Who Wrote It, and Why Does That Matter?

Guest post by Rhina P. Espaillat  

This is—let me admit it right away—an argument with myself that I’ve decided to make public because I suspect many others in my situation are having the same solitary quarrel over a cultural phenomenon many decades old now.

Why do we need anthologies, readings and websites devoted to exposing to public awareness the work of specific segments of this country’s large, diversified population? Why not simply highlight the best writing—or painting or music—by whoever produced it? Shouldn’t the arts be appreciated for what they are, rather than who produced them? After all, if the arts at their best aspire to speak to everyone, why should it matter who produced what, where, under what circumstances and against what odds? Isn’t one of the humanizing virtues of art its capacity to do precisely that, by capturing the universal in the individual’s search for meaning, in a world in which all the important experiences of life—birth, death, joy and suffering–are the public property of the human race?

I’ve had intelligent friends object to the publication of collections of poetry by women, for instance, or by immigrant authors from this or that culture writing in English, or by members of any racial or religious group at all that may be perceived as a social whole, whatever their individual qualities, by those from whom they differ in some way that seems to matter. They complain—with a measure of truth—that such groupings of art work, literary or otherwise, whatever their intention, constitute a form of segregation.

And I’m tempted to agree. As a lifelong believer in the unity of our species, I too sometimes chafe over the publication of books that offer readers not just good poems, but good poems by such-and-such a portion of the population, because I live for the day when the differences—national origin, religion, life circumstances, sexual orientation—will be perceived as real, like left- or right-handedness, red hair or baldness, but no more significant as an identifier than any one of those. When—if ever—we reach that level of casual acceptance of difference, a book or website devoted to resurrecting the writings of forgotten slaves from the pre-Civil War South, or identifying “Anonymous” as, more often than not, a woman or a member of some minority, will seem totally unnecessary, and as silly as a collection of poems by redheads!

But no, in the end I don’t agree, and here’s why: nobody doubts that redheads are capable of writing—or painting or composing—as well as anyone else, but there are still many who question whether those who differ in other ways from themselves, or from the surrounding majority, are capable of doing so. We don’t like to admit it, but it remains true, and not necessarily only among the least educated. Pretending to believe that the playing field is finally level doesn’t make it so. In fact, efforts to “wipe the slate clean” in order to start anew doesn’t work when the slate in question is human memory: it simply compounds the injustice of the reality.

And that’s why I accept—and applaud, if grudgingly—the books, exhibitions, and performances whose aim is to highlight the achievements of those artists in any genre whose group identity has exposed them to old, unfortunate, ingrained prejudices, the inattention such attitudes breed, and finally the obscurity with which time seals unacknowledged work. Some of the books on my shelves—In Other Words: Literature by Latinas of the United States; the now-classic American Negro Poetry; A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women; Sarah’s Daughters Sing: A Sampler of Poems by Jewish Women; Poems of the American West; Grace Notes: Poems from the Pages of First Things; Looking for Home: Women Writing About Exile and countless others have made me aware of authors I might otherwise have missed, and enriched me with writing that has altered my view of the world and its people.

Someday—at least, I hope so!—all of those collections will come to seem quaint literary relics of an age so divided by accidents of birth and other irrelevancies that it found them necessary. How I long for that day, and for the social, political and intellectual changes it must usher in.

But we’re not there yet. Meanwhile, how grateful I am for all those books—those stop-gaps, signposts on the way to justice—for the partial remedy they represent, the talents they reprieve from undeserved oblivion, and the attempts they are making to coax us toward mutual acknowledgment of one another’s achievements.

 Biography

Rhina P. Espaillat has published poems, essays, shortstories and translations in numerous magazines and over fifty anthologies, in both English and her native Spanish, as well as three chapbooks and eight full-length books, including three in bilingual format. Her most recent are a poetry collection in English, Her Place in These Designs (Truman State University Press, Kirksville, 2008), and a bilingual collection of her short stories, El olor de la memoria/The Scent of Memory (Ediciones CEDIBIL, Santo Domingo, D. R., 2007).