The term ‘writer’s grievance’

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Here is a term coined by Minna Salami describing the weariness or frustration in noticing that other writers—because of their dominant race or gender—can adopt a particular tone that you could never take or can get away with less effort, less serious attention, or less critical analysis on issues that are central to you.

This grappling [with the impact of Europatriarchal dominance] has not led to writer’s block but to an equivalent sentiment that I refer to as writer’s grievance. Writer’s grievance is when you become starkly aware of the constant, howling objection in your words. It is when you wish that you could write about trivialities in the way that white male writers can. Or that you could be cool and impartial in writing about gender, as black male writers are. One cannot even single-mindedly write about a classic feminist issue such as the gender pay gap, as white feminists do, without that other issue spilling its Rs and As and Cs and Es onto the pages.

—Minna Salami, in her introduction to Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone

Insofar as black women, in Salami’s analysis, never quite feel that they have the space, permission, freedom, or opportunity to view the world purely from their own point of view without the awareness of how white people and/or men perceive them, this “writer’s grievance” resembles what W. E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” Their work tends to reflect how other people view them or constrain them. And it takes its personal toll. Salami says that “never placing myself (however constructed that self is) at the center of my worldview is the most harmful way for a black woman to live. I remain the ‘other’ even to myself.”

The desire for the freedom to make art and philosophy about “trivialities” is not itself trivial. There is a difference, after all, between being trivial and having the freedom to choose to be trivial. It is a reflection of the options that society makes available. People of dominant identities often criticize those of marginalized identities for “making the personal into the political” or “playing identity politics.” But do the people of marginalized identities have the full freedom to do otherwise, given how they must gain knowledge and make their way in the world?

Bertrand Russell, an early-20th-century white British philosopher, wrote this sentence 90 years ago which has been widely quoted. In unpacking it a bit, it sheds some light on the topic.

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

—Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930), Chapter 5

Russell seems to mean, first of all, that it is healthy and necessary to be able to step outside one’s work now and then, if only for a necessary respite to be able to return to the work with a refreshed perspective. Perhaps he also means that we must be humble and realistic about our eventual unimportance as individuals within history. But there is an additional meaning embedded here which he probably did not intend: Much of white men’s writing is unimportant because they have the luxury of writing that way. The way they gain knowledge is not, as it is for so many other people, biased by survival mechanisms due to their race and gender; instead it is biased by the way they benefit from and participate in upholding Europatriarchal dominance. And if a white man enjoys and promotes an existing system in which he is treated as nobility, then, regarding that system, his work is not revolutionary or transformative and, in that sense, it cannot be terribly important. If he thinks that it is, he is starting to suffer from a kind of delusion that is a product of the Europatriarchy itself.

As Salami put it:

Men are just as enslaved by the social system—one that they hesitate to criticize because it amplifies an illusion about who they are. In fact, men are troubled with frustrated desires; they are caught up in the competitiveness of the rat race; they are sexually needy; they suffer from suicidal inclinations in disturbing numbers; and they possess an insatiable urge for power.

—Minna Salami, in her introduction to Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone

Thus, maybe—to alter and repurpose Russell’s observation—when certain thinkers and artists feel that they are approaching a nervous breakdown, they should reconsider whether their work is designed to describe or achieve anything sufficiently important. Those who are always trying to achieve something important already know who they are; they more likely have the “writer’s grievance” than the type of stressful self-doubt to which Russell refers.

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