Falling in love with dead white men

We read fiction because it makes us less lonely about being a human being. We read about what other human beings feel – what they are driven to do, how they often work for their own destruction, how they are in the grip of appetites that are beyond them and they can’t control or harness.

– John Updike, ‘The Post’, 1998

I’ve come to notice that a lot of people don’t read fiction.

To each his/her own and all that, but I can’t help feeling a bit sad about this. Not trying to convert any Freakonomics fans into Frankenstein buffs here; it’s just that those who ignore what imagined words and worlds can offer are missing out on a whole other dimension of human experience. Long story short, your life becomes all the richer for having read fiction, for you having ‘lived’ multiple lives, ‘inhabited’ multiple landscapes, and ‘stepped into’ multiple pairs of shoes.

lisa milroy

‘Shoes made in 1990’ by Lisa Milroy

Having said that, I’m probably guilty of selective reading as well: it turns out that the majority of books I’ve read since the first book I can remember reading (The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies, in case you were wondering) are written by ‘Dead White Males’.

Granted, most of the ‘English literary canon’ is the legacy of dead white males a la Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens etc, but as a 21st century reader whose sense of canonicity really should include a more racially and sexually diverse group of authors, I feel a bit shamefaced to admit that I have, even post-university days, gravitated more towards people like Updike, Bellow and Marias than Maxine Hong Kingston, Chang-Rae Lee or Toni Morrison in my regular book-shopping perusals.

Until recently, that is.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Courtesy of a colleague’s recommendation, I was introduced to the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie by way of her TED Talk ‘The Dangers of a Single Story’, in which she talks about growing up reading mostly British and American fiction, and it wasn’t until she discovered Nigerian authors the likes of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka that she began to see herself as not just a reader of Anglospheric tales and cultures, but also a writer endowed with her own history, voice, and stories to tell, as someone deserving of a place in the global literary community.

The talk is riveting for its autobiographical veracity, but I think Adichie’s journey of empowerment finds its strongest expression in her fiction, more specifically, in her 2013 novel Americanah about love, diaspora, leaving and finding ‘home’ – all examined as forms of a three-way cultural dialogue between Nigeria, America and England. It’s a great read, poignant and genuine in turns without ever resorting to kitschy sentimentalism.

As per my questionable habit of dog-earing book pages, I think I’ve dog-eared about a third of Americanah, and yet one of the scenes I remember most vividly isn’t actually about the main protagonist Ifemelu, but the sister of her Yale professor boyfriend Blaine, Shan:

Shan was talking about a panel she had done the week before, at a writers’ festival. “So they ask me who my favourite writers are. Of course I know they expected mostly black writers and no way am I going to tell them that Robert Hayden is the love of my life, which he is. So I didn’t mention anybody black or remotely of colour or politically inclined or alive. And so I name, with insouciant aplomb, Turgenev and Trollope and Goethe, but so as not to be too indebted to dead white males because that would be a little too unoriginal, I added Selma Lagerlof. And suddenly they don’t know what to ask me, because I’d thrown the script out the window.”

“That’s so funny,” Blaine said.

(p.395, Fourth Estate edition)

Is it “funny” or tragic that in 21st century America, Shan’s non-African-American colleagues should find her interest in 18th and 19th century ‘dead white Europeans’ surprising? What is funny to me though, is that had I been Shan I would probably have given “Turgenev and Trollope and Goethe” as a genuine response, as opposed to her polemicized ‘white lie’ at the expense of writers who share her racial lineage (i.e. Robert Hayden), if only because I grew up mostly reading and identifying with authors foreign to my native culture.


Coincidence? Same America, Different Americana(h)s: DeLillo’s novel is a lot more ‘poster’ American in terms of content



old books

First loves (from left to right): Lolita, Madame Bovary, Love in the Time of Cholera

From what I can recall, my earliest interest in literature germinated from a bizarre interest in illicit love (think adultery, perversion, star-crossed romance et al). One of the first classic novels I set my hands on was a Dover Thrift edition of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, then followed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and later – much to my parents’ bemusement, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

As works of French, Colombian and Russian genesis respectively, these three novels don’t share a lot of common ground, save for their portrayal of women under ‘the male gaze’ – a perspective that till this day, I actively seek out as one of my preferred narrative point of views in fiction.

