fiction is a brilliant impostor

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.



Filed under Abstract Thoughts, The Novel, Writing

18 responses to “fiction is a brilliant impostor

  1. Look at Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day). There’s another POC writing from the POV of the dominant culture.

    I spent a lot of time in Central America when I was younger, and I’m quasi fluent in Spanish. I wrote several (published) stories from the POV of Central Americans. I felt that I had been privileged to witness some really moving and unique stories, and I wrote about them. This was very early in my writing career. I don’t think I would do that now, even though I still like those stories I wrote. I just feel more… squeamish about it somehow, which is probably appropriate. But I dunno, really.

    I loved Andre Dubus’ House of Sand & Fog and he writes from the POV of an Iranian man. I’m not sure how Iranians feel about this, however.

    I have written plenty of cross-gender stories and am working on a novel from a man’s POV and somehow that doesn’t sway me either way. I do not think it is a big deal, but the cross-race and cross-culture stuff can be.

    Yeah, it IS a topic that can go on and on.

  2. Wow! A very interesting topic! I am a woman who is nearing the age of 40 and I’ve written stories from the perspective of a teenage Lakhota. It’s tricky. Those who do take on cross-race and cross-culture stuff have a huge responsibility and I think ulitmately, they can hurt themselves by not taking it seriously. Respect for the race and culture you are writing about is paramount.

    On the other hand, isn’t saying you shouldn’t write a cross-race/cross-culture story a bit like censorship?

  3. While I think that writing from a race outside one’s own can be tricky, I think it works if the author writes with both knowledge and respect.

    Like hoyeya, I’ve written the perspective of a Native American woman. But I decided that I couldn’t do it well from the perspective of any nonfictional nation or tribe; I haven’t lived in that culture at all, and I’m afraid of getting the details wrong.

    One option that some writers have used in writing about Native American characters is to write about someone from a fictional Nation; Charles de Lint did this in his Newford stories. It takes a lot of work; essentially, you’re inventing an entire culture so that you can write effectively about one person from that culture. You have to know how that character’s life would be different from that of a person from the dominant culture.

    I’m doing this right now in my novel; even though it’s difficult, I don’t want to take the chance of misinterpreting, or just plain “getting wrong,” the facts of a culture not my own.

  4. vintagefan

    First, I’d like to thank you for sparking off a post of my own. I’ve coming across this sort of discussion several times, though my post is along sci-fi/fantasy lines. I finally decided to write about it, since I come the other side and you might want to see what I have to say about it.

  5. Pingback: Writing about a life that you haven’t lived? « insecurities of a fantasy writer

  6. I think it all depends on how seriously you think anyone is going to take your writing. If your story is farfetched fantasy you can get away with it by shrugging. But if you are going for realism it is hard to represent anyone not extremely similar in experience and outlook to yourself.

    To me “Memoires of a Geisha” was a bit of fluff, cute and a visual treat but clearly written by someone who just didn’t even realise that he didn’t get the culture. Fine. The trouble is if readers believe that the book is serious writing.

    I’d be very cautious about writing about a person-of-colour myself. Despite watching Hollywood movies I know next to nothing about any of their cultures. I also know that there are a lot of people out there with a stake in issues surrounding the difference in colour, racism, colonialism and so on. I know I’d botch it. So if I use people of colour in my writing it would only be through the pov of the pink people who inhabit my writing.

    But then this in turn can lead to homogenized pink writing like the early Dick and Jane books where the only characters are white, American, well-to-do upper middle class and live in a perfect suburb. Excluding other hues and cultures out of tact can be as bad as segregation. No matter which you do you could be fostering division unintentionally.

    The errors of cultural authenticity that I really notice are the historical ones. I think I’ve only ever encountered one or two historical novel writers who got it right. They simply transplanted the modern culture view smack dab into the middle of a costume drama. Yet it’s really easy to hear historically authentic voices. Anything written in the period is guarantee to be authentic. I’d be amazed if the authors of Regency romances have realised that Austen wrote the first Regency romances. They just crib from each other.

