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.