Go ahead and call the feminist brigade on me, but I suspect that I have, subconsciously or otherwise, bought into John Berger’s comment in his seminal study Ways of Seeing (1972):

One might simplify [the male gaze] by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

King David spying on Bathsheba at bath (Painting at the Bowes Museum; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation – the figure on the top left-hand corner is David)

Some may argue that this is patriarchal chat masquerading as learned jargon, and that what comes after the colon – “a sight” – is but a knee-jerk apotheosis of women, or worse, a glib cop-out that attempts to mollify us modern-day bluestockings with slapdash flattery. But I think the take-away here isn’t so much Berger’s distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female’ positioning as it is his belief in the basic essence shared by men and women – the fact that the two genders, for all their physical and psychological differences, are equally human.

As such, the so-called ‘male gaze’ is essentially also the ‘female gaze’, and the ‘male’ and ‘female’ gaze are but alternative terms for the ‘Human’ gaze – ‘Human’ with a capitalised ‘H’ because it encompasses all, men and women inclusive.

Just to be clear, the rational part of me disagrees with this ‘simplification’, but if so –

Why do I have no qualms about picking Martin Amis over Margaret Atwood at the bookstore? –

Why is it that I’ve read numerous F. Scott Fitzgerald works but have continually put off reading his wife Zelda’s semi-autobiography Save me the Waltz? –

Why do I have no problem calling John Updike and Philip Roth two of my favourite novelists despite their often less-than-flattering, if not straight-up chauvinistic descriptions of women? –

And perhaps most puzzlingly,

Why did it not bother me back at university that 95% of my reading lists were made up of DWMs (Dead White Males)?

In terms of room for empathy, there can be, objectively, very little that exists between a 21-year-old Asian female reader and a middle-aged, disgruntled Caucasian male character – the type that is frequently cast as protagonists in the modern classics I love. What’s all the more ironic is that I’d probably hate these characters if they were real people I had to deal with in real life: Updike’s Rabbit is misogynistic and bigoted; Roth’s nameless ‘Everyman’ is an adulterous pansy; Bellow’s Moses is narcissistic and weak; Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a paedophilic liar – all thoroughly unpleasant people, as I’m sure anyone would agree, and yet, pushed behind the page, they become some of my favourite literary fixtures.

What is it, then, that makes me love these godawful characters so, fictional and wildly different from myself as they may be?



To answer this question, I turn to Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination (2014) – the memoir that I’m currently reading.

rep_of_imagIn a nutshell, the book charts Nafisi’s personal and professional growth alongside discussions of three novels that have proven most formative to her life, which include Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The author is an Iranian-American English professor whose passion for literature I find both endearing and hilarious: she covers her office walls with literary news clippings and is the sort to jump out of bed just to look up a quotation she can’t recall (the point here is that she thinks about lit even when she’s about to sleep).

It’s fair to say I identify with Nafisi in many ways, both of us being foreign readers and fervent lovers of American novels largely irrelevant to our immediate culture and surroundings. What really cinched my empathy cord with Nafisi though, is when I came across her take on why, despite the gulf that separates some readers, characters and authors, we tend to be more understanding and accepting of ‘difference’ in the process of reading than we would be in real life:

My students [back in Iran] might have been opposed to (with some justification) or ignorant of America’s policies, but they celebrated its music, its films and its literature. It seems right to me that the fiction of one country should kindle one’s understanding of another – not the ‘other’ captured and domesticated by certain academic theorists and guardians of political correctness but that living breathing other that Atticus alludes to in To Kill a Mockingbird when he says, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’

How, then, does fiction help us “climb inside and walk around” in another’s skin, and so what if we do? Nafisi goes on to explain:

Difference is always celebrated in literature, but the cult of difference can become dangerous when it is not accompanied by that shock of recognition and the realisation of how alike we are – that, despite our differences, our hearts beat to the same rhythms and we are all capable of the best and the worst. It is this realisation of our shared humanity that makes it possible for people to make their home in another country.

(p.22, Penguin edition)


Azar Nafisi

For Nafisi and her Iranian students, making a home in another country is a literal, geographical commitment; the result is immigration and its implication exile, albeit a kind that is self-imposed and aspirational.

