I knew then, quite honestly, I don’t think we were going to care one way or the other for the most part who we read. However we curate the American canon of literature, however we determine curriculum in the Humanities, in high school English Lit, in Social Studies, in any of the subjects for which their is contention — ultimately, lets not forget for all the scrabbling, when it comes to being a teenager -
It’s not like anyones really listening anyways.