Reviewed by Ronnie K. Stephens
This year is defined by superlative phrases that have quickly morphed into cliches. From one of the most bitter election cycles to nation-wide protests to a pandemic that shut down the country, 2020 has set itself apart as one of the most stressful and grief-addled years in decades. I often found it difficult to get through student essays, let alone a book. The truth is, I read fewer books this year than any year of my adulthood. But then a poet recommended Of Color, by Jaswinder Bolina, on social media.
Of Color is a brief collection of essays with an audiobook version just over four hours long. I had a fairly long drive the day after I came across the recommendation and queued up the audiobook. By the time I got home that evening, Bolina’s book was officially the first I had finished since the initial shutdowns in March. This may seem strange, as the book is a collection of essays that take a hard and often painful look at race relations in America, but Bolina narrated the audiobook version himself and his tenderness pulled me forward again and again.
Bolina is most known for his poetry, having published several award-winning collections and established himself as a strong lyricist. That lyricism comes through in these essays. As might be expected from a debut collection of essays from a poet, the approach is generally self-reflective as Bolina attempts to unpack his own intersectional identity via narrative anecdotes and introspection.
In the opening essay, “Empathy for the Devil,” Bolina notes what will be a common occurrence in his life: others misidentifying or conflating his ethnicity based on his brown skin. As he speaks with this man two days after 9/11, the author takes note of the man’s word choices.
“When [the man] says, ‘It’s amazing what they did,’ they means the attackers. Both sides of the conflict are they. Neither is we…and when he says they ‘treated us like dogs,’ us means the Indian conflated with the Pakistani, the Pakistani mistaken for the Afghani, the Afghani called an Arab, the Arab undistinguished from the Persian and the Turk, the Shia and the Sunni and the Sikh all taken for one bearded and turbaned body.”
I hesitate to quote such a long passage, but this excerpt defines what will follow in subsequent essays, and this on just the second page of the book. Bolina’s use of parallelism here is ingenious. He is able to draw connections between numerous communities, all of them targeted and violently Othered in the wake of the attacks. The economy of language is masterful, the prose sonorous and compelling.
In “Writing Like a White Guy,” perhaps the most well-known of the essays in the collection, Bolina unpacks the pressure that non-white authors often feel to minimize difference in their writing. “The thing I least believe about race in America is that we can disregard it. I’m nowhere close to alone in this, and yet the person I encounter far more often than the racist is the one who believes race isn’t an active factor in her thinking,” he argues. These words capture one of the more pervasive and dangerous voices in conversations on race, the colorblind “ally” who is not overtly racist but minimizes the impact of race on various power dynamics in America.
“The Writing Class” offers a poignant analysis of elitism and careerism in American poetry, calling for authors and publishers alike to increase representation and expand our definitions of what it means to be American. “American, Indian” explores the complicated history of Indian immigrants, explaining that “When you live in a place that doesn’t recognize differences between you and anyone who looks vaguely like you, you come to accept, even welcome, certain conflations. Partition isn’t much remembered.” Here, again, Bolina illustrates the empathy and understanding that permeates the collection.
Of Color would be an excellent collection any year, but it feels particularly necessary in 2020. Educators will find the essays perfect for the classroom. Scholars will draw from Bolina’s insight in their own work on race and identity construction. But what sets Of Color apart, for me, is that these essays are just as vital to the common reader. They humanize conversations about race and exemplify how to navigate these conversations without minimizing difference. As we move into 2021 anxious and daring to hope, Bolina gifts readers with a collection that will, hopefully, push us ever closer to unity and shared understanding.
Jaswinder Bolina is an award-winning poet and essayist. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Miami.