Bigotry and the American novel
Of course we knew Asian Americans had felt the sting of bigotry for years, but it took a massacre to briefly bring that suffering to national attention, to put prominent speakers on the morning news shows, to start a fervent social media movement, for corporations to vow to be more inclusive, for politicians to solemnly weigh in…you know, the usual.
We knew this would happen, that violence is the potential, eventual outcome of hate. We knew Asian women have been sexualized to an unthinkable degree, that the term “China virus” carried deep racial overtones, that America has falsely, deeply, damagingly conflated the term “inscrutable” with Asian men.
And we know this bigotry extends. That African Americans are targeted by the state. That the vile border rhetoric has catastrophic ramifications for Latinx people. That Middle Easterners still bear the weight of vitriol from the early 2000s. That Jews are cartoonishly villainized, but in ways with weighty, real-world consequences. That LGBTQIA+ people are still shunned. That women, despite the success of the #MeToo movement and gains in political office, still suffer every social and economic disadvantage compared to their male counterparts. I could go on and on and on, but we know all this.
And yet we continue to regard bigotry as an occurrence, not our existence.
It leads me to wonder, can an American novel be honest if it excludes bigotry?
Authors painstakingly detail other aspects of the American experience — the confusion between wealth and happiness, the corruption of power, the affluence gifted to beauty. But writers often refuse to delve deeper, to neglect that bigotry has touched Americans more deeply than anything else, that this experience is something every American, regardless of race or gender, has internalized.
And make no mistake: Bigotry is the central negative component of American life. It is the issue that led to our only civil war, that ignited our most impassioned speeches and demonstrations.
I exclusively write and generally read crime fiction which, given its reach over laws and ethics, should be the genre that powerfully addresses bigotry. But I’ve come to expect that:
- In almost all of our genre’s books written by men, women are going to be secondary characters. Either solely sexualized or serving the role of idealistic aspiration for the male characters. In almost every case, if you want to read fully developed male and female characters in crime fiction, you’d better find a female writer. This is probably why, unquestioningly, today’s best crime fiction is written by women.
- You will read countless novels and short stories detailing institutions where racism either doesn’t occur or is an isolated instance. The protagonists of those novels, of course, are often white.
The argument against this is that not every book has to deal with heavy issues. That some people read for escape (even if, for all of us, there is no escape from bigotry in America).
To be fair, there’s merit in the argument for escape. We have suffered, all of us. Covid-19 unsparingly ripped through the world. Many of us have lost jobs. Emotional distress has been exacerbated. It’s not unfair to ask our entertainers to provide relief.
It’s also fair to ask them to do both. To be as honest as they are entertaining. For too long, we’ve chosen to ignore bigotry. To knowingly choose dishonesty. To treat as secondary, or invisible, the chasms that divide not only our understanding of each other, but our very acceptance, and therefore our existence. To employ Chekhov’s famous missive about impartiality, but only as it serves to continue our cowardice.
We know this. We know the lies we tell.
We’re happily reciting lies on a stage while, in the audience, people hate and kill and, occasionally, look to us to provide an escape from their sins.
We know this. And we continue to lie.
E.A. Aymar’s new novel, written as E.A. Barres, is They’re Gone.