Race and Culture Accessibility and the "Explanatory Comma"

Writing as a racial or cultural minority

I’m late to this, but I just listened to NPR’s Code Switch episode on the explanatory comma. It relates to SO many conversations I’ve had recently about writing from the perspective of a racial or cultural minority. And I’m running low on questions, only two left in the queue — send me more! — so I thought I’d do a quick column on this.

The “explanatory comma” — to give it its own meta explanatory comma, ha — is the term they’re using to reference the break a person takes to tack on an explanation for the audience of what a term means, or who a named person is, etc. And, specifically in this context, they’re talking about when people feel the need to do this in situations where a cultural reference is a touchstone for a racial minority but much less well-known to, say, most white people.

Which in fiction, can be SO CRINGY. For example, if I have a character say something like:

My favorite food in the world is jiaozi, which is the Mandarin word for dumplings.

It is just completely off. Nobody thinks like that. Nobody explains words they use regularly in their heads. Not to mention “jiaozi” brings to mind so much more than dumplings, and a real explanatory comma would be something more like:

My favorite food in the world is jiaozi, boiled pockets of deliciousness and home and I mean saying “jiaozi” is like when white Americans talk about “bacon” in that half-obsessed half-worshipping all-greedy GOBBLE THEM NOW tone oh and dumpling-making parties where the aunties would try to teach us all and theirs were always perfect and mine were always lopsided or busted out at the seams and there’s putting a coin inside for the New Year and also jiaozi-only restaurants where we would go and order enormous plates of them and eat like a hundred with vinegar until we were bursting and fight over them with our chopsticks and oh crap now I have to explain what aunties are because not every culture has aunties and also what the New Year means because people were probably imagining the wrong thing there too and wtfffff

Anyway, the hosts of the podcast emphasize that it’s the imbalance that can be so frustrating, because of the saturation of white-focused culture. It’s not something people in the majority usually have to even think about with their pop culture references — or ponder whether to do it, or endure listening to / reading all those explanatory asides in other people’s media. Also, the podcast points out that choosing to include an explanatory comma about something that’s day-to-day for the speaker can make things more broadly accessible, but can also make people who already knew the reference feel that the given media is “not for them” as much, even if they share that culture.

I’ve had parallels of this conversation with many other writers of color, but I think it’s an incredibly important sort of thing for all writers to think about, as active members of the industry, allies, crit partners, and readers as well as writers of our own work. Who are we assuming a piece’s audience is? Why are we choosing to explain the things we use the explanatory comma for? What am I saying if I don’t use an explanatory comma for Snow White but I do for the Monkey King?

On a broader level, where are we landing on making the text “accessible” to out-group people — versus saying, you know what, readers are going to go along with this and do whatever Googling they need to, but I’m not going to dilute my cultural texture with extraneous explanations?

Tied up in this is that part of what we want from representation is, sometimes, to educate — but the other side of that coin is that educating people is exhausting, and we don’t want to be called on to be racial ambassadors every minute, which we often are in life outside of writing anyway. And one other thing the podcast hosts mentioned, that the “explanatory comma” explanation is often, by necessity, short, and can therefore end up diluted or incomplete (as in my above example).

So what to do?

Here are the places I’ve landed, personally, when it comes to fiction:

  1. There’s no actual answer to this. There’s no one perfect way minority authors can write that will simultaneously solve all these questions.

  2. It is absolutely fine for minority authors to land all different places on whether they choose to be more broadly accessible or decide they’re going to expect people to get it. Or for the same writer to approach different pieces different ways. These are all entirely valid ways to write.

  3. On a craft level, in fiction I tend to avoid an “explanatory comma” in its rawest form (the definitional form, like, “Journey to the West, COMMA, an extremely famous classical Chinese novel that spawned a thousand adaptations and cultural references!”). I do it sometimes, but most of the time, it’s clunky and terrible. If I want to explain, I’m more likely to drop in contextual clues in surrounding sentences so out-of-the-know readers can pick up the gist.

  4. I’ve decided I’m not only okay with a piece working on multiple levels for different readers, but a lot of times I strive for that. I have absolutely written pieces where people who related to the context had a completely different reading experience. One short story (in the Shades Within Us anthology), people who related thought it was a hopeful story whereas people who didn’t read it as a tragedy!

    I’m reminded of looking at Crazy Rich Asians reviews with an Asian friend, and how staggering the difference was between the Asian reviewers and the non-Asian reviewers in what they mentioned about the movie and what they found important. Sometimes it’s frustrating to put work out into the world and know that’s going to happen, but sometimes it’s what I’m explicitly going for. And sometimes it just seems the easiest way to navigate things, as much as I sometimes feel like I’m trying to write two different stories that both have to makes sense.

  5. It’s okay for this to feel frustrating and unfair, because it is. To be honest, I see it as one of those invisible barriers that people who come from minority cultures have to face when trying to build a writing career. That this is something we end up having to spend time on and think about and often expend very personal emotional energy on.

I want to note that of course, all writers think about similar craft questions — how much exposition? to explain or not to explain? — when it comes to all sorts of less weighty topics, such as fantasy worldbuilding, or a subject the character is an expert in but the reader likely isn’t, or technobabble science passages. But although there’s a little bit of craft overlap, there are stark differences in those examples when it comes to global context, societal baggage, and how the text will interact with the world.

Cultural accessibility is an extremely fraught topic, and I know very few minority writers who don’t have strong emotions or frustrations about it. If you’re not a minority writer, I hope this gives a very small glimpse of one of the reasons why!