Meaningful Misses, Identity Messes: Andrew Zimmerman, Amelie Wen Zhao, and another appreciative nod to Azealia Banks
Last summer, during an interview at the Minnesota State Fair, professional chef and TV personality Andrew Zimmerman, known for showcasing and promoting exotic foods from around the world, discussed how he’d like to introduce Midwestern diners to “authentic” Chinese food. A Minnesota native and local hero, he wanted to “save the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horseshit restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest.”1
In sum: Zimmerman doesn’t much care for American Chinese food, in particular P.F. Chang’s, and while that’s not so terribly novel an opinion—P.F. Chang’s is the Olive Garden of Eastern cuisine and as recently as a few years ago you could safely say as much without a trigger warning preamble or a state-sanctioned safe space properly appointed with a suitable number of comfort animals—today your personal views, whether on food, politics, art, etc., is occasion for outrage and consternation.
Unsurprisingly, then, Zimmerman had to apologize, and in an interview with The Washington Post he said that “I let myself get carried away and have too much fun as opposed to realizing that I was working.”1 Because god forbid we should live in a society in which anyone, much less a television chef, should have the temerity to either have fun or share his opinion, even if it’s an opinion on something as heretofore benign as Chinese food.
Of course, the most egregious aspect of Zimmerman’s comments was the fact that he is, as The Washington Post is keen to note, “a 57-year-old white man from New York, [who] set himself up as the savior of Chinese food in the Midwest.”1 At issue here is that a middle-aged white man should not have, or at least should not share, an opinion on a topic that “belongs” to a marginalized ethnic group different from his own. White men, in other words, should only express opinions on white men issues, like which Nickelback song is the best or which season of Frasier is the funniest.
That is, at least, the prevailing wisdom of the current zeitgeist, and while no one rightfully gives a shit about those white guy issues (except Canada, they’re real defensive about Nickelback, less so about Avril Lavigne), the belief that white guy opinions should be limited only to white guy issues is just as flawed as the belief that any member of any population should have opinions limited only to that respective group.
Consider the case of Amelie Wen Zhao, a young adult writer who sold the rights to her first book, Blood Heir, for a reported high six-figure sum. Excusing the fact that young adult literature is typically characterized by all the literary nuance of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, it should be of concern to everyone that before her book could be published, Zhao was pilloried largely because she “indulged in problematic world-building by putting a slave auction scene in her book — in which a black character was ignominiously killed off.”2 The YA literary community controversy (yes, there is such a thing) was so fierce that Zhao ultimately cancelled her book’s publication.
That’s right: In response to a controversy fueled by a passage in which she depicted a fictional slave auction in a fantasy manuscript, Zhao cancelled the entire publication of her book.
For any readers who may at this point be confused, as I was myself, allow me to explain that the controversy arose from the new social justice warrior arm of the “woke” Millennial army’s belief that a representation of racism is equivalent to racism itself. Unless you, as a writer/creator, are a member of the marginalized ethnic group being depicted, you cannot represent that marginalized ethnic group in your art.
In this case because Zhao is Asian and had depicted a slave auction in her manuscript, it was racist of her to write it; if a black writer had depicted the same slave auction, it would be acceptable. It’s unclear if a non-black reader reading that black writer’s depiction would constitute an act of racism, but we’ll let the social justice warriors sort that one out when they get there. Fingers crossed that they’re not Deconstructionists or things could get ugly …
If this all still doesn’t make sense to you, it may be a sign that you understand a fundamental feature of both language and art: a representation is not the thing itself, and the subject position of either the author or the reader neither constitutes nor has any bearing upon the text’s meaning. Without delving into an overlong treatise on the issue that is sure to bore readers more than this blog already has, the point is that Zhao’s depiction of racism does not make it equivalent to racism. Rather, it is a depiction intended to convey a certain meaning within a certain context, and whether that meaning is racist in intent is independent of the act of representation itself: when D.W. Griffith depicts a slave auction in Birth of a Nation, it has a racist meaning; when Quentin Tarantino depicts slave auctionees in Django Unchained, it has an anti-racist meaning.
Likewise, the identity of the author, in this case the author’s race, has no impact on that meaning. A white author could compose either a racist or anti-racist text, just as Griffith and Tarantino, both white, crafted similar representations with two diametrically opposed meanings. This is because the act of representation manifests meaning in the art, and because expression may carry any meaning, in particular within the shared code of language, there are no exclusive meanings inherent to any particular subject position. A post-op transexual Filipino lesbian could write just as effective and anti-racist a slave auction narrative as Steve McQueen, Toni Morrison, Quentin Tarantino, or Amelie Wen Zhao. To believe otherwise is to divest the text of a representational act imbued with meaning, becoming instead the fossilized trace of its authorial subject. The artist in such a case would not have created an expressive work of art bearing the meaning of an authorial intent but only a trace of themselves, like a footprint in a wet riverbed, more something for a paleoanthropologist to unearth and reconstruct a picture of the person who left it than a message created by an artist for an audience to decipher.
