The Search for Khanlit

By John Harris | November 11, 2015




Nashwa Khan is a 23 year-old, American-born, Islamic, south-Asian-Canadian cultural journalist now living in Toronto. She blogs and writes magazine articles, and she tweets and Facebooks, mainly telling anecdotes about her personal experiences of other people’s religious, racial and gender prejudice. In the article that caught my attention, “Whitewashed: Why is Canlit so White?” in the May / June 2015 issue of the small magazine This, she tries to find a Creative Writing Program in which she will be free of the “casual racism and microaggressions of being racialized while writing.”

I’m unfamiliar with the word “racialized,” but what she seems to mean is that she has, as a “person of colour” and a Muslim, been insultingly stereotyped by the majority. “Whites” is her most common designation for the majority, with “heterosexual WASP male” being used to identify the nadir of whiteness. This stereotyping by whites happens on the basis of their limited understanding of her racial and religious background — her parents hail from Pakistan and Morocco.

It is conveyed to her by these white people that she needs to recognize that, while one’s gender, sexual orientation, and colour are facts of life and pretty much unchangeable, one’s religion and culture are choices, ingrained maybe, but at least possible to modify. These white people are telling her she needs to make these modifications if she wants to be successful. But for Khan this means assimilation, the final victory of western colonialism, and she’s not about to buckle.

She feels she can be, for example, an Islamic feminist and a supporter of gays. When she talks about wearing the hijab (she hasn’t worn it for years), she explains that whites (especially feminists) usually assume that she wore it as an act of faith, or maybe in obedience to some mullah, husband or brother, when really, she wears it as an act of “defiance against colonialism and assimilation: it is symbolic of the fight against white supremacy as well as Anglo-Saxon, Eurocentric standards of beauty.”

When she complains about assimilation, she assumes that white people think that she doesn’t like the place her parents brought her to be born and to live in, when actually she loves it: “As much as I may face Islamophobic and race-related micro-aggressions I do appreciate and will endlessly be blessed to live the way I do in North America.” Of course, like many others, she feels that as great as life in North America is, it can always be improved.

Because Khan can offer little more than personal anecdotes to illustrate white microaggression, because no statistics are offered and no back history detailed, she is left to frame her arguments with illustrations and affirmations that demonstrate that she is unbiased, reasonable, conciliatory.

She tells us that she is a “first-generation” North American, “born here, on stolen land.” “Here” means, specifically, Florida, where she grew up and went to high school. By her account, she was a mediocre student in high school music and sports, but did well in her academic courses and was active in student politics. She is a member of the “South Asian/African Diaspora.” She is “brown,” and “can speak English with no accent” (I found nothing to indicate that she speaks any other language but English). As a kid she was traumatized by the events of September 2001, or at least she came to the realization that these events were to prove a watershed in her life in the sense that people like her were blamed for the attacks. In high school she was “color blind,” but did go as a teenager to Morocco to look into her roots. This colour-blindness continued through the first two years of university,” but in her third and fourth years “identity became important to me.”

The university she went to was McMaster (I couldn’t discover when or why exactly she came to Canada), and she was at McMaster from 2009 – 2013. She says she was hoping to become a medical doctor, but was discouraged in this by a friend and instead took an undergraduate degree in the Social Sciences, winning a leadership award in 2014. She was on Hamilton’s Status of Women Committee, was Space Allocation Chair of McMaster’s Women and Gender Equity Network, and chaired Hamilton’s Youth Advisory Council. She seems to have left Hamilton for Toronto in 2014.

Other personal information: she is a Nutella enthusiast, “a curator of a Tom Cruise collection,” and “a satisfied Chuck-E-Cheese customer.” She is also “in search of the perfect chicken fingers.” She likes “medical narrative,” which seems to involve people telling stories about their operations and illnesses. Khan feels, as do many medical professionals, that doctors need to engage more in such dialogue with patients, especially racialized ones, in order to make them feel more comfortable and informed.

In framing her anecdotes in details that somehow manage to be idiosyncratic and general at the same time, Khan walks the fine line of the anecdotist-with-a-complaint. Asserting her normality—her love of her life in North America, her commitment to the medical profession, her engagement with the machinery of democracy, her left-leaning politics, her feminism etc—is essential to gaining reader sympathy. But the more she asserts these things, the more she seems a monument to the virtues of the things she is resisting, and the more contradictory or trivial her complaint seems to be.

After all, if some of those familiar vanguards of western hegemony, Hollywood and the big fast-food corporations, are not perceived as a threat by her, how can the whiteness of Canlit be such a terrible problem? If Tom Cruise and Chuck-e-Cheese do not intrude upon, respectively, her ideals of male beauty and comportment and her appreciation of South-Asian and African cuisine, can being encouraged to read Alice Munro in a creative writing class really be a big obstruction in her attempt to become a writer?