    Unless you are willing to do quite a bit of background research it is impossible to be certain what culture an author comes from. There’s going to be a big difference for example between the understanding and culture of an older man who has grown up in Japan and a younger woman of Japanese parents who has grown up in California. But that’s not the kind of information I know instantly if I pick up a book and see the author’s name is Miyoshi Sakamoto.

    When you come down to it we are all going out on a limb just a little bit, if not a huge distance. Even if I write about myself I’m going to be fictionalize my narrative a trifle just in order to make it readable, my real life turning into hopefully amusing anecdotes. The further I get from that the greater the challenge I am assuming. You can get people challenging your authenticity because there personal experience differs even if say, you are both pink skinned women of Protestant extraction who have similar incomes and live in the same city. I’ve had people tell me that real people don’t think like that and my only response could be, “I do.”

    I do think that the area is prickly enough that it’s not safe to embark on unless you are willing to get hit by a lot of criticism. I once submitted a story to a library writing group which was about a small girl who became a refugee and who was an outsider to her culture. Early in the story I described her as having small brown hands. All the pink/generic people in the group apparently assumed I meant her to be of Northern European descent. One woman who had deep earth brown skin made the assumption that my character was a person-of-colour and she got rather upset about it. When I’d described the child’s hands I’d been thinking of the colour that the back of my own pink hand used to get at the end of the summer. Between dirt and heavy suntan they were decidedly brown, just not dark brown. I obviously hit a real nerve for the woman inadvertently. She didn’t want to accept that the child was roughly the same colour as I am. It didn’t make sense to her.

    But all that proves was that my writing was bad. I had been sloppy enough in my description to mislead at least one of my readers. It tells me that this is an area where you have to be extremely accurate if you are writing seriously.



  7. Yeah, this is topic that can go on and on. I’ve been having an interesting discussion about this in various blog posts over the last few months.

    Well, as an SF writer, I am quite a lot more reconciled to writing about people whose lives I cannot have lived, and I figure, if I’m working in a genre where I should be able to write relatively credible subjective experiences of things like people in the year 20,000 AD, or aliens, or AIs, then I bloody well should be able to write the internal experiences of people of different racial, cultural, or national backgrounds.

    This doesn’t mean one ought to approach it all with a blase attitude, not at all. To write a character from another background than one’s own necessitates a lot of research, as well as some careful interviewing and listening. One has to be ready to throw away ones own assumptions, and to really, honestly confront little (or big) bitlets of racist thinking that have lodged themselves within one’s own mind… which can be a bit discomfiting.

    It can be done. To Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, I hold up a counter-example in Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, a novel where a white American woman write about a futuristic Chinese-American (sort of, half-Chinese but he looks Chinese) homosexual man living in a Chinese-dominated future America. It’s a breathtaking first novel. Ian MacDonald’s River of Gods is also supposed to hit the nail almost perfectly squarely on the head, according to a brilliant Indian friend of mine.

    One thing that might help is the leeway one gets working in the future. You can mess with things, change details, have the world turn out slightly different.

    Another interesting thing that helps is having well-rounded characters. A badly-drawn Chinese character will attract a lot of attention, but a well-drawn, unusual, interesting character who happens to be Chinese will get a lot more acceptance even if he isn’t quite like readers (Chinese or otherwise) imagine a Chinese guy ought to be. Quirky, deeply-motivated, fascinating characters get us, and we can be made to suspend out disbelief about all kinds of things.

    Anyway, I think the fiction I write would be a bit boring, and a bit unrealistic, if all the characters I wrote were just like me. White males from central Canada who like jazz and SF? Boooooring.

