OPINION: Women of color deserve their literary tragedies, too

A person wears a white dress, sits on a black bench, and reads a book.
The “literary sad woman” genre must include the experiences of women of color, writes Shay Suresh CM ’24. (Courtesy: Minanfotos via Pixabay)

I unabashedly love sad books. And nowadays, there seems to be a new genre of fiction centered around sad women and their tragedies. Think “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh or “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney. Reading these books and allowing myself to feel so strongly, to react so naturally, is cathartic and relatable. But the issue starts here: these stories are relatable because they lack the diversity to be multidimensional. White women dominate the literary “sad woman” genre; their explicit sadness is palatable for readers. But why is it easier to consume white women’s sadness over sadness that carries the added weight of trauma and prejudice felt by women of color?

One of the first supposed “sad books” that I read was “Conversations with Friends.” The story depicts four characters navigating friendship and eventually romance. One of the female characters, Frances, is a generally typecast literary sad white woman: desirable, depressed, prone to bad decisions and even worse bad habits. She is undeniably sad but in a beautiful, haunting way. Her femininity and her sadness coexist amicably, her privilege apparent even in her despair.

In her article “Cult of the Literary Sad Woman,” Leslie Jamison references a memoir by Margo Jefferson, another writer. As a young Black woman, Jefferson felt she was “denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering.” And as Jamison reaffirms, our favorite victim is the distressed white woman, beautiful even in her sorrow. But women of color cannot be sad for the sake of sadness, not in the same way. That sadness is inextricably tied to our identities and illustrated as such.

In Alice Walker’s 1983 essay collection “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” she offers a keen response to Virginia Woolf’s famous thesis in her 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own”: “Virginia Woolf wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself.” Walker then points to the example of Phillis Wheatley, “a slave, who owned not even herself.” Walker spotlights a foundational example of female writers of color and their unrecognized but equally significant contributions to literature. In doing so, she emphasizes the implicit privilege that allowed white women to be lauded for asking for rights not afforded to women of color.  

Because it is more possible for female writers of color to have a platform now, it is necessary to highlight the stories that allow women of color their tragedies, honoring trauma and sadness and letting the two coexist. Give those authors the platform given to writers like Rooney, one where they may write diverse sad stories about diverse and messy women. I think of a novel I recently picked up called “Luster”, by Raven Leilani. The main character Edie seems to be as bad a decision maker as Rooney’s Frances, with one reviewer writing that she “is a unique character, a young Black woman full of dissatisfaction who constantly engages in self-destructive behavior. She is flawed and bright, funny and broken, depressed and horny.” And to me, that is where the path ahead lies; in stories that allow women of color the space to be sad for the sake of being sad, to be irrational and complex and careless and at times, unpleasant. 

Shay Suresh CM ’24 is from San Jose, California. She loves literary fiction, indie music, and making Pinterest boards.

 

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