Seemingly, Khan reacts to white microaggression by attacking it in her writing and by tactically retreating from it in her daily life. Her story about finding a safe creative writing course describes a tactical retreat — she wants to develop her own style and is worried that in a culturally unsafe place she will be bullied or intimidated into adopting a voice that is not her own — that she will “whitewash” her own writing. So she looks for a course taught by a person who shares at least some of her background, along with a course that is populated by a significant number if not a majority of people somewhat like her, and that features a list of readings authored by people somewhat like her. Because she’s not sure she’ll be comfortable enough to stick with the course, it will be “in a certificate program, not a full MFA.”

She is careful in choosing her first class, and feels after the first few meetings that she has done due diligence. The instructor is a man of colour and the class is roughly half and half, people of colour and white people. A subsequent class, her most diverse, features 50% white women, 40% men of colour, 5% black women — that is, one woman — and 5% non-black women of colour — Khan herself. The colour and gender of the instructor of this subsequent class,oddly, isn’t mentioned. Khan does not, it seems, in choosing either class, pay any attention to the curriculum.

Unhappily, Khan is not comfortable in either of these classes. The microaggressions against her seem even more numerous than they are in her daily life. But her attempt to figure out what this means to her as a person and a writer is an on-going project; it appears that she intends to finish her program as part of this research. Meanwhile, in the crucible of a creative writing program, she has arrived at the following generalizations:

First, the white people in her classes have the belief that “racialized people are a homogenous and united front.” If over 50% of students in any class are people of colour (First Nations, Oriental, East Indian, Arab, African or Jewish), then the whites in that class claim that they themselves are in the minority. However, Kahn affirms, “as people of color, we aren’t all the same.” Whites, on the other hand, in Khan’s view, are all the same. By this logic, therefore, even if a class is significantly less than half composed of white people, the whites will remain the majority because they are all the same.

Second, “men of color don’t often support women of color.”

Third, in the workshops white women have more prone to attack women of colour than men of colour. Khan suspects that this is because women in general are conditioned to believe that men in general are usually correct. But the attacks on women of colour come also, and are most obnoxious, from feminists, women not inclined to accede to men. The attacks she describes allude to her inability to understand what she refers to as the “framework” or the “gold standard” by which literary works are supposed to be appraised.

Khan explains: “I say ‘white’ but what I mean is women immersed in the very simplistic and classic ways literature is taught, those who uphold white feminism and let it seep into their writing and work-shopping of pieces. I mean white women who would let myself and the other women of color in my class know how to write about our bodies and existence, question our use of words from our mother tongues, and surveillance our truths.” These attacks by the white feminists on the women of colour were, she reports, “cosigned by the silence of men of color.”

Note that Khan believes white feminists have two problems, the whiteness of their feminism and the whiteness of their approach to reading literature and writing. What she seems to mean by the first of these is that white feminists see being a woman as more important, in determining women’s experience, needs and aspirations, than being of colour or being of a certain religion. In short, white feminists are more inclined to humanistic attitudes, which Khan, fighting assimilation, rejects. Her second complaint is that white feminists are “immersed in the very simplistic and classic ways literature is taught.” Here, she seems to be saying that the feminists go for one of the prevailing theories of aesthetic value, theories that result in those literary “gold standards” that don’t impress Khan.

The common “frameworks” in the academy — so we know what the choices are — are Arnoldian thematic analysis, the textual approach of the New Critics, and poststructuralist rhetorical analysis. The Arnoldian approach to literary criticism is a kind of default in that the other two approaches tend to include elements of it in their studies of style and rhetoric. While the Arnoldian search for humanistic values in literature has been discredited, and poststructuralism searches for anti-humanistic (or at least culturally relativist values), critics are still trying to find morals in poems and stories, to read literary works as providing what Arnold described as “the criticism of life.”

The final problem for Khan is the curriculum: “In the first five months of class, I read more white heterosexual authors than I have in my entire life. Many don’t seem very special to me, but they are held to some kind of imaginary gold standard . . . . I’ve read James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Muldoon, Ted Kooser, Theodore Roethke, and Raymond Carver, all white men I’ve chased with the works of white women, such as Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, Eudora Welty, and much more. This survey of whiteness is predominantly non-Canadian. Yet it serves as Canadian literature, which I’d argue has morphed into ubiquity with white Anglo-Saxon protestant default writing. White descriptions rooted in very colonial normative reality remain the default in writing programs today.”

