Women and the Global Imagination: The Center of the Universe

by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In her essay, Nancy Jooyoun Kim explores the experience of being a writer who is often derided by peers for not being universal enough. We hope you enjoy reading. To read more on this theme, visit our blog and buy or Winter 2014 issue (print or ebook). To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Language has a kind of violence, and this includes both what is and what is not said. That violence lives in prepositions, definite and indefinite articles, periods and question marks. That violence may be ugly or beautiful, calm or enraged.

As a female writer of color who’s been through the literary and institutional gauntlet (MFA program, a steady nine to five job, crawling-in-the-mud experiences as both a writer and editor), I often think about how I would be or would not be “talked to” if I were a man, if I were white, or even if I had grown up middle class.

Notice the words “talked to” and not “talked with.”

That is exactly what happens when the white male classmate claims to know more about me, my story and my cultural and economic experience than I, the person who lives with it, who wakes up to it every single day. “Actually, I don’t think most Koreans think like that,” he says. He claims to be both more Asian and more American (he means more knowledgeable) than me. So, what does his “more” leave me with? A constant feeling of less.

How can I be more less than what I actually am? And who defines what I know or don’t know about myself, what’s particular to me and what’s universal to the world? Why is the story of the middle-class, educated couple falling apart considered to be more universal than mine—the story of the daughter of immigrants who speaks a different language from her mother, the story of people who work all their lives, tirelessly and intelligently, yet continue to be poor?

Not once have I heard anyone question the universality of a story about the middle-class, educated, white couple falling apart, trying to put themselves together by choosing what kind of tiles they want for the floor. People might ding that story for not enough character development, or plot, or just plain sloppy language, but I have never once heard a story of that ilk criticized for not being relatable enough.

My story has never been enough, and I have always had to work to imagine the more “universal” story instead of my own. (I’ve never chosen tiles before and, no, I’ve never fallen for a bullfighter in Spain, Ernest Hemingway.)

All those great writers have been successful in teaching me to think how they think, but I’ve never had the privilege of living how they live, without the daily consciousness of racism or sexism or homophobia, without the constant accusation of being “too political.” But everything is political, and our deepest problems stem from all the politics that live underground, unseen. If expatriation, the New Woman, anti-Semitism, and masculinity in Hemingway manages to be “universal,” why does the woman who writes about her experiences as a lesbian in a heterosexist world happen to be “too political,” “too pointed,” “too specific,” belonging only on a certain bookshelf in the dark corner of the store, “not universal enough?”

When everyone, and every classroom, reads the story of an Asian American woman in a denim factory, of a transgender couple falling out of love, of a black artist who has a complicated relationship with studying at the Sorbonne, of an undocumented immigrant who wants to be a podiatrist, as not just anthropological or just ethnographic or “too political,” the idea of a center might just collapse. Floating through it, we might find a way for all of us to actually exist. And that is human.

Born and raised in LA, Nancy Jooyoun Kim is a graduate of UCLA and the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington, Seattle. She’s a former managing editor of The Seattle Review, blogger for The Kenyon Review and nonfiction editor of The James Franco Review. She now lives in the SF Bay Area, where she's working on a novel and personal essays.