Wide-ranging, erudite, and impassioned essays examine whiteness and literature.
Whiting Award winner Row (English/Coll. of New Jersey; Your Face in Mine, 2014, etc.) melds memoir, literary and cultural criticism, and philosophical reflection in seven essays that examine how whiteness is imagined and represented in “novels, short stories, films [and] plays.” As a white writer with a complicated racial identity and father to two multiracial children, Row is troubled by the way fiction “reflects and sustains” notions of whiteness as “normal, neutral, and central.” How do fiction writers, even unconsciously, perpetuate racism? Is it possible for fiction to contribute to a process of reconciliation and reparation? Reparative writing asks writers “to bring their own sadness or their own bodies into play when writing about race or racism,” including feelings of “paralysis, isolation, or alienation.” In his view, the white American literary community—which he reveals by examining a prodigious number of writers, scholars, and critics—rather than struggling to express these deep-seated feelings, takes on “postures of avoidance and denial.” This avoidance, Row asserts, is a form of “white flight,” a term usually associated with “abandonment of the ideals of integration” by whites fleeing urban African American, Latinx, or immigrant communities to suburban homes surrounded by “enormous lawns” that serve as “a buffer or barrier.” Applied to writing, “white flight” encapsulates “the desire not to have one’s visual field constantly invaded by inconveniently different faces—relationships that are fraught, unfixed, capable of producing equal measures of helplessness and guilt.” Row’s urgent desire to confront questions of race is compelled in part by his own background, which he shares in engrossing autobiographical vignettes. On one side of his family, his ancestors were among the first white settlers on land forcibly taken from the Lakota; on the other were immigrants from the racially mixed Azores. But his concern transcends his own background: Is it possible, he wonders, for white writers ever to escape “the horror of performing within the family romance of whiteness”? Though the lit-crit language may turn off some readers, this is a significant contribution to the cultural landscape.
A disquieting, deeply thoughtful cultural critique.