This curriculum “provides the ammo that weans out and exhausts women of color in these spaces.” Khan advocates adjustments in course curricula. “Until then,” she says, “the framework for what is considered ‘respected literature’ and what is not will remain the same. Until then, we will continue to see novels written by talented people of color used to fill diversity quotas, instead of just integrated as compelling works.” In other words, the curriculum is so emphatically white that writers of colour, when they do appear on reading lists, are obviously there as mere tokens.


It’s a little difficult to follow Khan’s complaints about Canlit being a whitewash. Her definitions continually shift and the logic is tortured or simply not there. First, she seems to be talking about the whiteness of Creative Writing as a university academic practice, not about Canadian Literature, which is a body of literary work usually but not always written by citizens of Canada. It does seem that in her limited experience of Canadian classes in creative writing some of the writers featured are Canadian, and so the contents of these courses therefore illustrate and perhaps even prove Canlit’s whiteness. Except that the list of writers Khan offers as a proof of whiteness above lists eight writers, and only one is Canadian. In her mind, I guess, American authors can be freely substituted as models in Canadian creative writing classes, and used as Khan’s examples of the whiteness of Canlit. I guess Canadians and Americans all look the same to her.

Second, it seems to me that today it’s unlikely that writers of colour would appear on lists merely as tokens. I’m suggesting that writers like Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, Saul Bellow and Mordecai Richler, for example, would be considered essential to Creative Writing courses focusing on the novel, and that Richler and his fellow Jews Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen would be considered essential in any anthology of Canlit, along with other writers of colour like George Eliott Clark, Lawrence Hill, Dionne Brand, Michael Ondaatje and Neil Bissondath. Khan’s impression that Rushdie, say, would appear on the reading list of a novel-writing course merely because the teacher is striving to achieve a “diversity quota” would indicate a total absence or disregard of any sense or knowledge of literary value.

It is true that in the distant past the canon of British, American and Canadian literature was produced mostly by white people, but isn’t that only to be expected of the literatures of a language that started just over 500 years ago in some small islands off northern Europe, and isn’t it true that the ratio of writers of colour to white writers has recently changed rapidly in favour of the former? Canadian writing in the 21st century is officially and actually diverse.

Third, there is Khan’s overriding—and troubling—assumption that writing cannot be appreciated by readers if it does not come from the same cultural “space” as those readers. Khan says she (and women like her) can’t enjoy or learn from the writings of Ernest Hemingway or Alice Munro because those writings do not reflect her racial and cultural experiences or express her aspirations. But isn’t it generally assumed that literary classics in particular are known to appeal with minimal coaching across all races, cultures and religions? The fact is that translations of classic and popular works from many cultures are read all over the world. Also, closer to home, it’s obvious that millions of whites have read the novels of Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie and V. S. Naipaul with both understanding and pleasure.

Khan cites one set of stats indicating that readers need some familiarity with the race of a novel’s characters in order to identify with them, noting that seven out of ten students in Toronto high schools are non-white. This is one of the few cases where Khan ventures outside her personal experience for facts (a questionable one in this case in connection with Toronto, but certainly true of cities like Vancouver). In a survey of these Toronto students, according to Khan, most said that “learning about their own race would be more desirable,” and that they’d do better in school if they did so learn. (I find it hard to imagine how this sort of conclusion could be arrived at without significant and methodologically proscribed prompting from the surveyors.)

While it’s true that references to familiar material are helpful in teaching, lack of familiarity with an author’s culture has never been considered a hindrance to empathetic reading of literature or history. For W.B. Yeats you provide a brief explanation of what happened on Easter, 1916; for Achebe a brief account of the Nigerian Civil War. The human responses to these isolated situations are similar all over the world.

Finally, there is Khan’s concern about using the writings of heterosexual white males in particular, as models: “will I succumb to stories that are not my own, narratives of lives that I cannot relate to?” She worries that her own writing could “become nuanced in the classic expectations of straight, white male writing.” She doesn’t explain what could cause this. Is she worried that her desire to get an “A” by satisfying the prejudices of a male instructor motivate her to go whiteface? Khan seems too self-motivated and intellectually independent for that. More likely, she’s worried about peer pressure from that unavoidable white, usually female majority (augmented by men of colour) forcing on her those “frameworks” of white literary value that are associated with male authorities.

