I know how beloved she is as a writer, but I had to call her out.
I know how beloved she is as a writer, but I had to call her out.
It seems to have taken 35 years for someone who has never read a Deborah Levy novel to call out Deborah Levy. In that time, Levy has risen to international renown with her Booker nominated works and the racism of her short story ‘Proletarian Zen’ has somehow managed to go unnoticed. I would suggest that this short story has, for the most part, been given the blind eye by publishers, editors, reviewers, and readers alike. It is fine time we had a closer look at why.
Published first by PEN International and Quartet Books in 1985 and soon after by Ambit Magazine in 1986, it is clear that the short work was a foundation stone in Levy’s career. In 1989, Viking published Ophelia and the Great Idea, a collection of Levy’s short stories which included ‘Proletarian Zen’. The New York Times seem not to have been the biggest fans of the collection: “Ms. Levy’s imagination, and often her prose, trail far behind her formal inventiveness”.
Yet instead of calling out ’Proletarian Zen’, it was merely deemed “a kind of extended and amusing dialect joke”. Today, the short story is never mentioned in Levy’s biography profiles across the likes of Penguin and The Guardian. ‘Proletarian Zen’ was republished in 2019 as part of Ambit’s 60th anniversary issue 237.
Why Ambit thought it appropriate to republish a work that unabashedly infantalises and fetishises the Asian woman is a matter that needs confronting. The mockery of stereotyped East and South East Asian (ESEA) manners of speech is nothing new. Anti-Asian hatred and discrimination is nothing new. A marginalised group raising an alarm and being silenced by those in power— is nothing new.
Photo of Deborah Levy
The normalisation of that hatred and discrimination means that ESEA continue to be directly harmed by a narrative that enables perpetrators to be spared of consequences. The case of Levy’s ‘Proletarian Zen’ is yet another piercing example of how impenetrable and tightly wound industries continue to be in protecting those in power and their heroes rather than making vulnerable marginalised groups feel safe.
Here’s what unfolded in the space of just three days.
On Saturday April 24th, I stumbled on ‘Proletarian Zen’ in my own copy of Ambit 237. I posted a photo of its opening lines on my Instagram story because something about its language felt undeniably off. My DMs immediately flooded with the guttural responses of readers hurt and disgusted. Unsurprisingly, most were ESEA. Many writers who have worked in and between industry were deeply disturbed but not surprised that something like this could make it through several hands without so much as a pause for concern.
A few of us took to Twitter, sharing my Instagram story and tagging Ambit’s account. There, we were joined by some well established literary figures, readers, and writers. On Sunday, Ambit “acknowledge[d] the offence this story, first published in 1986, can cause” and informed us of “an urgent editorial meeting to discuss this” (tweet now deleted).
A series of tweets in acknowledgement and apology came from Ambit on Monday, including a short apology from Levy in two tweets via Ambit’s account. On Tuesday, a photograph of a statement written by Ambit’s editor-in-chief Briony Bax was posted on Twitter. Ambit has since removed the short story from its online archive and has agreed to discontinue any republication of the work.
So, we received word from both Ambit and Levy— what more is there to demand? Some will argue that it was a good thing a racist work was swept under the carpet and lost to time. Some will insist that the near immediacy of their response is praiseworthy. I disagree. What is deeply disturbing is not simply the fact that Levy had the audacity to write it, but also that it was republished and everyone around her across the years— every person working within the publishing companies that have hailed her writing as award-worthy, every dedicated reader of her works, every editor and reviewer who diligently went through her work— let this short story and its racist tropes go unchallenged.
It takes a worried company one day to respond to angry retweets, but 35 years for any internal re-evaluation to take place. This needs to serve as a reminder that D&I needs to be taken seriously at every level of decision making within industry. Tackling D&I does not simply constitute publishing works by people of colour, it also means standing by public audiences and readers who don’t feel safe as a result of your company’s practices.
Levy’s ‘apology’ is a half-hearted attempt at clarification: she excuses her past by claiming she was “in her early twenties” when the short story was written. I’m running calculations in my mind and I want to know how age 27 can be considered “early twenties”. Saying she was “asked to write” about stereotypes is another attempt to shift the blame on the commission call.
