Literature’s Second-Class Citizens


All my life, I have tried to keep quiet. As an Asian-American who grew up in the 1980s in places where whites were the majority, I wanted to assimilate. I didn’t want to be that minority, you know, the one who ate weird food in elementary school or, as I got older, the hypersensitive one who talked about unfairness and race all the time. I played nice in the hope that I would be accepted.

As a result, I spent much of my time swallowing my discomfort when coming across racism. The strongest memory I have of this was in high school when we were assigned Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I found the portrayal of Africans in the book dehumanizing. But when the time came for discussion, my teacher told us right away that this book was brilliant, that it was a shame it wasn’t taught in more schools, that some of the depictions would be difficult to deal with but as readers we must overlook the cultural limitations because of the time in which it was written. And just like that I was silenced—I was prevented from having a real discussion, and I was taught that some things are racist but should be overlooked in the name of “Literature.”

Heart of DarknessBut the label of “Literature” is never a good enough gag for the constant dehumanization and erasure of minorities in books. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me he writes, “The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” And that line, I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world, is a call all writers and readers to recognize that examining race in-depth is important because it is a part of our reality and that we must hold one another accountable for the mechanisms of racism in literature, no matter how subtle.

One book that is plagued with a hollow portrayal of minorities is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible. Eligible is described as a modern re-telling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and centers on Liz Bennet and her romantic interest Fitzwilliam Darcy. Also included in the inner circle are her older sister and close confidante Jane, bratty younger sisters Lydia, Kitty, and Mary, and their clueless parents Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. I noticed with some frustration that none of the major newspapers, from the New York Times and the Guardian to the Washington Post, critiqued the treatment of minorities in the novel or hardly even commented on it at all. But by ignoring this subtle strain of dehumanization, we fail to hold writers accountable for creating easy stereotypes, thus reinforcing the race problems that face America. After reading Eligible, I was left with an uncomfortable feeling of dissatisfaction because the minorities who were mentioned felt like props—not to be interacted with and relegated to the corners, where they are not allowed the full depth and breadth and complexity that come with being fully human on the page.

The first example is Ham, the transgender man who runs the CrossFit gym Lydia and Kitty love so much, and who ends up eloping with Lydia. He comes across less as a person and more like a lesson for the family to learn. When Lydia and Ham elope, the reactions to him can be divided into “good” and “bad.” Mrs. Bennet flips out and says, “How strange and disgusting that Ham was really a woman, and what could Lydia be thinking to get involved with someone so obviously unbalanced?” This, of course, is how the book operates. The mom says something outlandish and politically incorrect. She is, of course, “the bad guy.” Mr. Bennet and Mary also say uncharitable things at Ham’s expense, and this shows their moral questionability. The ones who accept Ham, like Liz and Darcy, show inherent worth. Liz says, “Lydia and Ham are living their truth. More power to them.”

I feel for Ham because I imagine he would be frustrated to be the token transgender person who everyone learns from, because everyone even fictional characters are more than their identity. Even though we know that Lydia and Ham have a traditionally gendered relationship where Ham plays the breadwinner and Lydia performs the role of a trophy wife, their fascinating dynamic is not explored. Neither is Liz’s initial response when she first finds out about Ham. At first she asks, “Does he have a fake penis?” But then Sittenfeld adds, “Later, Liz would be relieved that it was only Mary [her sister] to whom she’d posed this prurient question.” Instead of asking Lydia and her new husband such questions, she goes and reads a bunch of books. This would’ve been a great place for Liz to be uninitiated, to make mistakes, ask the wrong questions and really interact with Lydia and Ham, but that opportunity is lost. Instead, we find Ham to be as he has been throughout the book, exceptionally kind and blameless and the reactions to him completely without nuance.

TransparentIn contrast, Jill Soloway’s show Transparent, also follows a transgendered person, in this case a woman named Maura Pfefferman, but allows her to have much more range and complexity. She is not merely an identity, a fixed status, but always shown through her relationships with others. Everything is not forgiven when she comes out of the closet. She created a dysfunctional family with her lifelong secrets and must live in the aftermath of her behavior. Maura’s grown daughters’—Sarah and Ali—surprising and complicated reactions to her confession is to cackle and laugh about it like it’s tawdry gossip. They say things like, “This is insane.” Ali explains to her brother that, “Dad is a woman, thinks he’s a woman, wants to be a woman, something like that.” Yet, they are not always judgmental. Sarah and Ali also stand up for Maura when some women confront her when she tries to use the women’s restroom. These responses, while imperfect, are human and show the evolution of the family’s adjustment to Maura’s new identity. The contrast between the two stories show Sittenfeld’s characters to be flat and leave us wanting for more

Another character in Eligible, Shane Williams, the African-American real estate agent, largely functions in the same way as Ham. He is yet another hopelessly good minority character. He starts out as an acquaintance of Liz’s from high school, brought in to help sell the house, and ends up dating Liz’s younger sister Kitty. He is described as “cheerful,” he speaks “warmly,” and, like Ham, never shows any negative emotions.

