Today’s blog is the final one in our week-long discussion of diversity in literature, with posts from a TLR contributor or editor. We hope the series has encouraged a lively discussion. Comments are open.
The Education of the Caveman Within
By Joe Ponepinto
I have only explanations, not excuses. I have to start somewhere.
We are social creatures, evolved to embrace the culture into which we were born, but also to reject “the other.” It’s so easy to do this—it doesn’t require any more thinking than our prehistoric ancestors gave it. It’s our nature to like people we perceive as being like us, and to distrust those we perceive as different. Back then it was because “the other” represented a real threat of some kind: to food, to safety, to sexual opportunity. Today, the threat is largely imaginary, yet still felt as strongly.
How do we respond when the society in which we live distrusts us, and sees us as the other?
Being white, male and straight, I can’t answer that question directly, although in my life I’ve experienced exclusion based on petty cultural differences (being of Italian heritage actually mattered to some people where I grew up), and my personal bane, cronyism. But it ain’t the same, I know.
Fifteen years ago, I married my beautiful wife, Dona, who is African-American. But for a while in my life, I would not even have dated a black woman. Such was the insular culture in which I was raised, in lower-middle-class suburban Long Island, where the races and cultures were largely segregated. There were no black students in any of my classes through high school. I remember two Latino kids—one was a friend, the other I couldn’t stand. I recall one Asian boy in eighth grade, an exchange student from South Korea.
It’s a sign of an arrested culture to exclude the perceived other. It’s an indication of a culture so afraid of losing its identity that its members isolate themselves in order to avoid change, which can only be imagined as harmful to the core culture. It’s caveman thinking.
But back to that question. In the literary world, in the upper echelons of publishing (which according to Publisher’s Weekly’s annual survey are 89% white), I get the impression that for all their proclaimed experience and education and liberal pronouncements, the people in charge still make subconsciously caveman decisions: I like this guy. He thinks like I do. I’ll hire him.
Out here in the trenches, in the land of indie publishers and literary journals, the reaction is predictable. Dozens of contests, journals and book publishers restrict submissions to people of a certain race, gender, sexual orientation or disability to ensure an authentic forum for the work, and more importantly, to validate writers who have been disregarded by mainstream publishing. The drawback is that it also becomes a form of self-isolation from the cultures these publishers ultimately wish to influence. To the dominant ones, this can sound like: You won’t publish us over there; well then we won’t publish you over here. Meanwhile it doesn’t really help to see established, mainstream journals run story after story about a white couple in a car, going nowhere and lamenting their relationship, which indicates not just the banality of such existence, but an almost complete lack of curiosity about the way others live. (I’ve received at least five of those this week in the slush.) It’s this write-what-you-know-and-only-what-you-know divisiveness that seems to pervade every segment of our literary world, as well as our daily lives.
As a writer and editor for thirty-plus years, having spent a decade in journalism and having lived in perhaps a dozen places around the country, I have found that I identify less and less with the cultures and subcultures that make up our society, particularly the one into which I was born. That’s because although each one promises a shared sense of identity and camaraderie, it also demands conformity to its norms and sometimes illogical beliefs in order to participate as a member. I’ve never been able to sacrifice that much of my individuality. I can no longer accept culture’s artificial boundaries.
By belonging to none, I hope to belong to all.
In my editorial capacity, where my physical appearance doesn’t matter, that worldview may find a purpose. Yes, my decisions will probably always be somewhat influenced by the whiteness, maleness and straightness of my early education, but they will also lean more heavily on my experiences in the years since. Those experiences drive me to stay interested in intelligent ideas from every origin, to be curious about people more than cultures, to reject the idea of the hated other. Within this philosophy I must always accept that understanding diversity for me is still a second-hand proposition, a hearsay. I may never truly experience discrimination. I can sympathize with those discriminated against, but I cannot know what it is like to be denied opportunity based on skin color or gender or sexual orientation or ability.
Nor can I know what it is like to grow up in a culture other than the one I experienced. But as an adult I can remove its blinders. I can appreciate its benefits, but also recognize its wrongs and leave them behind. And I can encourage the process of such change for others through my work at TLR. Our world is too complex and connected now to accommodate prehistoric thinking.
Joe Ponepinto is the Publisher and Fiction Editor of Tahoma Literary Review.