In college I wrote a story from the perspective of a black girl in 1950s America. It was a 5k word story about a girl whose town was racist and having troubles. It ended with some folks beating up her brother, making her drop her milk and watch it pool on the extremely dry dust, wondering if the two would ever meld.
Ok, it wasn’t the best story, but I liked the ending and submitted it to be work-shopped in class.
We spent the vast majority of my time debating whether I, a middle class white girl in 2007 going to a private college, had the right to write this story. One person admitted that they weren’t sure they could take my story seriously, not because of the writing, but because they were looking me in the face. I took that conversation and said “well ok. I guess maybe I didn’t have the right. So I’ll stick to writing what I know.”
And I did. I wrote a story about two white guys in the Vietnam war which was received much better, and didn’t go much further.
Fast forward several years. Back in June, a friend of mine from way back linked something on facebook. It was called “Gee, I Don’t Know How To Write Characters of Color Tastefully“
Hey now! That’s me! Quite shocked, I started to read. ”Write What You Don’t Know.” ”Writing Characters of Color” “Writing Outside Your Experience“
It was about then I realized that I had made a major, major miscalculation. Several of them, in fact.
#3 Regardless of my experience with other cultures, those cultures still exist.
I grew up in middle-class white Nebraska. While my group of friends were predominantly white (with a few exceptions), I was well aware of other cultures. A playground friend was a refugee from Bosnia. When Sudan and Ethiopia began to get bad, refuges poured into my community. We spent an entire month learning African dance in elementary school, and Omaha has a very strong Native American history (hello, Council Bluffs!). The Mosque had an open house my family attended after September 11th.
However, my in-depth experience with these cultures was pretty pathetic. I never lived in those communities. I was a huge nerd in school, and my path stayed really, amazingly white. It wasn’t until I came to Korea that I started branching out, researching, travelling, and experiencing the amazing, astounding diversity within this world of ours. It’s one of those things that I knew the answer to (of course the world is huge and there are many different people in it!), but just didn’t understand.
The point does not rest with the theme of your story. You can have a story making a statement about the role of trees in a boy’s life, set in the most white-bread corner of America, completely culled of any diversity whatsoever. Your characters can be all blonde blue eyed beauties. But that does not change that beyond the fence of your story, beyond the confines of your words, there is a world. There is a world with brown eyes, blue eyes, green, gray, purple, one hazel and one speckled-black-and-brown-who-blinks-too-much. There is a world with wrinkles, laugh lines, short, tall, tan, taupe, khaki, mahogany, so-dark-your-eyes-can’t-help-but-look skin, and that lovely shade of sun soaked sandstone.
As an author, you gain nothing by shutting it out, so you might as well let it in.
#2 In trying not to insult people by not touching their culture, I am insulting more people by completely writing it out.
We are all aware that history is written by the victor. But what isn’t so obvious is that fiction is being written by the victor here as well (so to speak, at any rate). In this analogy, I am a white girl of privilege with not-all-that-much experience. Therefore, I have a blindness. Yes, I am working to remedy this, but the fact is, I’m oblivious, and therefore I overlook that obvious bit of “hello, there’s people that look different than you in the world.” I know this, but I am not aware.
Therefore, the whitewashing of my fantasy isn’t a favor but an insult. Artists privilege is one thing, but an author is never in a position of enough privilege to simply snip away that much reality. It would be akin to saying “hey guys, this fully functioning world eats nothing but wheat and water”. Ok, sure, for the sake of the story, some readers are going to roll with it and see what you’ve got. But lots of others are going to start at your text going What!? But there’s a cow! Right there! And your main character grows lettuce but doesn’t eat it?! Whatever!
I’ve been ignoring this weakness in my writing for awhile. But perpetuating my own blindness is not only bad for me, but insulting to my reader’s self and their intelligence.
#1 Most importantly, for every person discounting me because I am not what I write, there are hundreds more waiting for just that.
This was the one that got me really thinking. The same friend who linked me to that list of links is working hard to write an epic fantasy. I asked her what her goals for the story were, the themes. She said (Paraphrase) “I’m not sure yet. I just know that I wanted to write a story for people waiting for a character to identify with.”
And that was about the moment I realized I was really lucky. My childhood heroes, Alanna, Daine, they looked quite a bit like me. Sure, Alanna was short, but she still had a similar figure and the same skin, and hair that was the same texture. It was really easy to put myself in her place. Heck, I could cosplay as Daine with a minimal amount of work.
It was a little bit of a revelation to realize that not everyone’s that lucky.
So, what do you think? Have you read anything on this topic? Was this something which was always obvious to you, or did you have to learn it the hard way like me?
Stay tuned, I will be posting more on this topic later this week.