Does Reading Books by Authors from Marginalized Communities make me an Activist?

Recently, I listened to Ocean Vuong’s discussion with Sam Fragoso on the Talk Easy podcast for a third time (because it was so good).  Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese American, queer poet and novelist that grew up in Hartford, CT.  He is the author of the fantastic novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which has the best writing I’ve encountered this year. Because we grew up in the same metropolitan area and because of his immense talents, I’ve become an Ocean Vuong stan.  Ocean Vuong’s speech is as thoughtful and poetic as his writing, making the podcast worth multiple listens.  One particular portion of the podcast has stuck with me and impacted how I read.  In the podcast, Vuong discusses his frustration that many readers, mainly white, pick up novels related to social justice topics with the primary goal of developing empathy or understanding.  He believes that empathy should not be the sole objective when one interacts with any form of art.

In the podcast Sam Fragoso brings up the senseless shootings that took place at Asian salons in the Atlanta area on March 16th.  Vuong has a personal connection to this tragedy because his mom once worked at a nail salon.  Sadly, she sadly passed away from cancer in 2019.  In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong beautifully describes the harsh wear the work had on his mom’s hands:

“Because I am your son, what I know of work I know equally of loss.  And what I know of both I know of your hands.  Their once supple contours I’ve never felt, the palms already callused and blistered long before I was born, then ruined further from three decades in factories and nail salons.  Your hands are hideous—and I hate everything that made them that way.  I hate how they are the wreck and reckoning of a dream” (Vuong 79)

Because of his literary success, Vuong received many requests for his thoughts on the shootings from the media.  He explains, “All of a sudden my books were on these lists, you know my name was referenced in all these places and there were all these reading lists to…empathize with Asian-American life.  So, it is a horrific feeling I think to suddenly be relevant because six Asian American women are murdered.  I don’t wish that feeling on any artist.”  I often read books that are written by authors who are part of marginalized groups featured in the news.   I never considered how authors must feel horribly when their book sales are increasing because of tragic events within their communities.  While a portion of those readers are people of color seeking resilience in a time of stress, there are a lot of white readers, like myself, also picking up copies.  Vuong is not optimistic about the intentions of the white audience that reads these books.

Some white readers that consume books related to racial justice topics aim to develop empathy for a marginalized community.  Vuong presents an important question.  “What does it mean to need a book to empathize?  What is the role of empathy? Because in literature it’s often an unquestioned utopic destination…often of white readers only”.    Vuong continues to expose the flaws in this behavior.  He says, “when I see this sort of recruitment of engaging in cultural relics (novels) in order to value life, I get very pessimistic all of a sudden.  Why can’t these lives be inherently valuable without any knowledge, without any books or film”?  Vuong states the obvious, we as humans should have the ability to hold empathy for others, without the aid of a book, or any form of media.  It is not an author’s responsibility or a book’s purpose to make a marginalized group’s cause worth caring about.  I believe some white readers feel that reading these books is a form of activism.  Upon completing it they feel like they’ve checked off a box that makes them anti-racist and then feel better about themselves.  However, I think there is value in white readers continuing (or starting) to pick up these novels.  But the intention, or motivation, behind the reading must be reframed. 

Activism begins after reading the book.  We need to make sure we’re entering these books with the intention to learn and understand, so that we can take that knowledge into action.  Here are some possible anti-racist actions we can take with insight gained from these novels:

  • Using new understanding to engage in informed conversations with family, peers and especially those with problematic thinking
  • Supporting businesses owned by the community you just read about
  • Contact politicians to demand necessary actions are taken to create anti-racist policy
  • Make informed decisions to support anti-racist candidates on election day
  • Donate money to organizations that are aiding the marginalized group you read about

Link to the podcast: