Making Assumptions

A long time ago, I read the fiction in The New Yorker as soon as my copy arrived. Then, I posted my reaction to it on my blog as soon as I could, whether I had anything useful to say about it or not. I had some followers who regularly commented on my posts, agreeing with me sometimes, disagreeing with me sometimes. Occasionally people would ask me questions about the story, or high school students would ask for help with a paper. (Um, no.) It was fun. There’s one particular writer whose stories appeared often in that magazine’s pages, and while I like this writer’s novels, the short stories almost always left me cold, and I said as much on my blog. The writer’s fan club—with an active online discussion forum—hated me for that. I also got some nasty comments from other people, too, who accused me of stupidity or worse if they disagreed with my interpretation or negative reaction to a story.

That eventually caused me to stop the practice. Well, that and the fact that the weekly fiction often annoyed me because it seemed every other week the magazine ran a novel excerpt instead of a short story. That just reeked to me, especially when they didn’t disclose the fact that it was an excerpt. I wondered, and still wonder, what kind of deal the publishers have with the magazine to place those excerpts.

I don’t think I’m going to resume my weekly commentary, but I have been giving a lot of thought to a recent piece of fiction in The New Yorker. To be honest, it’s the first full issue of the magazine I’ve read in ages because the digital issue I was getting on my Kindle was just too easy to ignore. Now, having resubscribed to the print magazine, I’m determined to avoid the creation of unread stacks.

So, I gave the August 3 & 10 issue, the first in my new subscription to arrive, a thorough read, including the fiction.

The piece that has prompted me to comment now is “Heirlooms” by Bryan Washington. Nothing I’m going to say here really has anything to do with Washington’s piece, which I found to be very good, once I got my bearings. Or, at least, I don’t blame Washington for the problems I have with what The New Yorker has published and I certainly don’t blame him for the baggage I brought to my reading of the work.

I began reading and right away was intrigued by one character’s Japanese name, Mitsuko, because as a longtime resident of Asia anything that has an Asian angle will be of interest to me. The narrator is unnamed, at first, but it is revealed very early that Mitsuko’s son Mike, the narrator’s lover, has run off to Japan to see his dying father, Mitsuko’s ex-husband, leaving the narrator and the mother alone in Mike’s Houston apartment (which, in my mind, I kept placing in San Francisco, but that’s my fault, not the fiction’s, and not unrelated to the problem of associations I discuss below).

At this point in the narrative, I’ve made some assumptions. First, I figured the narrator was a woman, Mike’s girlfriend. And I also assumed that the narrator was white, because . . . I guess because I’m white and I saw no evidence to the contrary, as the narrator wasn’t described in any way.

I was wrong on both counts, and this is the point of this post.

If I had been a regular reader of The New Yorker in recent years, I might have recognized the name of the author. After I was deep into reading the piece, but before I really knew what was going on in it, I checked out the online version of the magazine because there is usually a short interview with the author by one of the editors that readers of the print edition don’t see. Here I saw a picture of the author and learned that he’s black. And he confirms that the narrator is a gay black man, which I now infer Washington, the author, to be also. If I had known these details about him when I began reading, I might not have made the assumptions I did as I read. (Although why should the author’s race or gender have anything to do with it? It’s fiction! This is a different, but related, problem.)

One of the things I have learned in my own creative writing is that readers do make assumptions about characters based on their own identities and what they know about the author. The writer can best serve the reader’s experience by providing the clues they might need if their assumptions are likely to be wrong. I now try to find ways early on to signal gender and race, and also sexual orientation if relevant, and I suggest to students that they do the same. This is especially important in a short story, where you don’t have the time or space to be leisurely in your revelations. Don’t make the reader assume.

Unless I missed them, there were no clues in Washington’s piece until well into it that the narrator, whose name we eventually learn is Ben (Benson, as the interview with the author reveals) and therefore a male, and that he’s black, and that he and Mike are a couple. Quite different from how I was reading the piece at first.

In my view, this is a flaw in a work that is meant to stand alone, but I don’t blame Washington, because the piece, as it turns out, is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, Memorial. (See my frustration, noted above, with the frequency The New Yorker does this.) The editors have likely selected a portion of the book that seems to hang together more or less like a short story (it doesn’t, in my opinion). But the selection they’ve chosen doesn’t necessarily do the work I’m guessing Washington does in the novel to introduce these characters in a way that defeats any assumptions the reader might bring to it. Mitsuko is easy because of her name. But does he let us know right away that Ben is black? Or are we left to assume that he’s black because the author is black? I don’t know. It will be interesting to see the book when it comes out.

The issue, of course, is not unique to Washington or writers of color. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a bigger problem in works by white writers. Next time you read something by a white writer, pay attention to how the writer signals to the reader information about the characters such as race and gender. White writers tend to forget to do this, assuming that their mostly white readers will assign their race to their characters unless otherwise specified. And look for other ways white writers tend to stumble over racial issues in their writing. For some other thoughts on this, take a look at 7 Casually Racist Things That White Authors Do.

If you’ve read “Heirlooms,” I’d be interested in your reaction.

2 thoughts on “Making Assumptions”

  1. Scattered thoughts: It’s an exasperating story. All distances and disconnections and poking and pushing away. I thought the narrator was male & gay before it was stated, i think, for some reason, because of Mike’s aggression in Ben’s recalled conversation. I’ll look at that deeper. I thought Mike was younger than Ben, not older. I was very conscious of what felt like the forced little external observations of the narrator that he used to break up dialogue. It’s a difficult thing to do that and have it feel natural, organic, because it happens faster in real-life than it does in words describing it. It’s curious that just yesterday i decided to make a character black, or half-black, kind of a Karmala Harris black, that the white narrator is unaware of until he tells her, and how it alters her perception of him and their relationship. I wasn’t as bothered by the delay in information about the character’s color or sexuality, because, i think, the info didn’t surprise me when it was introduced. That is, i didn’t feel misled. I did like some lines that in putting them down here i see as a kind of a poem that is more satisfying to me than the story!

    Scattered Spanish filters in through the window.

    I could pull my fucking ears off.

    When I woke up, the beach had cleared out. Windows glowed from houses lining the pier.

    Once I’ve settled the car in park, we sit in the darkness.

    A light-speed calculus blips across their faces.

    Quiet, she says.

    The street lights keep flickering. A chill settles in.

    I wonder if it’s even legal.

    In case you’re wondering, she says, that’s what it’s come to.

    1. Thanks! I appreciate your thoughts on this. I agree there are some terrific lines. I also liked Mitsuko’s dialogue, which is more brusque than you’d expect from her.

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