What is a "Universal" Story, Anyway?

ohoto of the asian american family that stars in fresh off the boat

Comedian Eddie Huang raised a red flag about ABC show based on his memoir, Fresh Off the Boat. 

The moment I made the decision to write about my political communities back home during the first semester of my MFA program, I knew I would hit some walls.

"It's ill-advised to write about politics this way," my instructor said. "Traditionally speaking, it doesn't work. Politics are told through something universal, a love story, a coming of age story." I understood what he meant. The kind of “universal story” he described was the kind of writing that got me into my MFA program in the first place. I knew how to write that story, but wasn't sure I wanted to. It felt strategic. It felt like performing. It felt like hiding. For many of my friends in my native Oakland, CA, social justice is their work and love, and it guides moral decisions and relationships. They are community organizers, social workers, writers, advocates, and activists, meaning certain conversations and certain terms are commonplace and unavoidable. How would I to represent myself and these people honestly if I was expected to erase what was most important to them?

I grew up reading and writing about white people. There is no inherent problem in writing white. But when I did it, it was because I knew I didn't belong. I could name all the famous Asian Americans in popular culture on one hand. Teachers pointed me to The Joy Luck Club and novels like it, but I could never see myself reflected in these works. I could see my grandparents, and perhaps my mother—this generational dilution of the immigrant experience. But I could never see me. When I wrote, I wondered who would care. As far as I was concerned, there was no place for me or my kind in the world of creative people. That was until 2010, when Karen Tei Yamashita published I Hotel, a brick of a novel that tells about the schizophrenic Asian American experience and California's political landscape in the 70s. The Chicago Tribune called it a "glorious failure of a book," wishing the novel were "more traditional." Yet I Hotel was nominated for the National Book Award, and became the recipient of the California Book Award for being just the way it was. More significantly (for me, anyway), this work reached out and reassured me that my concerns were more common than I realized. Not bad for a glorious failure.

Last week, Eddie Huang wrote a biting piece, about how his memoir Fresh off the Boat was adapted to a cookie-cut ABC comedy. He writes that his real life story was compromised to create a show that would play well with a white audience, altering his memoir to the point where it no longer resembled its source material. "The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans," Huang writes. "But who is that show written for?" Huang details how he sought counsel from Margaret Cho, an Asian American media legend, who told him he must keep on fighting. After the first TV spot airs, his friend enthusiastically exclaimed, "YOU GOT ASIANS ON TV!" It's no doubt a victory, but it's also damn depressing. It shows just how invisible we are, just how low the bar has been set, and how American storytelling, as it stands now, makes it hard for some to even meet it. It’s hard to tell your own story to a broad audience, when you have been deemed "other" from birth. We ought to be proud that we made it to TV. But we also ought to be so indignant that we can't stand it.

What does the word "universal" actually mean?

stacks of books sorted by color

Photo by Patrick Gage, via Creative Commons. 

For decades, the federal government used intelligence tests to measure a student's mental capability but researchers found themselves in hot water when scores were used to back eugenic claims. Minority students performed consistently worse than their white counterparts, and IQ scores sealed the fate of people of color, limiting their economic mobility and even controlling immigration. Some began to criticize these tests as racially biased. The problem, they argued, was cultural. As evidence of this, psychologist Robert Williams created the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity, also snarkily known as the BITCH-100. The test drew on the cultural context of Black students, using their own awareness as the basis for "unbiased" measurement. Just like that, the scores flipped, suggesting that there is no such thing as a "culture free" test.

Similarly, we’ve recently seen a shift in the perceptions of films made by people of color. Movies have catered to white leads for so long that executives actively dismiss actors of color, as with the recent Sony hacks that revealed the hesitancy to cast Denzel Washington. An article from The Washington Post shows how the history of filmmaking, right down to the technology, has been catered to whiteness, flattening faces of color, hiding them in shadow, or else making them gleam with sweat and grease. Recent films such as Selma, Fruitvale Station, and Dear White People have flipped the way stories are typically told, centering their narratives on people of color. After receiving criticism of the depiction of President Johnson in Selma, director Ava DuVernay told Rolling Stone she "wasn't interested in making a white-savior movie." Like the BITCH-100, this new shift offers a glimpse into what media might look like if it had always been this way, if "universal" were defined in someone else's favor. It seems like such a small thing, but it's actually huge to see a focus on people of color, in a medium that once aided in their erasure.

