Saturday, July 24, 2010

Writing Universal

"I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don't know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That's what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say 'people,' that's what I mean."

Toni Morrison

One day, myself and another fellow artist were having an in depth discussion about the nature of writing a “universal” piece of fiction. So naturally, we started referencing points in our lives when someone had asked for us to write a “universal” piece of fiction that anyone could identify with. Or better yet, a piece of a something that was truly, human. As we compared and contrasted our experiences, I realized that there was always a particular scenario (and dare I say power dynamic) that played out with exactly who does the asking and who is usually expected to comply with writing something universal.

For example, I write a lot about being a Nigerian-American woman living in the United States of America. This lived experience of being a woman of color in the U.S. is not something I would categorize as the “quintessential universal experience.” A lot of my writing will probably let you know that yes, a woman of color is writing this and yes, there are particular things that I am calling out that may not exist as you would like to see it, but nonetheless, exist.

When I think of writing a universal piece there are particular names that are always invoked and lord knows none of the people mentioned look or really live anything like I do. They are not of color and as far as I know the names mentioned are rarely ever women. Human + Universal almost always = something White Male or something digestible for Whiteness. So I don’t write universal. I don’t even know what that is. And whenever I’ve tried to write something that everyone can relate too I’ve had air pudding and nothing pie.

In the discussion I had with the fellow artist we compared notes and gained (obvious) insights. We found that it was usually white people who almost always wanted to do the universalizing (in my experience I’ve found that people of color usually want literature about other things, more to come on that later). As a result, my art often came off as being “adjusted” into wise old words spoken by an “authentic” Mystical Negro who told sacred truths in an almost Morgan Freeman like voice. Or, I was painted as a downtrodden black thing that existed in a political, economic and social vacuum that needed pity or worst of all white help. Both of these images were not universal but rather more socially palatable to a white supremacist (yeah I said it) ideology. Moreover, I no longer knew what I was talking about.

So I don’t care to write universal and will never give anyone the chance to “universalize” my work again. I’m in a reclaiming period. I’m taking back any piece of my writing that has been watered down, never even shown, or exploited, and presenting the initial message that was intended. Exhibit A: The poem that will follow was meant to talk about a former friend and lover that passed away last year. It was a good-bye love letter. I watered it down to have it make more sense for someone else’s benefit and spent a year wondering why it never made any sense to me. Now mind you I have not read the original version in almost a year and now that I am in a better place there are a few things I want to revise. The revising is on my own damn terms and now I trust my own damn thinking enough to do it. So here it is, as it was written. If you relate to this particular poem fine by me, if not, fine by me. The reclaiming begins…


We can go and find the pieces we left along the way

Retell the story and take the things that make us tattered and torn, tattered and worn

And suture us together again

Weave ourselves into beings that know we need mending,

Leave those clean endings to the fairytales and reside in our shades of gray

Admit we’re a bit worse for the wear and ready to trace the bits and pieces

Trace the things ourselves left that day…

Remember all the things we pushed aside that day

Find the hidden answers and shake the dust out

Call silenced things by their names, as we dig up our skeletons and watch them turn human again

I’ll trace back to when we were outlined with night

And the stars lit your eyes

And the only us seen was eyes and teeth, eyes and teeth

And I traced you and you traced me

I said, “I’ll imprint on you, you imprint on me”

Kissed an, “I love you” on those lips and felt the tingle that sealed it

Took one little star that lit your eyes and put it in mine and left the rest of us there

Us creatures of the night only allowing ourselves a mere outline

In the day, when I thought we were over I took the star out my eye and thought the tingle on our lips out

Maybe you carry the piece of what happened in between that night and the day I threw us away?

I’ll lay these fragments beside one another and bear witness to our brokenness

Maybe we’ll get closer to God’s reflection this way

Knowing we’re a patchwork in need of a trimming cause our edges are frayed

Ask the almighty for a needle and a thread laced with all our thought feelings and those unsaid things we laid to rest

Reaching the Promised Land only to find we left pieces of our essence along the way

Find that we’re a bunch of tiny things in need of putting together

As we dig up our skeletons and watch them turn human again


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I am happy for you and think it is high time that talented people like yourself stand up for your right not to mass produce universalist crap for the benefit of ignorant (often white) people who strip it of its personal meaning to you and those who might benefit from its connection to them. You are a hero for freeing yourself from the snares of power dynamics. I am adamant about this because universalism is one of the greatest lies of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment" that I have ever heard. Universalism is merely the assertion that white people's opinions are Truths that apply to all humans, locations, and all situations. This lie is the cornerstone of white supremacy because it means that for anything to be true and legitimate it must come from white people. Most of the crimes that whites have perpetuated against humanity such as racism are merely products of the universalistic mentality. Slavery, the Europeanization of originally Arab Christianity, colonialism, imperialism, and even modern international development all center on "white is right" universalism. The worst part is that universalism has been drilled into the minds of most elites on Earth (being inherent in their colonial-era Western education systems), ensuring that most world governments comply with the white supremist, classist capitalist world system.

    Lastly, I appreciate your poetry for its vivid depictions and overall artistic beauty. It is deeply personal, hence there are many things that I cannot relate to. However, I like the skeleton motif...the image of conjuring up forgotten things (skeletons) in such a way that they become not only remembered again, but real and present (fleshed out). I have had moments like this both happy ones(happy moments relived with forgotten/lost friends and dead family) and sad ones (sad moments endured with forgotten bullies, cruel teachers, etc).

    Thanks for sharing your light and encouraging others to engage you as we bask in your luminescence.

  3. The lovely response that I just wrote was so long that it was deleted as too large for processing. I am a bit disheartened, because so much careful analysis went into it.

    In a condensed version: (1) Way to throw of the shackles of universalism. Power dynamics make that nigh impossible to do emotionally and physically. (2) I just wanted to point out to the readers how universalism is the cornerstone of white supremacy. This white European concept means that whatever the white Europeans say is universalist magically becomes undeniable Truth that applies to all people, in all places, for all times, in all circumstances. This is the foundation of the racist, classist capitalist system that exists today. (3) Slavery, the Europeanization of originally Arabic Christianity, colonialism, and even the imperialist industry known as international development were and are upheld by universalist "Truths". That's all for now or I will get deleted again by lovely EBlogger rules.

  4. But I also think that the poetry is great! Unique to your personal experiences and feelings, but wonderfully rich in imagery, emotion, and the motif of the reincarnated skeleton. I can relate to the refleshing of many a forgotten memory to the point where I vividly relive the experiences and people again. Happy experiences memories of out-of-touch friends and deceased family and sad memories of old school bullies, traumatizing events, etc.

    Thanks for allowing us to bask in your luminescence. Your raw talent is amazing! "For Real!" May the reclaiming continue!

  5. Absolutely beautiful piece! I always believe that real power comes from real, honest, undiluted writing. Brava!