But how white are those frameworks — assuming Khan is thinking about the ones I mentioned (Arnoldian, Rhetorical, Postmodern)? Aristotle in his Poetics, Confucius in his Analects, Bharata Muni in Natya Shastra, Al-Jahiz in his al-Bayan wa-‘l-tabyin and Ibn al-Mu’tazz in Kitab al-Badi, all kick around the same ideas about poetry and story as mnemonic primers, as imitations of reality, as instigations to virtue (by stimulating empathy and what seems to be its opposite, detachment), as preservers of traditional values. Contemporary literary theory, I’m suggesting, is already emphatically cross-cultural.


If Khan’s deliberations about racism in life and literature are going to be questioned by her readers, it will likely be in terms of her reluctance to accept and/or acknowledge the existence of a universal, basic human nature, including a set of common values. This nature and these values will be regarded by Khan and those who share her values as the basis of assimilation. There have yet been no written responses, that I know of, to Khan’s “Whitewashed” essay, but there have been articulate responses to some of Khan’s blogs.

Two blog items in particular have attracted serious commentary. In the first item Khan complained about Pride events that “often involve alcohol, which makes it hard on Queer Muslims, who are usually in enough trouble with their own families. Often summer events occur during Ramadan, when Muslims can’t drink, putting them in danger of dehydration, faintness, or more serious health problems.”

The second blog made a more complex complaint. In connection with the murder of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha by Stephen Hicks (the Chapel-Hill murders), Khan points out that media reports emphasize how accomplished the victims were, noting that Deah was in second-year dentistry, Yusor was a graduate going into dentistry, and Razan was majoring in architecture. To Khan, this sort of coverage is racist. Unlike whites, she argues, “we must become role models to our community to have value as humans.” She complains that were she murdered, she might not be considered of sufficient value: “my transcript has blemishes. I didn’t do well the first time I took the MCAT. I took a semester off of school. I volunteer, but it may not be at the ‘right’ places — I’ve concentrated on feminist causes rather than continuing to spend time at the ‘honorable’ hospital. I take controversial stances as part of my existence. I am human and filled with contradictions. My story is not perfect. So if I were killed in a hate crime, would there by such an outcry as there were with the three Chapel Hill victims?”

The comments on these two blogs point to Khan’s ignorance or denial of a common humanity and make note of her egocentrism. C Marie (sic.) pointed out to Khan that when people of all cultures mourn victims of crimes or illness they usually celebrate their lives and try to express the loss to society. It is comforting to most people to feel that the victim’s life was a positive one. “The family killed at Chapel Hill deserve to be remembered for what they were passionate about, no less than the rest of us.”

Scott R. Charney, commenting on Khan’s blog about Pride events, summed up the problem of her lack of regard for common values: “Don’t try to defend things coming from people of color when you are adamantly opposed to those same things when they emanate from the Duggars or the Vatican or the Haredim or whatever. Kowtowing to destructive social backwardness in the name of ‘diversity’ is pathetic and self-defeating. There’s a reason why much of the opposition to Islamism in Europe comes not from the chauvinist Right, but from feminists and LGBTQ groups. They don’t want to import a new Religious Right. Religion is not race or sexual orientation. It’s a choice.”

Marie and Charney make serious points. After all, it’s the mullahs and ayatollahs, heterosexual men of color, who claim the right to decide who is a good Muslim. Only the colonizing infidels of the secular West, in the midst of whom (it has to be admitted) sit a lot of WASP heterosexual men, would agree that you have the right to interpret the Koran for yourself and be a Muslim feminist or a gay Muslim. More importantly, these same infidels would support your right to do this by providing police protection, access to the voting booth, and the appropriate legislation.


I suspect that one reason for Khan’s attitude to white people is that she’s addicted to the rush of sanctimony that comes with asserting victim status, no matter how questionable that status actually is. A second and equally important reason would be that, as a creative writing student, she’s looking for topics and themes based in her own experience: “Write what you know” is part of the lore of creative writing, and something that wouldn’t be challenged even in a “diverse” creative writing circle. What she most obviously knows is the experience of being a person of colour in a predominantly white society.

I think that the third and most important reason is that Khan, who is obviously a well-meaning person, has been duped by her professors in the course of her literary and creative-writing studies. As she says, she became interested in “identity” after her second year of university. The prevailing teaching theory in English and creative writing departments across North America these days is postcolonialism.

Khan’s knowledge of postcolonialist theory is testified to by her remark that she lives on stolen land, and by her references to the “colonial normative reality” evident in white writing. After all, “what you know” in creative writing includes what your teacher tells you and what you need to say and write to get a good grade.

