A few years ago, a writer named Ashima Saigal from Grand Rapids, Michigan, witnessed an incident on a bus in which a group of black kids were mistreated by the police. She was disturbed, and soon after, she wrote about it. Later, reading over what she’d written, she realized the story wasn’t working. She’d tried to write from one of the kid’s perspectives, but Saigal, who is Indian-American, wasn’t sure that she had the skill or knowledge to write from the point of view of a black child. She decided to sign up for an online creative writing course called “Writing the Other.”
The course was founded by the speculative-fiction writers Nisi Shawl, who is black, and Cynthia Ward, who is white, nearly twenty years ago. They’d met a decade or so earlier, at a fantasy and science-fiction workshop, and were inspired to design their own writing class after a conversation with another classmate, a white friend who’d declared that she’d never write a character who didn’t share her background or identity because she’d be sure to get it wrong. “My immediate thought was, ‘well that’s taking the easy way out!’” recalled Shawl. While imagining the lives of people who are different from you is virtually a prerequisite of most successful fiction writing, the consequences of doing it poorly have grown more serious since the pre-Twitter, pre-woke ’90s, as the conversation about who gets to tell whose stories has moved from the fringes of publishing into the mainstream. J.K. Rowling, Lionel Shriver, and Kathryn Stockett have all caught heat for botching the job. In the young-adult fiction world, a number of books have been pulled in advance of their releases for clichéd and problematic portrayals of minorities. The conversation is often depicted in the media as a binary: On one side are those who argue that only writers from marginalized backgrounds should tell stories about people who share their cultural histories — a course correction for an industry that is overwhelmingly white — while on the other are those who say this wish amounts to censorship.
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One of the goals of the course is to shift the conversation from “whether” to “how.” The class is predicated on the idea that “writing the other” is a skill that can be taught and learned, like any aspect of the craft. Shawl and K. Tempest Bradford, a speculative fiction writer who co-teaches the class, urge their students to get comfortable describing a character as black or Asian or white. They warn of common pitfalls — like comparing skin tones to chocolate and coffee and other kinds of food, which carry colonial associations and can make people sound like commodities, intended to be consumed. Students learn to analyze their identities and the unconscious biases that shape their work. They consider why some identities are more challenging to render than others. They practice taking risks.
After taking the course, Saigal decided to set the story she’d been working on aside. “There was something about being in that class that helped me recognize I don’t have enough skill yet to do that,” she explained.
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I spoke to ten authors about how and why they decide to write outside their identities. Some found their interior lives uninteresting; others were compelled to represent the diverse worlds they inhabited. “There is no exact formula,” says Laila Lalami, author of the National Book Award finalist The Other Americans. “It’s not as if you can give a prescription to a writer: Take two teaspoons of empathy, a drop of research.” They each approached the work in different ways, and none were immune to the fear that they might get the other wrong. “It’s scary to be bold,” says the horror novelist Victor LaValle, whose seventh book will be his first with an all-female cast of protagonists. “But that’s what makes the work exciting.”
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In grad school, the curriculum I was taught was virtually all white. Very few people, if any, were talking about writing cross-racially — the necessity of it, the dangers of it. It took me a long time to even admit to myself that that’s what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I’d struggled with a novel that I tried to write for six or seven years, that was a complete disaster, that I had this idea which became my 2014 novel, Your Face in Mine. It’s about a white American who undergoes racial-reassignment surgery and becomes a black person. I did a lot of research. There’s a whole American literature on the subject — books like Passing. But the other thing I had to do was really search my own background. As a white kid growing up in Baltimore in the early ’90s, just totally obsessed with hip-hop, saturated in the golden era of Public Enemy and De La Soul — how did that affect my identity as a young person? And how did it shape me later, when I went to college, where I was effectively told that I had to forget that side of myself?
