jealous of oppression


I have mixed feelings about writing characters of another race–most of my concern has to do with how much social responsibility we as writers bear with our writing. So many people learn about other cultures through fiction, even more so than nonfiction historical books (there are literary nonfiction exceptions, like The Diary of Anne Frank and other great books like Elie Wiesel’s Night)–but mostly in history books, you don’t often get inside the head of another character and get a sense of their inner life. Your high school history texts don’t show you that. But literary work can go there. As writers, you’re making a first impression, you’re enlightening the world with literature.

And how do you get REALLY honest if you’re writing outside your race? There are bad people and good people, and most of us fall somewhere in between. If you are writing a character of another race, how can you do the character justice, how can you do that culture justice, but also be honest and possibly not flattering? I am all for complexity without confusion. And I think if you are writing a character outside your race, things can easily fall into confusion. Again, not a verboten thing, but I think a writer’s skill and heart are key.

Another reason I have mixed feelings about people writing characters of another race…revolves around the writer’s intention (again, this falls along the line of social responsibility).

The other day, I totally remembered a moment in my MFA program while munching on a garden salad at the Elephant Bar.

There was a classmate who told me once, “I wish I were a writer of color.”

I replied, “Really?” (because really, how else can you reply to that?)

“Because you have cooler stories.”

“About?” I stared at her closely. Was she serious? She looked dead serious.

“Racism, oppression, war. You have better things to write about.”

“Are you serious?” I responded.

“Yes,” she said. “You have more interesting experiences than we do. I wish I had those stories to tell.”

Uhhhh. I wanted to lay into her. Did she REALLY WANT THOSE STORIES TO TELL? I did tell her, “It’s not that simple–to have those stories to tell means you lived those stories–and I’m not sure that’s something to be jealous about.”

She looked at me, stunned. I hoped it was a look that meant she had had an epiphany. Sadly, it was not. She replied, “My life is so boring.”

Later, I heard she did write a story from the perspective of an Asian man. She workshoped in a class with a Famous Asian American Writer. I did not read the manuscript, but I heard the character spoke Ching-Chongese. Egads.



Filed under Life, MFA, Writing

11 responses to “jealous of oppression

  1. lucy

    omg. She’s an unintentional comic genius.

  2. arirang

    how tragic.

  3. Akrypti

    Someone needs to write a story about HER. Now SHE would make for some fantastic tragicomedic fiction. If only any of it could be couched as “fiction”… sigh.

  4. chicklit1028

    Sometimes I wonder if the best thing about going through an MFA program is coming out with stories like that.

  5. heather

    oh man. that’s choice. a similarly horrifying, only-in-an-MFA-workshop story. last year, my friend wrote a story that wasn’t “gay enough” for his uber-straight workshop.

    “you need to make it more clear that this is about being gay and fighting the heteronormative hegemony!” they told him.

    “how is it not clear that my characters are gay?” he asked. “they are f******ng each other in the a**!!!” also, the story had very little to do with fighting the power, which apparently wasn’t good enough. stories about people are no longer enough.


  6. lucy and arirang and Akrypti: I know–tragic comedy. 🙂 I can’t get into her head though, so someone else is more than welcome to write this.

    chicklit1028: I am beginning to, now that enough time has gone by…totally agree with you. I emerged with only very very few friends from the MFA program (fewer than 5 for sure–if you count dependable, close friends: fewer then 3). I seriously have better friends outside of my MFA program! Though I did meet lots of cool people, but they feel more like really nice people who are contacts because we don’t hang out in real life, or email more than once a year. A pretty remarkable feat, considering I spent nearly 4 years in my MFA program. But the stories are pretty funny. 🙂

    heather: I wish we went to school together–we would have been cackling the whole time. It’s remarkable what people feel free to say, isn’t it?

  7. anonwupfan

    You can drop $50K on your MFA. You can edit, develop, and workshop through a thousand reams of paper, but you can’t learn imagination.

    I’m starting my own public awareness campaign: Vacuous Drivel Knows No Color!

  8. Vacuous Drivel Knows No Color! VDKNC. 🙂

    Yep, lack of imagination with writing and writers…is sort of like cosmetic/plastic surgery. If you’re ugly on the inside, you can’t cure it on the outside, even with all the plastic surgery in the world.

  9. Richard

    Maybe that girl had friends on the Spanish men’s and women’s national basketball teams.

  10. richard: she is very athletic, actually.

  11. I believe I was in the workshop were that particular person’s stereotype laden fiction was born. I believe I was the first person to point out to the writer that she was writing a racist stereotype. What are people’s problems?!

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