Locating meaning in the subject position of the author and not the text, as the reaction to Zhao’s slave auction scene demonstrates, means that a novel like The Kindly Ones, which depicts the Holocaust in vivid detail, must therefore be anti-Semitic (it isn’t) in the same way that American Psycho, because it depicts misogyny, must therefore be an endorsement of it (it doesn’t).
I get that YA readers may be lacking in the sophistication to appreciate literary nuance, but that doesn’t mean that YA authors should themselves be lacking that sophistication. YA authors in this moment, including Zhao herself, should rather insist that textual meaning exists independent of authorial identity and that artistic depiction is not equivalent to an endorsement. Sort of like how Steven Spielberg wasn’t advocating the wholesale slaughter of prepubescent children at the hands of overly aggressive Selachimorpha in Jaws.
For Zhao to withdraw publication of her book over this controversy makes her not the victim of this misunderstanding but a willing participant in it. Indeed, her apology reinforces the fallacy upon which the controversy is predicated when she says, “The narrative and history of slavery in the United States is not something I can, would, or intended to write,” implying that she wouldn’t write it not because it doesn’t interest her but because her Asianness somehow prevents her.2
The fallacy here lies not in the putative act of an Asian woman writing a narrative history of slavery in the United States, the fallacy lies in believing that Zhao’s Asian womanness somehow precludes her from doing so. And while Zimmerman’s apology didn’t go so far as to suggest that he had no right to comment on Asian cuisine, his apology in response to an outcry that was in part predicated on his whiteness as an exclusionary condition could not help but reinforce and validate that same fallacy.
To return to a favorite BannedCast topic, maybe that’s why Azealia Banks remains so goddamn refreshing. Regardless what you think of her and her endless parade of controversies, she at least refuses to be pulled down a path of endlessly apologizing for the things that upset us. Okay, the things that upset some of us. To be fair, I’m sure that most people are hardly aware of Banks’s most recent controversies—she’s not exactly the center of media attention these days—but that’s also kind of the point. Even when she did occupy a larger celebrity spotlight, she respected us all enough to presume that we were adults and not children in need of coddling. Because if you don’t like or agree with something she does, including but not limited to her voicing (ironic) support for Donald Trump at Coachella or sacrificing chickens in a closet of her Brooklyn apartment, that’s sort of your own goddamn problem and as an adult you should be able to deal with it. Or, better, ignore it because it probably doesn’t really affect your life.
The endless media apology tours in response to shared opinions or comments made either yesterday or years ago and the self-cancelling of young adult manuscripts that upset some for reasons predicated on a misunderstanding of artistic representation are symptomatic of an increasingly infantilized culture in which life is expected to conform to the cookie-cutter simplicity of a young adult novel or comic book superhero story. It reflects a reduction to concrete operational thinking, unable to account for the nature of representational non-present referents while mired in a fallacious conception of “identity” and an inability to accept opinions that may differ from our own.
The refusal to apologize for words, opinions, and artistic acts, then, is not a flagrant disregard for your perceived injury—it’s rather an insistence that your injury is your own fault, and like the parent who refuses to blame the teacher for their child’s F on the exam, the refusal to apologize for an opinion or work of art insists that we all, as adults, internalize that perceived offense and accept a world in which people are complex, nonconformist creatures filled with divergent views and opinions that, when they run contrary to our own, do not constitute an assault.
We are, after all, talking about words, opinions, and artistic acts—this is not Patrick Bateman’s knife carving an indecipherable text into our backs. Rather, we inhabit a cold and indifferent universe filled with strange and complex creatures, and the best way to appreciate and understand them has and always will be through the world of representational art, and any insistence on the dissolution of that representational world and an insistence upon the primacy of the subject position over the content of the expression is nothing more than our collective culture’s childlike inability to understand, appreciate, and read non-present referents.
1. Carmen, Tim. “In the Twin Cities, Asian Chefs Feel the Sting of Andrew Zimmerman’s Insults. They Say His Apology Isn’t Enough,” The Washington Post. December 26, 2018.
2. Rosenfield, Kat. “The Latest YA Twitter Pile On Forces a Rising Start to Self-Cancel,” Vulture. January 31, 2019.