“Losing a house can be like losing a member of the family,” Shane said. “Am I right, Mrs. Bennet?”

She looked at him vaguely—Liz had decided against mentioning Shane’s race in advance of his meeting her mother, saying only that he’d been a Seven Hills classmate—then, as if Shane hadn’t spoken, Mrs. Bennet turned back to Liz.

Mrs. Bennet’s contempt is noticeable here, and I cannot believe that an African-American man would be so oblivious. But the truth is that he’s not allowed any reaction. Since this is his first time meeting her, and he wants her as a client, I don’t expect him to tell her off, but I would expect something—a raising of eyebrows, eyes avoiding Liz if he feels ashamed—to give some clue he noticed this. But we get nothing. He is not allowed into the sphere of interaction with Mrs. Bennet and as a result, comes across less human and more smiling and nodding puppet.

Shane and Ham are similar in that things never get too ugly or messy in terms of their behavior. While others are allowed to behave poorly towards them, they will always show their good characters. Both are so helpful—selling the house in Shane’s case, or helping Liz clean the house in Ham’s case. But this perfection comes at a cost. Their perfection only works because they’re kept at an arm’s length and never afforded a wide range of emotions. Sittenfeld’s unwillingness to grapple with the characters she creates out of fear it might get too messy or ugly, robs them of their human response. As a result, in the world of Sittenfeld’s novel they become, by default, second-class citizens who don’t matter.

In contrast to Ham and Shane, Anne Lee, the cutthroat Korean-American producer for Eligible, a Bachelor-like TV show imitator, is not all goodness and light. In fact, she is the opposite; she has no redeeming qualities. As a Korean-American myself, I kept looking for some saving grace for her and found none. She enters the story when Liz’s sister Jane and her fiancé, former reality TV star, Chip Bingley, decide to get married and let the show film and pay for their wedding. Anne Lee is there to make the wedding weekend as drama-filled and exciting as possible. She is two-faced, trying to cause fights between Liz and her arch nemesis, Caroline Bingley.

Anne also manipulates footage and casts Liz in a negative light for the purpose of having Caroline, Chip’s sister, look like a good future bachelorette for the reality show. First, Liz gets cast as The Party Girl, when she is quite the opposite, with scenes like this:

“I’d describe myself as a focused, down-to-earth person,” and there ensued a montage of her gulping wine, pounding shots, and at one point, not just holding but drinking from two separate champagne flutes.

EligibleThen Liz is trashed by Caroline, her arch nemesis and rival for Darcy’s affections, and the footage is manipulated to make us feel sorry for Caroline: “A camera crew had, albeit without sound and from a distance of perhaps forty feet, caught Liz’s proposal to Darcy and their subsequent embrace; both were interspersed with Caroline crying furiously, as if she were observing the scene firsthand, which Liz strongly doubted had happened.”

The portrayal of Anne Lee feeds into the stereotype of the manipulative, sneaky disingenuous, and ambitious Asian-American woman who will disregard anybody to get ahead. Because we get nothing else from her than her ruthless ambition and her race, it feels like a commentary and affirmation of Asian-American female stereotypes.

The problems with Anne Lee’s character are just the inverse of the idealism faced by Shane and Ham. In the end, the result is the same—no minority character is fully allowed into the story. Without an inner voice, Anne Lee is relegated to the fringes like Shane and Ham. I’m tired of minorities within a novel or a TV show being cast as peripheral characters whose “stakes” don’t really matter. They’re there but not there. They’re included but their stories don’t fully weave into the story.

We live in a multicultural, multi-gendered, multi-experiential world, and the desire to include different people, not just the ones who look like oneself, is a good one. But simple inclusion isn’t enough; people and characters should be allowed to be fully human, both in life and on the page and this is where Sittenfeld’s novel falls short. Eligible fails to allow the reader to feel all characters on a deeper level. And as a result, the characters and their ethnicities feel like an empty nod to diversity, while sidestepping its depth and complications. For readers like me, rather than feeling included, I still feel like I’m on the outside looking in.

Nancy Kim Park writes and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find her on Twitter @nancykimpark. More from this author →