People often ask why diversity is important. A recent Scientific American article titled "Diversity Makes Us Smarter" (again, note who the article is addressing when it uses the word "us") cites a group's ability to more easily solve complex problems when it is more diverse. This too, translates to the world of the arts. After my first workshop in my MFA program, a classmate who would later become a good friend remarked that our class was a diverse group. According to him, my response was a skeptical "Hmmm," revealing I did not share his definition of diversity. When I made the decision to enter an MFA program, I feared that I would feel alone as a person of color. I read Junot Diaz's essay, MFA vs. POC. I looked for anything I could get my hands on to prepare me for a whitewashed educational experience, which I was convinced would enrich me, but the prospect of which also made me terribly anxious. My friend would go on to tell me some months later that he still thought about my reaction toward his comment, and how it made him eat his words. I had forgotten all about it.

When we're asking for a different kind of story from the one being told, we should consider the stories we might be silencing. When there is appeal for something "more universal," "more traditional," I can't help but interpret it as an appeal for something "more like us." The definition of "universal" is owned by those whose stories have already been told—and told with complexity. Writers who lie outside of this boundary are pressured to adopt the same stories, the same language, used and approved by others. Readers who have never seen themselves reflected back are expected to continue not existing. Using "universal" to enforce only makes our stories narrower, but using it as an opportunity to explore the lives of others, so unlike our own, takes back the term and gives it the meaning it's meant to have.

Now, sitting in my MFA workshop and regularly feeling token, I can name names of writers of color who I hold close as composite mentors. I feel as though there has been a small niche carved out, which I must not only fill, but continue to chisel away at.

Related Reading: This Year, I Read 50 Books by People of Color. 

Ari Laurel grew up in Oakland, CA and has lived near the ocean for most of her life, but is now pursuing an MFA in fiction writing in the landlocked city of Missoula, MT. Her essays have appeared in Hyphen magazine, Bitch, and The Toast.

by Ari Laurel
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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Universal or relatable..

Isn't that always the trick with fiction, is finding traction enough to get it published and read widely enough that it makes people who can relate to it grapple with it. I'm very curious about FOB, but it sounds as though it'll be more ABC sitcom than immigrant experience. But then even flat archetypes come out of those stories: Zadie Smith did as little as me as Jonathan Safran Foer. Chinua Achebe was stunning, but Kenzaburo Oe had frankly nothing to tell me. So even with less moderated stories you'll still have hits and misses. Valuing 'whiteness' and 'universality' is a strange business as well: Salman Rushdie might certainly be Indian, but a lot of people read him as a very western white male perspective. But there are pockets of experience in a lot of stories, aren't there? Handmaid's Tale is one of my favorites, but I certainly noticed how very white the cast of the film adaptation was, and nevertheless it brought plenty with it to think about, where frankly Fruitvale Station was a misery of a film that would have perhaps made a far more effective documentary. Who knows. Perhaps I just couldn't relate. But why should relatability stand in the way of transmitting a powerful story of the human experience?

I think Eddie Huang makes a

I think Eddie Huang makes a good point in his piece that people only end up liking what they're being fed. I particularly loved Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter on the subject of disability. I also really loved Fruitvale Station and have written a lot about it. I think there will be hit and misses (as with what happened to Yamashita's I Hotel), but how can people go on expecting every API reader to love Amy Tan out of obligation and visibility? There has to be more out there.

And and author's nationality

And and author's nationality or ethnicity might have little to do with their work - most of Murakami Haruki's fiction could take place almost anywhere, save for the occasional mention of a tatami. Similarly so for James Baldwin, who seemed to capture the disjointedness of a minority experience as opposed to fully detailing a very localized perspective, something that Junot Diaz does so well. Alice Walker definitely makes this work, though I wonder how specifically black something like The Color Purple is - I could see it happening in white Appalachia just as easily, but maybe that's part of the reader's interpretation.

I also realized there were actually plenty of POC in Handmaid's Tale: they were all being rounded up and trucked off to god knows where with all the infertile white women. So in that sense, a very cynically true inclusion of race in a story about evangelical supremism.

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