Yesterday, I earned the first B of my life. An 89.16 percent, to be exact.
It’s really not a big deal, in the cosmic sense of things, because (a) it was in AP Calculus BC, which is notorious for near-impossibility, (b) I’m a writer, not a mathematician, and (c) it’s my senior year of high school, for crying out loud.
But still, my first reaction was to mentally start packing my bags, retreat to the Himalayas, reject formal schooling and become a female monk. I don’t have tiger parents, in case you’re wondering. That’s just the way I am — a chronic perfectionist, who also happens to be a model minority and also a writer from one of the most underrepresented racial groups in America’s literary scene.
Recently, our society has started having candid conversations about the measurable challenges faced by women of color — wage gaps, harassment, disenfranchisement — but we rarely talk about the intangible pressures — competition, perfectionism, imposter syndrome. It’s not easy to discuss. As a fiction writer, I’m a sucker for tropes, but it is also my worst fear to become one myself — a teenage Asian robot who stress-eats rice, crams for her SATs, sleeps too little and apologizes too much. I turned to writing because I wanted to escape that pressure (and also because I’d failed miserably at math club) but it turns out that when you’re a writer of color, there isn’t much room for error.
“As a fiction writer, I’m a sucker for tropes, but it is also my worst fear to become one myself.”
Whenever I write publicly about my experiences, I often delve into issues that are personal — gun violence, racism, femininity — because I know that perspectives like mine are not often shared. The responsibility to speak for my generation is one that requires perfection. Issa Rae’s hit show “Insecure” nails exactly what it’s like to speak as the sole representative for billions of people — frustrating. “You are so articulate!” I’m often told with surprise: a well-meaning compliment from those who have never been underestimated. I’m 18 years old, but mediocrity is not a luxury I can fathom.
Because when you’re a young writer of color, and your success is predicated on your acceptance from the majority, perfection can feel like the only real option. It’s not only that you need to be perfectly articulate, perfectly reasonable —you’ve also got to be twice as likeable. It’s a fine line to tread — you’ve got to be kind of ethnic, like a margarita, but you can’t offend anyone, and you certainly can’t be an angry woman of color. The numbers are stacked against us — only 12 percent of children’s books feature POC, and over 80 percent of publishing staff are white. My path to success is along a percentile-skinny tightrope, so it only follows that I’ve got to be a darn good acrobat.
I think that women of color are the ultimate time travelers. We exist in so many places at once, present so many facades, tell so many versions of stories, knock on so many doors. But we also live a life where it’s sometimes impossible to exist as ourselves: trope-y, mediocre, imperfect.
“When you’re a young writer of color, and your success is predicated on your acceptance from the majority, perfection can feel like the only real option.”
At 18, I know that it’s unreasonable to expect meteoric success as a writer. Still, it’s hard to shake the entirely rational fear that my writing career is out of my control — that my appeal as a young woman of color has an expiry date, that the doors of success aren’t sized for me. After all, we don’t get do-overs. We don’t get taken as seriously. If we fail, we risk jeopardizing the prospects of other WOC who will inevitably be compared to us. We’re forced to compete with our own sisters for limited spots. “Scandal” summarized it best with a quote that every WOC has heard at least once in her life: “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.”
Maybe it’s because I’m still young, or maybe it’s because I was born into the American Dream, but I want ”Scandal” to be wrong. I want to fight that kind of pessimism with sheer, solid, go-get-’em effort. I want to write beautiful words because I’m a young woman of color, not in spite of it.
Unfortunately, the only way to survive an industry that demands perfection is to be perfect. You have to write the perfect story for people to read: preferably, one that references the trials and tribulations of being a WOC, because society gobbles up trauma like it’s buttered popcorn. My identity is coveted, fetishized and hated by society at the same time. I’m fully aware that I will be an Indian-American writer first, and a writer second. I have to stay in my niche, because all of the normal, mainstream writers’ perspectives are already taken.
“My identity is coveted, fetishized and hated by society at the same time. I’m fully aware that I will be an Indian-American writer first, and a writer second.”
Generally, I don’t yell about it. I cry. I go to bed. I sometimes get cynical. Last week in my English class, when my best friend and I were discussing a poem by Robert Frost, I felt myself getting irrationally angry. Angry at the fact that Robert Frost could earn a Pulitzer Prize for composing rambling stanzas of sweet nothings about nature, or something basic like that, but as a WOC, I’d have to write about immigration or cultural assimilation or hate crimes in order to be even a blip on the screen.
“Anyone could write poetry like Robert Frost,” I told my friend. “Here, I’m going to make one up right now.” I took a deep breath, and free-styled in my whitest voice that I use on the phone: “I look, steadfast, upon a bush / and withered flowers of yonder ant / and ask myself, perchance, if man / could find himself in snowy brook / to sleep within the rainy thrush.”
She laughed and said, “That actually sounds just like him.”
“Could I win a Pulitzer for that?” I asked, somewhat belligerently.
“Probably not,” she said.
As much as I want to write about snowy woods and sleeping bugs, the truth is that the pain and wisdom that society never expected from Robert Frost will have to be supplied by women like me. And it’s not like we can shirk that duty―if we don’t tell our own stories, the oppressors will. Or nobody will. I’m not sure which is worse.
Right now, I’m working on publishing my first book. In the process, I find myself trying to outgrow perfectionism, which I recognize as a form of oppression against women of color. I’m also working on being proud of myself, rather than feeling grateful or ridiculously lucky. These are feelings that are too familiar to women who are supposed to feel happy “just to be here.”
There aren’t a lot of happy, tree-loving brown authors, but I want to be the first. I want to take up space, literally and metaphorically. I want to write about racism and plants and magic and justice. I want to be a messy, multifaceted, well-developed version of myself — even at the risk of being imperfect.
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