WARNING: As writers, often what sounds like a complaint will be meant as a compliment. Including this post.
I am a writer, and often face the common questions and challenges of being a writer. What’s worse is that I’m a poet, which often, in the world’s eyes, seems the equivalent of saying, “Oh me? I’m a malfeasant.”
I’ve never understood why people have never understood poets. The most common complaints I’ve heard include the opinion that poetry is “inaccessible” to the “common” reader—which is funny, since I always thought I was the common reader—and that poets (like me) are in-the-clouds intellectual elitists who “try too hard to be profound” (not at all like me).
Let me tell you something about this poet: I like fart jokes. Try to tell me that that’s elitist. (I’ll take it, though, if you tell me that it qualifies as “in-the-clouds.”)
Oh, and did I mention that I’m Black?
I only mention it now because some people apparently think I’m not. Sometimes, my voice apparently confuses people, because I (again, apparently) “don’t sound Black.” I actually, not too long ago, had a telephone interview for a teaching job and had the interviewer double check that I was, indeed, Khara House, and not some other Khara, because “you didn’t sound … like I expected, ha-ha-ha.”
I don’t tell you all this to complain about the state of writers or poets or Black people, or writers who are poets and Black, or Black people who are writers and poets, or any other combination we could come up with. It just strikes me as fascinating that in world where authors are often such invisible figures behind the characters and worlds they create, appearances could be so important. It occurs to me that authors never quite live up to our expectations of their appearances, and that we as authors are often judged in ways I don’t think other people are. I’ve never heard someone say, “Yeah, I was surprised, I mean, I’d always heard my garbage man collecting my trash but, gosh, was I surprised to see that voice belonged to a Black guy!”
So let me just put it this way, as a type of writerly contract, between one who is both a poet and Black, and all those who seem confused by that:
I, Khara House, on behalf of both myself and all writers like me, do hereby request that people stop poopooing my, and our, identities as writers, poets, and people because of some misguided assumption that you can hear our identities in our voices.
I was just recently engaged in a conversation about whether or not America is a “postracial” nation. Folks, that is a phrase that makes me want to write a crown of sonnets. But I don’t want to get into all the reasons I think the concept of “postracial” nations or societies ought to be some standup comedian’s punch line … I bring it up only to point out that, in the writing world perhaps more than anywhere else, we see exactly how much identity matters. It’s not, however, always because we as writers are attempting to share the profundities or self-discoveries of identity. Sometimes, it’s simply because who we are as writers matters so much to those who are our readers.
Let me repeat that: Who we are as writers matters to those who are our readers!
So yes, when you write that novel, a reader may read in between all those lines of fiction some inkling of the facts of who you are. Yes, readers will think your poems are autobiographical, whether you use “I” or not. Yes, readers may call you a liar if after five pages of autobiographical text something happens to you that “just doesn’t sound like you.” And yes, often, readers will get it wrong.
To go back to where I started … I am a writer, and a poet, and I am Black. Does that matter, in terms of what I write? Often I would say no, it has no bearings on what I’m trying to say in a poem or a novel. But the reality is, yes, whether or not I sound Black will matter. When I write in the voice of a male character, it matters. Who I am matters. Should it? You might want to say no, but the real answer is that whether or not your readers get it right, of course it matters. The fact that I have readers who love what I have to say but feel it is disingenuous because “you don’t sound Black” or “it sounds like a man wrote this” or “I just can’t imagine you really doing this” is frustrating, sometimes, but it’s also reality.
And hey, it’s kind of a compliment to be misunderstood. As writers, we’re used to strolling around in our own skin. But we’re also used to pulling on the fresh flesh of strangers. So doesn’t being misunderstood strike you, suddenly, as high praise? That “I fooled you, didn’t I” moment … isn’t that what we’re aiming for? Sure, sometimes we’ll “fool” people we’re trying desperately to connect with in the most real, most forthright, of terms. But it’s part of the job description. And perhaps it’s time to revisit the manifesto. To say that I, Khara House, on behalf of both myself and all writers like me, thank you for questioning who we are, for reading between the lines, for blurring our fictions with our realities, and suspending or embracing your disbelief so much that, whether fact or fiction, you feel assured that you have read our identities in our voices.
I mean, heck … we’re writers.
Khara House is a native Pennsylvanian who currently lives and teaches in Flagstaff, AZ. She has always—at least as far back as her memory goes—been a storyteller. Khara is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. She currently teaches First-Year Composition, and recently finished her first year teaching both Composition and Poetry at the university level. Despite writing across the genres, Khara’s passion in writing resides in poetry; her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Bluestem, The Atomy, The Four Ties Lit Review, Bolts of Silk, and Enhance.