The speed with which she then ‘acknowledges’ and ‘apologises’ for her actions is, quite frankly, ill-mannered. Her final line attempts to push all blame back onto Ambit. I would have expected a more careful choice of words than “I totally understand & I got this wrong & you are right to call it out” from a Booker nominated writer. There is no sincerity in Levy’s response. Her rushed PR textbook response is a non-apology.
I don’t want to nit-pick at wording but this whole matter has indeed come down to a flippant regard for language. For all their acknowledgement and apology, both Ambit and Levy struggle to call ‘Proletarian Zen’ what it is: blatantly racist. In referring to the piece as first and foremost an “offence”, both inevitably decide that the work is wrong on the basis of its disruption and inconvenience. Ambit notes, in their series of tweets, that they have only recently learned of the short story being racist, which isn’t very convincing (the repeated “to” is also theirs): “the story uses a satirical style which we now understand to to be racist and causes harm, especially to the East Asian community”.
Struggling to call it what it needs to be called means the matter is refused to be discussed in the terms it demands. Closing the conversation is a tactless avoidance strategy. Throwing around the word “harm” does not convince me that Ambit knows the extent of the harm incited and how they are equipped to tackle a centuries-old problem. By continuing a wholehearted advocacy of Levy by protecting her position of power as a leading judge in Ambit’s annual competition and providing the public with no clear indication of a follow-up on anti-racist action taken, I remain deeply sceptical of Ambit’s candid and speedy ‘transparency’.
For all the power of social media that enabled us to pressure for a response in just three days, I am struck by how isolated our external power is in affecting deeper, institutional change. Ambit taking down the short story doesn’t take away the deeper problem. The institution which predominantly upholds and protects its cisgender White personages remains intact. Levy’s literary reputation remains intact because the parties who should be speaking out, just aren’t. We have not heard from any major publishing company or writers of similar reach as Levy. The matter has not been picked up by any journalistic publication. I can’t help but feel that this matter has fallen on deaf ears because too many of the involved parties overlap professionally and personally with one another.
While I appreciate the formal statement issued by Bax on Tuesday April 27th, an individual who has demonstrated enormous disrespect to ESEA has and still has the power to judge the literary works of others. With no indication that she has taken the time to unlearn her biases and educate herself on writing Asian experiences, Levy’s sustained biases will only serve to perpetuate the status quo norm where white writers succeed over others. Bax’s statement has not been published on Ambit’s website and has received minimal interaction on Twitter.
It would seem that unless you had Twitter, news of this statement would probably not have reached you. Are we meant to be satisfied that our “anger and distress” has been heard? Somehow, we must be content with trusting Ambit to work on matters from the inside. Ambit and Levy need to understand that their apologies must include a critical understanding of how they have both fed and fuelled a system that thinks it acceptable to disregard matters of racial discrimination. Being heard is the bare minimum— I need the publishing industry to fight for and with ESEA.
The problem is a deep-rooted systemic complacency that empowers individuals who are neither educated on nor equipped to tackle subjects of Orientalism and Asian discrimination. There is an enormous difference between simply admitting to an “offence caused” and actually understanding the extent of “harm incited” on a marginalised group. This ‘offence’ is no small injury. You can’t put a plaster on something like this and expect everyone to heal. Erasure of the evidence does not mean a problem solved.
We cannot keep tumbling into the same pattern of call ‘out’ and response with zero strategic action for how to protect and support marginalised groups beyond performative activism. True apology cannot just be a passing thought or a crisis aversion tactic. True acknowledgement includes investing in the conversation that ESEA individuals demand having and to simultaneously take charge of one’s own education on racial discrimination and orientalising behaviour. Those working from within and between creative industries need to recognise the power they have in breaking apart and interfering with their own corporate conditions. Without answering for the extent of harm incited and then actually taking sincere anti-racist action, this matter remains an open gash.
If you like a recommendation on a book you should be reading, then check out our review of My Past is a Foreign Country.