But for me or any general reader of fiction, this ‘new home’ can be willed into existence with every new novel I pick up, as the imagined corners of a Pennsylvanian meadow, a Manhattan townhouse or a random suburban motorway fall snugly into place, inundating my mind’s space to the point where I realise my thoughts have ceased to be mine, but instead happily hijacked by lives I can never live in a lifetime.

All this, with the flip of a page.

Like Berger (or rather, my understanding of Berger), Nafisi sees “the realisation of our shared humanity” as the ultimate equaliser of all differences, whether it be gendered, ethnic, cultural or moral. Recognising this takes away our tendency to judge, even if for the short while of us losing ourselves in a story. Although I suppose there’s also the perverse pleasure in being privy to a mind so radically different from our own; it always surprises me how much I have to grimace through the books I eventually end up loving.


One last question, to which there can only be one answer

In fact, the one question I keep going back to with these less-than-pleasant characters is this:

‘How could such flawed humans be capable of so much feeling/loving/thinking?’

The answer, it turns out, requires only a slight change in typography:

Because they are flawed humans.

Or in syntax:

Because they are humans before their flaws.

And that, at the end of the day, is the only thing which can redeem us all.


[Photo credits: TIME, livelovedraw, hellogiggles, jhu.edu, bookstellyouwhy] 


12 thoughts on “Falling in love with dead white men

  1. Hello, Jen,

    I am a solid supported of your position on fiction, and I would like to cite your words at the beginning of this blog:

    “Long story short, your life becomes all the richer for having read fiction, for you having ‘lived’ multiple lives, ‘inhabited’ multiple landscapes, and ‘stepped into’ multiple pairs of shoes.”

    Historians, biographers and especially autobiographers seldom reveal a subject in all his/her humanity. As authors they tend to write with a bias, usually favorable; and the passions and emotions that drive us all are usually omitted.

    I believe that fiction writers stand alone in their capacity as revealers of human beings as we really are. They take their deepest desires, fears, loathings, drives and secrets and flesh them out in the characters they create.

    To my knowledge it was Flaubert who broke the mold by writing Madame Bovary, in which the characters he created were all flawed in one way or another. He opened the door and human nature rushed in. We fiction readers have been the beneficiaries ever since.

    Thanks for posting, Rich


  2. Pingback: A Great Perspective on Fiction by classicjenisms – litmathtest

  3. Some of my favourite writers are women from the UK, USA, Europe and Canada. Women who get into the emotional life of their time, culture and place. In their time, they were of the few voices of women that made it onto the pop list. Some used male pseudonyms (ie George Sands) so they could. I appreciate most of all that they didn’t try to butch it up to get published. So they do exist. If you want some recommended reading, I’d be happy to share names with you 😉 Other than the above places mentioned, all I’ve seen are female poets. So you’re one-up on me there. I enjoyed reading your piece. 🙂


    • Would love to hear your recommendations! My upcoming post will be about female novelists from very different backgrounds, so stay tuned! Thanks for reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Here’s some to begin your journey. The male names are pseudonyms for female writers. >George Eliot, George Sands, The Bronte Sisters, Jane Austen, Harper Lee, Aphra Behn, Sylvia Plath, VC Andrews, Harriett Beecher Stowe, Kathy Gear (writes with her husband also Wm Michael Gear)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a very well written, thoughtful post. As an ethnic minority who’s also read much American, Russian, and English lit, I too shied away from ethnic lit. It’s how were conditioned. Pride and Prejudice is pit on a pedestal, but Things Fall Apart, or Siddhartha feel like a postmedial side show. I think school systems have to incorporate more ethnic authors, and celebrate their works as much as Shakespeare’s. Kids learn to love stories in school. They learn who is important in society and who is not.


  5. Dear Jen,

    Thank you for this post. This is very well-written and thoughtful. You’ve articulated what many of us feel but have never thought of putting it into words. I’m an Indonesian and I grew up reading and loving books by DMWs, but I’ve just recently got into reading ethnic lit. It’s an eye-opening and humbling experience that makes me realise how limited my world previously was. I’m currently challenging myself to read books from around the world, told by authors and protagonists who come from a more diverse background, so I read this post at the right time. Thank you for inspiring me to commit myself even more to reading ethnic lit!


    • Thank you so much for your kind comment, Karin! I’m glad that you’ve started foraying into ethnic lit – it’s a wonderful, often untapped, reserve of creative inspiration. Pop by again soon 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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