At his reading last night, Jamel Brinkley spoke about his experience as a person of color in a creative-writing workshop, in which his white peers spent twenty minutes puzzling over the term “Booboo the fool.” He writes, “for those unfamiliar with that reference, Google would have been a quick solution. But the refusal on the part of some folks to do even that, and to expect the story to spell it out for them, to spend time faulting the story and its writer for not spelling it out, was total nonsense.” Brinkley explained that the term was a familiar phrase within his family, and so he hadn’t considered it wasn’t universal. At the same time, he was annoyed by his peers’ expectation that he “translate” every unfamiliar, non-caucasian phrase for them.
I can’t know, of course, what it feels like to be the only writer of color in a workshop, but I am familiar with the frustrations of having a piece workshopped. In most college creative-writing workshops, the writer is asked to remain completely silent while the class discusses their piece. This silence has many merits, because it asks the writer to set aside defensiveness and instead consider the reader’s experience. If none of my classmates understood my character’s intentions, for example, it doesn’t matter if I feel like they’re misinterpreting my work. Once I submit my piece, I can no longer control how it’s interpreted. I can only edit the piece itself, to hopefully guide readers towards my desired effect. At the same time, it’s incredibly frustrating to sit in silence, with no way to intervene if the workshop discussion gets derailed. I’ve had experiences where twenty minutes of my limited workshop time is spent analyzing a detail I chose at whim, or questioning a theme I did not intend to address.
It’s been a few weeks since we discussed Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,” but I found myself thinking about the story again after Jamel Brinkley’s anecdote last night. When I write a story, every bit of that story is mine to control—down to the choice between an em-dash or a comma—right up until I let somebody else read the story. After that, people are somewhat free to misinterpret that story however they wish, or to infuse it with some thematic meaning that I did not intend. In theory, that’s something I love about literature—the experience of reading means every reader will consume a text differently. However, the story Dr. McCoy told in class of a man confronting Octavia Butler and demanding that she ‘admit that “Bloodchild” was about slavery’ has made me reconsider that freedom of (mis)interpretation. As we discovered with the “Momo Challenge” article we read today, the danger of putting art out into the world is that it can be repurposed, assigned an entirely new and sometimes harmful meaning. That’s really alarming to me.
I don’t think the answer is to ask authors to explain themselves more. Even though Butler added an Afterword to “Bloodchild” to explain her intentions and to dismiss the idea that it was a story about slavery, readings through a lens of slavery have certainly continued to happen. And I don’t believe it’s the job of the writer to “hold hands” with their readers, especially when these demands are placed upon a writer of color. For example, Brinkley points out, “We use the phrase “the reader” a lot in literary circles, but who does it really imply? Probably someone white, American, straight, monolingual, often male, and so on. And there’s pressure, implied or explicit, to bend over backwards to pander to that presumed reader.” His refusal to translate—both literally translate lines of Portuguese or phrases less familiar to a white person—is really powerful to me, because it rejects a model which centers the experiences of white readers.
While that refusal to translate might open up more opportunity for misinterpretation or “Booboo the fool” debates, maybe artists have to trust that the “right” readers will not require translation. I guess the risk of misinterpretation is not something exclusive to literature, but to any act of creation. I don’t know if I’m satisfied with that conclusion, truthfully, but it’s maybe a step towards negotiating my own fears as a creator.