An addiction to sanctimony is not healthy, the mantra “write what you know” is an excuse for solipsism (the last thing that Khan needs encouragement in), and postcolonialism is merely the latest flavour-of-the-month theory of creative-writing professors who need to affirm their status as academics by pursuing “original” research in their field of study. Doctorates in creative writing nowadays require mastery of theory; academic promotion requires it too. Professors, concerned that the work of affirming their academic status not take too much time from the writing of their poems and novels, use and repeat whatever simplified mantras are erected to justify the work of the literature and / or creative-writing departments and can be used to guide students in their preparation of essays, theses, stories and poems.

Postcolonialism was derived from the application of deconstruction (the study of texts for their governing rhetorical bias) to European writings about the Middle-East and Orient. As Christopher Hitchens explains it, these writings were originally read (or promoted) as objective studies of eastern cultures, but were deconstructed by Edward Said, using Michel Foucault’s ideas about the interchange of power and knowledge in Western sociology, anthropology and science. Said saw “orientalist” texts as “dedicated to the propagation of British and French imperial hegemony.” Hitchens argues that this was true in only some cases; that Said overplayed his hand.

Tony Judt’s essay about Said in Reappraisals shows how Said then had to watch helplessly as postcolonialist analysis was applied indiscriminately to the entire European/North-American canon. As Judt put it, “Orientalism underwrote everything from career-building exercises in “postcolonial” obscurantism (“writing the other”) to denunciations of “Western Culture” in the academic curriculum. But Said himself had no time for such nonsense.”

In English studies, creative writing, and even professional writing programs, postcolonialism has largely replaced Arnoldian or humanistic theory, as well as rhetorical / linguistic theory, as that “gold standard” or “framework” against which the value of literary and professional writing is measured. Many English and Creative Writing professors came to believe, even, that the mere attempt to apply scientific (sociological, cultural, and psychological) analysis to the east—or to the work of any writer from Eastern cultures—was a form of colonialism.

Said condemned those “not very careful readers” who read his book Orientalism “as proposing a kind of indiscriminate conflict between East and West, between Islam and Christianity, between the culture of the West and the culture of the Third World.” Said argued that this happened among the professors because “literary criticism is…essentially religious — the model is commentary on sacred texts, even when they talk about revising the canon and all that stuff…” For the professors, postcolonialism is a faith, not a theory or an analytical apparatus.

Said, on the other hand, believed in the humanistic view of the canon, despite what he calls its “triumphalist freight.” He was also a big supporter of the established canon. In fact, one of the prominent figures in the canon, one who is often egregiously marked out for exclusion by postcolonialist critics, Joseph Conrad, was Said’s favourite writer, the one with whom he most identified: “I felt, first coming across Conrad when I was a teenager, that in a certain sense I was reading, not so much my own story, but a story written out of bits of my life and put together in a haunting and fantastically obsessive way. I’ve been hooked on it ever since. I think that he’s not just a great writer of stories, but a great writer of parables. He has a particular kind of vision which increases in intensity every time I read him so that now it’s almost unbearable for me to read him.”


If postcolonialism does serve as the theoretical justification for Khan in her remarks on the whiteness of Canlit, she might want to read further and more carefully into the postcolonialist canon. Said argues that those like her who indiscriminately attack the western canon are stuck in the first or immature phase of deconstruction, “separatism.” But separatism must lead to assimilation which, as Said knew, always works both ways, the minority having its influence on the majority: “Separatism is the first phase, but the next question is: how do you integrate new values into an imaginative community in a world that’s full of divisions. This has to do with problems of a more universal sort than those which are reflective of a particular identity that seems to be embattled at the time.”

Said indicates how, at an individual level, integration is achieved: “It would be important for a black man in white America to be absolutely scrupulous in discriminating between those aspects of white culture and white civilization that are the enemy, and those that one can align oneself with, draw positive things from, etc. . . . It’s the kind of scrupulosity, which I suppose you could call humanism.”

His guide to this scrupulosity, this humanism, is not the darling of university postcolonialists, Foucault, but the cognitive scientist and New Left activist Noam Chomsky: “I suppose, in the final analysis, one has to choose between them, but I’ve always felt that one in fact could incorporate both of them. In the end, I think that Chomsky’s is the more consistently honorable and admirable position, though it may not be the most emulatable position. It’s certainly a less cynical position than Foucault’s. By the end of his life, I think, Foucault was simply uninterested in any direct political involvement of any sort.”

Khan, if she simply cannot find the inclusive generosity and empathy in herself to read Munro, and if she is inclined to achieve coherence in her grasp of theory, could find a valuable model for integration in Said. That he is a Palestinian should help her to identify with him and his ideas. Of course, she would have to overcome any suspicion that he might be another of those men of colour who have so often disappointed her by maintaining humanistic values in the face of her impression that, in her creative writing classes, she has been the innocent victim of white colonialism.


4,784 words  November 11, 2015



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