Written by Cynthia Zhang, Diversity Team Member
For those who weren’t yet aware, there are some very distinct assumptions that come with liking David Foster Wallace: mainly, that you’re white, that you’re (cishet) male, and that you’re a hipster. Which, as stereotypes go, is probably not too terrible and, given my experiences with people who have actually read Infinite Jest, is probably fairly accurate, closer to the truth and less sharp than the majority of stereotypes about non-white and non-male people. Only well, then there’s me and the fact that I’m not white or male. A bit of a hipster I might grant you, but the point remains: when it comes to David Foster Wallace multiple choice, I am generally none of the above. Which, when I read Infinite Jest in high school, didn’t really bother me—probably because I was seventeen and more concerned with SAT subject tests than what was going on in the literary world—but which now, in my twenties and having tentatively devoted my future scholarship to contemporary literature, irks me quite a bit, actually.
Two general parts to this ire, I think. The first is that it’s just such a dumb stereotype—not the fact that a bunch of twenty-sometimes would view a thousand-page book as another hurdle in some eternal game of one-upmanship; that I can believe perfectly well. Dumb, instead, in the sense that the thousand-page book happens to be by David Foster Wallace, whose work goes in the exact opposite direction of smug lit bro elitism. I mean, how crazy is it that someone would read essays like “This is Water” and immediately respond by feeling superior to all the plebs who haven’t read DFW yet? Not that I don’t believe it can be done—believe me, I can—but because that is just terrible reading comprehension right there. If you come out of reading David Foster Wallace with a sense of cultural superiority, then you have fundamentally Missed the Point.
But for all the paradoxes of its existence, the white male hipster stereotype persists, and it is consequently a stereotype that has shaded my perceptions of myself as a fan. No one has told me so outright, but the implication I’ve always gotten from the white male hipster writer is that DFW is a white male writer—and that I, as a non-white, non-male person, am somehow doing something wrong by writing my thesis on Infinite Jest instead of The Joy Luck Club (which I greatly enjoyed, by the way, but which still did not have the impact on my teenage self as Infinite Jest did). And really, I find that a rather limiting way of thinking about identity. Yes, representation is important, and yes, we live in a world of male white hegemony, but that does not mean that writers not of my ethnicity or race cannot speak to me; certain relatives might disagree, but I don’t think I’m being particularly unpatriotic by preferring Haruki Murakami to Mo Yan. To a western audience, the difference in identity between these writers is minute—they’re from East Asia, aren’t they?—but in China, where World War II is still occasionally referred to as the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, the idiom shifts. Second uncles ask me if I have Chinese friends at school, and are visibly relieved when I say I do, as though that national bond alone confers a deeper connection than anything I could share with my American friends. It’s a nationalistic, depressingly prescriptive view of identity: because you are this, you must do or like this.
For me, though, identity has never been a box, some single label to pin you resolutely in place. Instead, it has always been more like a series of overlapping circles I navigate each day. As an aspiring female Asian writer and academic, I navigate female spaces, I navigate Asian spaces, and I navigate literary spaces. If the stars align correctly, all these categories overlap; more often, I’m stuck explaining my decision to major in English to my Asian relatives or expounding on Sylvia Plath to my female friends in STEM.
And that’s okay; I don’t expect anyone to speak to all my experiences because that is what I would like to do myself, thank you very much. I’ve made my peace with being an eclectic reader, and I’ve made my peace with the fact that there are certain writers who can speak to facets of my personality better than other writers. Gender is not a binary, and thus neither are my literary tastes; I can like David Foster Wallace and Haruki Murakami and Amy Tan and Sylvia Plath because they all speak to different aspects of myself because yes, Virginia, it is possible to be more than the sum of your parts. I’m not white or male or even completely cishet, but those aren’t the only elements of who I am. The most visible attributes, perhaps, and some of the most politicized, but not the only ones and certainly not enough to dictate what I do or like. I might not look like a David Foster Wallace fan, but then again, there are many things people have told me I should or shouldn’t be. That used to bother me when I was younger, but I’m learning not to listen—though looking at my history, all the contradictory pieces of who I am and what I wish to be, I suppose I never really did.