    The cost for writing a character who isn’t like you is that it’s a lot of hard work. You need to be willing to take risks — because no matter what, someone will tell you that you got something, or everything, wrong. Sometimes, they’ll do it just because they think you’re not allowed to write a character from a background they feel is theirs. And sometimes they’ll do it because really, what you’ve written is just a load of received, unconsidered hooey and you really should know better. Attendant to that, you also need to get feedback and to be told where you got things bloody well wrong, and you need to know when to listen and say, “Ah, I did get it wrong.”

    I think the real test of whether someone has “gotten it right” isn’t whether people of the same background of the character say they did: that’s just a litmus test, and for example some Korean readers will never, ever give me the nod on a complex Korean character just because they think he’s made out to be a bad guy.

    (Sort of like the popular reaction to Jin in Korea: everyone thought he was made out to be the big, evil Asian villain in Lost, and they missed the fact that most of the characters had downright unsavory backgrounds.)

    The litmus test has to be the writer’s conscience, and his or her willingness to consider feedback from a wide variety of informed readers. Did the author think it through? Did the author approach the subject matter with basic respect? That has to be enough.

    And anyway, I think it’s important writers reach beyond their own experience. An author who churns out novel after novel with the same tiny cultural milieu can get a bit… boring. That’s not to say that one should just lump bits of other cultures together for the sake of passing interest — and it’s definitely not me saying one should get lurid about other cultures for the sake of variety — but rather that sticking to only one’s own experiences can be very limiting.

    A thoughtful, careful, and interested outsider sometimes sees things in a culture that people on the inside don’t see as clearly. (Such as, for example, my [Korean] girlfriend’s comments about the inherent, deep-rooted wastefulness that permeates North American society in ways I never noticed myself, frex…)

  8. Whoops. Ian McDonald, not MacDonald…

  9. brilliant that the SF writers are coming to offer insight! yes, you would be writing characters outside of your own experience (indeed, out of our own experience). i thank you for your input.

    and everyone, really–i really felt like an idiot for not having an articulated answer on the issue…and still do, but maybe I can get some concrete thoughts and opinions with all this sharing. it’s important for me to come to terms with this and develop my own thoughts (the kind I can present in public if I so wish).

  10. btw, Susan–thank you for the example of Kazuo Ishiguro, I had forgotten about him!

    and I started reading the Best American Short Stories 2006. inside, i see a story written by Jack Livings entitled “The Dog.” From his bio (he taught abroad in China), I assume he is not an insider to Chinese culture and yet his characters are Chinese. I will be reading this story closely for the subject matter at hand in this post. so far, i am liking the story (just a couple pages in).

  11. Tea

    This is such an important topic, and one that I struggle with a great deal as I am working on a novel that is outside the culture of my race. I’m white, my novel is set in Japan, where I have lived on and off since I was a child. I constantly struggle with whether or not I have the right to tell this story. And yet I know that friends of mine who are 2nd or 3rd generation Japanese American could get away with it, no questions asked, though in reality they have much less experience or immersion in Japanese culture than I do. It’s even been suggested to me that it would be better to publish under a Japanese name–which I would never, ever do as that is misleading and dishonest. And the truth is, my Japanese peers don’t have an interest in these topics–they’ve grown up with them and don’t find them fascinating in the same way I do.

    I don’t know that there is an answer to this question. I know many works that jump cultures in this way and make me ill by how much they don’t get it–in the same way I’m sometimes made ill by men writing as women (how the $*#& do you know what sex feels like as a woman?).

    At the same time I know how when friends of mine visit from overseas, they point out things to me about my own life and culture that I know to be true but never notice. In this way I do believe that it is possible for those outside to have powerful insights by the sheer virtue of their outsideness. They question what we have been trained to accept, to not even see.

    As you can see, I go back and forth on this quite a bit.

    At the end of the day, I think if you are going to cross those kinds of lines you need to take the burden of responsibility very, very seriously. You should struggle with these issues, you should be scared, and you should do a boatload of research. And you need to look at the historical ramifications of what you are doing–it’s true, the colonists have told the story of the colonies for ages. It’s true, there are not enough stories being published by writers of color, though that is changing these days and happily so.