My editor and I had a lot of questions about why exactly my protagonist chooses to do this. Does he authentically feel like he’s a white person in a black body, or does he do it as a kind of fraud? When the novel came out, critics dove into those questions in interesting ways — is it possible for someone to actually want to be black? Why? Is there really such a thing as a transracial person who actually believes that they are black? My answer to those questions was yes. I do think there’s a relationship between longing to be black, and the decision, as a white writer, to write outside one’s own identity. I’ve always experienced cross-racial longing, and that translates into my fiction. My profound skepticism about my own whiteness drives me to write the kind of fiction and nonfiction that I write. When I went out on the road with Your Face in Mine, a student asked me a version of that question: ‘How can you be comfortable writing from a nonwhite perspective?’ I said to the student, ‘That assumes I’m comfortable writing from a white perspective, and I’m not.’ I’ve never been comfortable with normative representations of white American characters. I’m always looking to undermine and deconstruct and take apart those representations. That’s the material I’m drawn to, and it’s also the material of my life.
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The Inevitable Critique
I’ve always written characters who were different than I was because I came of age in a multiracial lesbian community. I had an experience of interracial life that straight white people of my generation often didn’t. Take Meg Wolitzer — because she was straight, she was in an all-white literary world. Another significant factor: I did not go to an MFA program, and those were very whitening until like, yesterday. My writing training came from working in the underground feminist and gay newspapers of the late ’70s and early ’80s. I learned by writing about the people who were reading those newspapers. It was a very interactive readership — if they didn’t like what I wrote, they would tell me. My first characters with AIDS showed up in People in Trouble. I was surrounded by mass death, and the people around me were dying very quickly, and there was no record of the things they said about their own lives. What I was writing was witness fiction: I listened to people with AIDS and wrote down what they said.
In my first book, which came out in 1984, there were two characters of color — one worked, one didn’t. The one I think worked was an Asian lesbian rocker named Melanie Chang. She was kind of based on someone I knew. And then there was a kind of fake black best-friend character who didn’t work. She wasn’t based on anyone I knew. The characters who were based on people I knew were better characters at first. I’ve been told I got it wrong. Jacqueline Woodson told me I was wrong to have one of the protagonists in Shimmer be concerned by a biographical detail — that her black grandfather was once married to a white woman. She said a black person wouldn’t be hung up on this. I thought, Okay, I didn’t have the awareness to be accurate. It motivated me to work harder. Although, her statement has since been contradicted by other people. That’s the other thing. There is no monolithic black opinion. Still, I would have finessed this character differently. The Cosmopolitans, which came out almost 20 years later, has a black protagonist and a white protagonist. I asked Tayari Jones to read that manuscript and she said, ‘Yep, they’re black.’ It’s about being in conversation with people. But that only goes so far. I can never be in a room where there are only black people because as soon as I walk in, that’s ruined.
Link to the rest at Vulture
PG will note that writing about other persons and places who were much different than oneself has been widely accepted for centuries.
Would today’s world be improved in any way if Mark Twain had never written Huckleberry Finn? Or if Shakespeare had never written Othello?
What about Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, thought to be the best-selling novel of the 19th century (it sold over one million copies in Great Britain). Her book depicts black people in a demeaning manner which is highly offensive to 21st century sensibilities. Her book was also widely credited with galvanizing the Abolitionist movement which kept the North fighting when a great many thought the cost of the war in money and lives was too great and that an armistice should be negotiated with the Confederacy. (According to recent studies, The Civil War resulted in an estimated 650,000-850,000 casualties. One out of ten white males in the US were killed in the war. About 22% of the population of southern men between 20-24 lost their lives. It was an enormously costly war.)
PG suggests that authors write about the people and topics they feel moved to write about.
Fortunately, an author writing in the third decade of the 21st century doesn’t have to run a gauntlet of timid publishers located in the rigid, provincial confines of New York or Boston to offer her/his thoughts for sale in the largest bookstore in the world.
Harriet, who was turned down by many publishers before finding a brave one, would be envious of the broad path available to authors who have important things to say to the world today.