Now here’s a touchy topic in writing circles these days: writers who write characters outside of their own race.
I’m putting some thought into it these days, even though my thoughts tend to be very private. I’m trying to formulate my own opinions and gather observations to come up with some solid footing before airing them in a non-anonymous, public forum. One time I did broach this topic, I got my head bitten off by a bunch of authors who felt entirely otherwise–“That is such bullshit! That’s the PURPOSE of fiction–we’re supposed to make anything up, and nothing is off grounds! Why can’t I, a white woman, write from a black person’s point of view?”
I just didn’t think it was so simple, and I can’t tell you how discouraged I was to hear that kind of vehement, simplistic response to a topic that is SO much more complicated. Is that the kind of justice this topic deserves? No. For so many years, the history of people of color has been usurped by European history…and wouldn’t a white person writing a character of color resemble such colonization…? Or am I holding on to something that is just too “militant” or am I prolonging a form of segregation by asking for caution when writing a character outside of own’s own race? In the conversation mentioned above, I had no answer to provide, given my own preliminary thoughts on the subject–all I had was my frustration. Plus my mortification: the most vehement of the objectors was a Famous Writer whose ego could stop me in my tracks most days.
Did no one agree with me that writing a character of another race was not a simplistic task? That one should be careful? And that maaaaybe, one shouldn’t even do it? And there is the question of who can represent a particular race best–should this be done by “outsiders?” There were other writers of color in the room with me, and they were all quiet during the conversation. One of them came up to me afterwards and whispered, “I agreed with you.” Then why didn’t she speak up? Maybe she too, had a FEELING about this topic, but no language for it.
What are the possibilities for this undertaking?
On the one hand, we get horrendous and insulting works like Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha–a man who detracted from the truth in so horrifying a direction that he was sued by the very geisha he interviewed for the book. Or we get Truman Capote’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We also get the borderline “exoticized India” in some of the stories of Nell Freudenberger’s collection Lucky Girls (yes, this despite her lovely writing).
On the other hand, there are writers who can pull it off: James Baldwin, for example…and can someone please think of other examples? I’m coming up short.
I think a writer treads a very slippery slope when she goes outside of her own race when developing characters in her fiction writing. It’s not just a character that you develop, you are taking on a social responsibility–what impressions and lessons are you teaching (just as you should consider that in the rest of your writing). And you should be prepared if your authenticity is challenged.
But then there is the inequality of this privilege, at least when it comes to writing. In my experience, writers from a minority culture have an easier time portraying the dominant culture, by virtue of the fact that the minority culture will just have a greater awareness of the dominant culture. That means: women can write men better than men can write women, for starters. Or that James Baldwin (an African American writer) can write white characters “successfully.” (successfully meaning: three dimensional, complicated characters who are neither heroes nor stereotypes nor scapegoats, etc.).
Maybe it’s okay to just let everyone have a shot–the worst case scenario is a misleading and insulting book like Memoirs of a Geisha but then maybe people will learn in the process of writing outside their own culture. Of course then I wonder–why should someone learn at another’s expense? Bah. But then why should I limit the possibilities of fiction? After all, as the writer above said, it IS fiction–you’re supposed to make everything and anything up! Who am I to be the arbiter of truth and art? Yes, it smacks of censorship! Bah again!
Another thought is that I want to urge more writers of color to write their stories–because there are relatively few of us, at least here in America, the representation of our stories and voices has become very precious. If we had more Asian American writers, would we be so worried about Arthur Golden? If we were writing our own stories, then the mixture would be that much richer and less would feel at stake (I think).
As it is, my own writing is something that feels even more painstaking because of this social responsibility. How many Asian male protagonists are out there in America? Not many. So what am I accomplishing in writing my novel with regard to the portrayal of an Asian male? (trust me, I am not obsessing about it 100% of the time but it’s something that pops into my head now and then as I checkpoint with my novel’s progress). But if there was more writing out there, I wouldn’t worry so much…
See? This topic goes on and on for me.
Does it go on and on for you?
Update: Writing a story with characters of another race…and realizing this subject really does not end.