    At the end of the day, I do sort of think we need to tell the stories that compel us–though carefully and with much thought and consideration. I know I feel more comfortable writing about Japanese culture than I do the European culture my family is descended from. I don’t know that culture; it’s not the life I have lived.

    Kudos to you for bringing up such a good topic–and for speaking up in class about it. I often find myself the lone voice of dissent and it’s not always the coziest seat to be sitting in. It breaks my heart that the other student didn’t feel like she could speak up.

  12. Tea, you are so brave! And thoughtful…I am rooting for you to write a brilliant novel.

    Can you believe the place I brought this topic up was not in class, but at a writing colony with a Famous Writer in attendance? And the person who said my concern about whether people should exercise caution (or even consider) writing characters outside their own race was “Bullshit!” was…the Famous Writer? I was mortified. Then the other people who chimed in and agreed with her (even more vehemently) were other Very Accomplished Writers?

    I was so bruised that I vowed I would not bring it up again as my “real self” in a public forum until i got all my ducks and thoughts in a row on the matter.

  13. Whoa. I don’t have time to read everyone’s comments, but I do think that it is fine to write outside of one’s race as long as it’s done well and with respect. Speaking of Nell Freudenberger, by the way, her first novel’s protagonist is Chinese and I think she did a good job with him (Have you read The Dissident?) And what if you have a story about an inter-racial couple, or two black and white friends? Who has the right to write that story? Only a person of color because (s)he has more awareness of the dominant culture than a white writer does of the non-dominant culture? I don’t agree with that. I’ve never tried to write outside of my race myself, but I like to think I have that option.

  14. bustopher: hrm. i have not read nell freudenberger’s new book…but that said…

    here is the rub: if you write a person out of your own race well, then you get kudos. it can be done, yes (think Ann Patchett’s multicultural cast of characters in Bel Canto).

    but if you do NOT do the characters justice, the consequences are MUCH larger than “you just wrote a bad book.”

    i didn’t say that no one had a right to write the story of someone from another race, just that it’s a pretty slippery slope, especially if you are part of the dominant culture writing a minority culture. (btw, this doesn’t go strictly along color lines–if you are a white person living in japan, for instance, you probably know a lot about japanese culture than they know about yours, and vice versa).

    i’m asking people to put some deep thought into the social implications of what can seem like a lighthearted decision. for many of people being represented by proxy, we writers need to pay respect.

  15. mel

    I think the point is white writers have always had the option, white people have historically had the option to assume and acquire other cultures (food, music, etc.). In reality, ANY writer can do whatever they want artistically, but the possibility that someone might “take” that story and make it their own instead of honoring it, makes me fearful. Honestly, it makes me feel like, wow, people of color have dealt with rights/land/language being taken away, and now stories, too?

    This is touching on the some sensitive issues. I for one am very pissed off about Arther Golden and his whole “Memoirs of a Geisha” – his source, the geisha he interviewed is actually SUING him – and the idea of a white man taking this Japanese woman’s real story and using it for his own gain. Yes, craft and respect is important, but with respect is the notion that maybe there are some really good reasons writing from a 1st person POV of a race that is not your own is…kind of invalidates that race’s experiences. That said, I write about characters outside my race from a *3rd person* POV, but I can never know what it’s like to be black, hispanic, etc. so consciously never do 1st POV. I don’t think saying “don’t write from another race’s pov” is taking anything away from anymore – more like advising caution and that it’s more than just a writing task, but one of social responsibility as well.

  16. mel

    (btw, apologies for all the typos, jadepark, I was trying to multitask at the office…)

  17. Pingback: byline: The Fake Korean « Writing Under a Pseudonym

  18. What’s the big deal? I do it all the time! Shakespeare wrote OTHELLO… and nobody seems to attach all this flap to THAT character…

    I think that people who write should trust the powers of their own observations and inner, “what if” scenarios. Stop worrying about IF you can — and just write! Write! Write! Free your mind — and your pen will follow!

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