Not the Worst Audience
Before I saw Turning Red, I heard about it. More accurately, I read about it, or I read about the movie refracted through another review which finished by definitively declaring that “the audience is relatively small, and I’m not part of it.”
When the etymology of the word audience is traced, it starts first with “au-,” perception, trickling into “audire,” hearing or listening, to become the Old French “audience,” “the act or state of hearing, action or condition of listening.” For the critic, then, to be “not part” of the audience means the condition and action of listening, or watching, or reading, had not been met. Means that the critic believes the condition for his listening to be whiteness, means that the critic has chosen not to do the work of listening.
One response to the critic’s statement, and every other version of “I’m just not your (best) audience” is yes.
Yes. Yes, this is not for you. Don’t perceive me, we say, because for people of color, perception is about being read and often quickly or badly and often as a means toward surveillance.
For this critic or for anyone to be in a position to call themself not-the-best audience, though, does not prevent them from encountering– and believing they have perceived– the work. To some extent, and certainly if the goal is to reach institutional, social, and economic success as an artist, the artist does not always have control over who can and will come across their work, even if the artist has an idea of who the work is “for.”
So maybe the better answer is that they are right, they are not the best audience. Not because they are not the right people, but because they have decided not to listen.
As writers, we do not always have control over who might perceive our work, but we can set certain (terms and) conditions for reading and thus our audience. I began to learn how to articulate this in a workshop with Marwa Helal, whose teaching and work consistently reminds me of the different types of attention the same poem can demand. Helal’s poem “poem to be read from right to left,” is written in the form of the Arabic, which she invented. She notes:
The Arabic is a form that includes an Arabic letter with an Arabic footnote, and an Arabic numeral, preferably written right to left as the Arabic language is, and vehemently rejects you if you try to read it left to right. To vehemently reject, in this case, means to transfer the feeling of every time the poet has heard an English as Only Language speaker patronizingly utter in some variation the following phrase: “Oh, [so-and-so] is English as a Second Language…” As if it was a kind of weakness, nah.
As an English as Only(ish) Language speaker and a non-Arabic speaker, I could say that the poem was not written for me, that I am not-the-best audience for this poem, but that would be a not-the-best reading of Helal’s work. Rather, her poem anticipates the English as Only Language speaker’s misreading of the poem and “vehemently rejects” it and them—but only if they read it wrong, if they refuse her titular instructions. Embedded in Helal’s form is the knowledge that the poem has certain conditions for how it can and should be read. These conditions make it somewhat challenging, yes, sometimes even impossible for an English as Only Language speaker to read, but never pointless.
I have never been the best reader of anyone’s work in my submissions queue. I know this.
I know this because I don’t expect my best readers to be those who read for literary journals or presses or agencies, whose reading underlies a decision made about my work. My best readers are most often my beloveds and my friends, other migrant, adoptee and/or queer Asian writers, people who know me or understand something about my context.
I am glad, then, that I know my work as a reader for a journal is not to be the best reader of the work but to be an attentive, curious, and thoughtful one. To be willing and even eager to have my understanding of language challenged.
As I read “poem to be read from right to left,” a poem I have read dozens of times, my mind still defaults to reading from left to right. Just as Helal delineates, I am rejected from the poem, usually multiple times, until I am able to read it from start to finish.
I find the experience of rejection from this poem resonates with experiences I have reading for a submissions queue. When my mind wanders while reading, the poem rejects me, and I have to return to it with attentiveness and care for the poem and the directives it is pointing me to, most of which are less explicit than Marwa’s instructions.
In Noah Baldino’s thoughtful post, they point out that as readers, we must act as “good guests in other people’s poems,” not imposing our expectations for our own poetry onto another. I have noticed a second impulse of readers of work by people of color, who often impose their expectations of a specific racial or ethnic group onto the poems.
Helal writes in “poem for brad who wants me to write about the pyramids:”
scenes of policemen and
has] heard the pyramids
see more egypt in my
poets will interject / they
that assumes most people
thought brad was white but
so the class lets him get
understand that what brad
camels and more of his
[he does] not like my
sunflower seeds / says [he
are very interesting wants to
writing / / / / / / this is where the
will say show, don’t tell / but
can see and i bet most of you
brad is not but brad is hot
away with being dull but i
means is he wants to see more
own ideas of egypt in my
Helal literally writes this poem for “brad,” an audience who does not engage with her work in his reading as much as impose his own expectations of Egypt and the Egyptian writer onto her work. At the same time, Helal recognizes that her audience extends beyond Brad, naming and subverting our expectations for the inhabitants of her poem, too. In doing so, she reminds “most people” that even as we distance ourselves from the Brads of the world, we, too, are often not-the-best readers, that we carry our own instincts and assumptions as audiences. She reminds us that to be not-the-worst reader is to allow our assumptions to be corrected and disoriented, to remember that we cannot always see, but we can listen, we can read.
Returning to the thoughtful specificity of Turning Red, I wonder if the not-the-best critic failed to consider himself a part of its audience because the movie rejected him. It refused to be legible to him: either through whiteness, or through his own conceptions of Chineseness.
In “poem for brad…,” Helal’s “scenes of policemen and sunflower seeds” are incomprehensible to Brad as Egypt, which he associates less with people (and their experiences of violence and beauty) than with cultural stereotypes and simplifications: pyramids and camels.
Similarly, Turning Red is inconceivable to the critic as not only an experience, but something of interest, because it chooses to foreground the experience of a Chinese Canadian girl and her community rather than rendering China as a site of mythology or futurism. The critic’s is a tired kind of racism, one which picks and chooses select aspects of a “culture” to recognize and appropriate, figuratively and literally erasing and re-placing people of color.
The word legible comes from the Latin word legere, meaning to gather, choose, pick, read, a word that reminds me that while reading is about perception, it is also about deliberation. I want to turn away from the notion of reading/understanding writing and art as one of picking and choosing to one in which reading can be a deliberate kind of gathering—the sort of party you are invited to knowing that if you move without respect, you can be rejected. You can be asked not to return.
There’s a joke everyone knows: what’s black and white and read all over? The newspaper, of course.
Like every tired joke, there’s a derivation: A panda on its period, a Communist panda, the panda I ran over while I was in China.
And then the copy of the copy: what’s black and white and dead all over?
I could say the difference is in perception: whether you see or hear. I could say the difference is in deliberation: what you choose to read, what allows itself to be read.
Chae(lee) Dalton is a wintertime writer and summertime ice cream maker. They are the author of the poetry chapbook Mother Tongue (Gold Line Press 2021), and their work appears in The Offing, Pinwheel, Penn Review, and elsewhere. A queer Korean adoptee, Dalton currently lives in New York, where they teach kids science and make stuff with their friends.