In 2021, Priya Krishna asked “why do American grocery stores still have an ethnic food aisle?” The righteous anger of those interviewed underlined the main feeling of the piece: an ethnic food aisle is too small and too limiting for modern tastes. It is a racist conceit that smashes those cultures considered “ethnic” together while keeping largely Western and European items separate. The essayists of Letters to a Writer of Color play with the same challenge.
Featuring heavy-hitters like Kiese Laymon, Amitava Kumar, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, and edited by Deepa Anappara and Taymour Soomro, the collection shares advice, understanding, and insights via essays. Letters is simultaneously a craft book and nothing like a craft book. There are no instructions for how to write or how to live the life of a writer. The pieces ping pong between anguish and triumph over the process of communicating a difficult, “othered” self despite obstacles set by racism and life.
At times profound and at others slightly saccharine, the essays together are comforting. They confirm that a writer need not be perfect or even published to be any good. And, for the writer of color, writing is an act of self-translation. As Xiaolu Guo writes, “A good translation is never really a translation. It is a creative reproduction.” And as Zeyn Joukhadar writes, “To write anything as a queer or trans writer of color is to refuse to allow oneself to be shoved quietly out of view. It is to be angry nearly all the time and to find ways of transmuting that rage into something useful.”
It might seem strange that the disparate experiences of writers of color would be combined in a book like this. Because, like the ethnic food aisle, there are large differences between a Black American and an Asian immigrant or a Puerto Rican and a Syrian refugee. But none of the writers strive to be prescriptive about their experience or the ones of other writers like them. Each essay is focused inward, simply presenting examples for how one might organize oneself without judgment.