Monthly Archives: October 2012

Fiction: writing characters of another race

Jeebus mega storm front.

I feel a lot of pressure to do the polite thing and say fiction writers should write whatever they want. This pressure stems from the fact that I am inherently insulting writers by limiting their imaginations and telling them their imaginations *are* limited when it comes to imagining race. I’ve been told as much by writers when I broach the topic of writing characters of another race.

One specific response to my wariness about writers writing characters of another race has been, “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?” (This writer is married to a Famous Writer whose long awaited book includes characters of different races; said Famous Writer is white and writes from a black person’s point of view in his most recent novel).

Here’s the thing: writers often do each other a disservice by being polite instead of speaking their truth. We don’t make each other better by offering up platitudes. We make each other better by offering up our specific truths and subsequent challenges.

And well–it’s been awhile since I pissed people off, so I guess I’ll take a risk here and say that I don’t think writing characters of another race should be any sort of dalliance. If it is in any way, don’t write them. Writers should tread very carefully and thoughtfully (as they always should) when writing another race, because there is the added weight of social responsibility in that very act.

If you think social responsibility doesn’t belong in fiction, then that’s another place we might differ. Ever read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha? It’s bad. It’s so bad that the geisha upon whom he based the book sued him for misrepresentation. And speaking of geishas, ever read Breakfast at Tiffany’s by the brilliant Truman Capote? Even Capote misstepped with the Japanese American Mr. Yunioshi (and don’t even get me started on the movie’s (and Mickey Rooney’s) very shrill and racist representation of the character with coke bottle eyeglasses and buck teeth). Or the recent controversial book The Help by Kathryn Stockett–criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of its characters of color. These are only one of many books in which writers wrote outside of their race and failed, because of writerly thoughtlessness.

To be frank, failing at writing characters of another race–and by failing I mean being thoughtless and insincere and not aiming to understand or empathize–comes off like doing Blackface. The only “successful” Blackface I’ve ever witnessed is Robert Downey, Jr. in “Tropic Thunder” and that was done completely as satire.

Literature should strive to tell the truth, and by turning a blind eye to social responsibility (and I’m not talking about making heroes out of our own race or other races—but about being genuine and authentic and multi dimensional and true), writers do harm with their writing. Thoughtlessness should be the last thing writers convey about any matter, and I don’t think thoughtlessness about racial identity should be excused.

I think that it’s nearly impossible to understand another race without BEING the other race, but if you are determined to write a character of another race, at least do the research. Travel. Live abroad. Live the life of. And still, realize you don’t assume the life of.

There was one woman in my MFA program years ago who insisted she could and should and would write whatever she wanted. This, after a heated class discussion in our craft of fiction class (incidentally taught by a writer of color) about writing outside our race. In that discussion, the class was divided between writers who felt that writing outside of our race was a singular matter of imagination versus writers who pretty much felt, “Noooo waaaay.” During that discussion, another (white) writer even went as far as to say, “Writers of color are so lucky. Your stories are so much more interesting. I wish I were a person of color as a writer. You have an advantage.”

I replied politely (I regret this), and murmured “That’s not true.”

The writer who left the class saying she was determined to write a character of another race? She wrote a first person POV piece where a Chinese male protagonist spoke Ching-Chong-ese (ah-so!) and submitted it to workshop. The professor-of-color leading that workshop was not amused. Classmates were horrified. I am not sure she proved her point.

I can’t help but notice that it’s mostly white writers who get angry when I say I have deep misgivings about writers writing chars of another race. (The woman who wrote the Ching-chong-ese piece was also white). I am not sure why this is. Why this need to appropriate race?

There is also the corollary thought that since minority culture has to live within the majority culture, it might be more possible for minorities to write majority characters–i.e., white expats living abroad in for example, Asia, might have better understanding because their lives are immersed in another culture. Or people of color in the United States might have better understanding of white culture. Not necessarily so, but possibly so.

In my opinion, the majority culture has a harder time understanding the minority on a deep level required for synthesizing great fictional characters than it is for the minority to understand the majority population. I don’t think Korean people in Korea, for example, understand mainstream (white) American culture. But vice versa? Perhaps. And people of color in America? Perhaps.

Maybe for some of you, the above is a matter of fact. It is definitely a matter of fact for me. But every time I bring this point up to someone in the majority (white) culture, I am often met with indignant surprise. And that disturbs me; that someone thinks they understand but does not.

This is not to say that ex-pats living abroad don’t have a minority experience in which they can absorb a new culture. To that end, I think most women write men better than men write women. (Maybe that’s the downfall of Arthur Golden–he not only failed while writing Memoirs of a Geisha at representing and writing Asian characters–he failed at writing female characters).

So take a minute before you think you have “the right” to write characters of another race. It isn’t “a right.” But you could make it an act of privilege and do right. And good luck.

Update August 2013: My thoughts on this subject are continuing to evolve, as all things do. But I submitted a panel proposal on writing characters of another race (“How Far, Imagination: Writing Characters of Another Race in Fiction”) to AWP 14 in Seattle–and it’s been accepted. See you in Seattle, where we can discuss this topic together!


Filed under Race, Writing

e-books and hard copy books: the difference between buying and reading

In case many ppl are simultaneously thirsty, a wall of drinking fountains.

I buy a greater number of books on my Kindle, but READ a larger percentage of purchased hardcopy books.

In terms of concrete numbers:
2012: 58 e-books purchased (11 read)
2011: 49 e-books purchased (10 read)

In contrast, I bought about 10 hardcopy books each year (not counting cookbooks), and read almost all of them.

My book buying habits bode well for the book industry if indeed they reflect a larger trend–buying an e-book can be done at any time of day, with nearly-instant gratification. When I was reading the Fifty Shades of Grey and Hunger Games trilogies, I found myself buying and downloading the successive books at three o’clock in the morning. And then barreling forward with my reading.

Or if I hear about a good book during conversation or while reading an author interview. Bam. Downloaded again.

So when is it that I buy a hardcopy? When the book isn’t available as an e-book (like Octavia Butler or many of Chuck Palahniuk’s books). Or as a collectible. When the writer is a friend. Or I want the book signed. I will also buy both an e-book and hardcover copy of a book if I want the book accessible to me while traveling and/or the hardcover gets signed and it becomes precious (e.g., when Toni Morrison signed my hardcover copy of Home).

Maybe the books I buy in hardcopy are the reason I read more hardcopy books, you think. That they’re my friends’ books. Or an author whose writing I’m already familiar and already love.

But inevitably for me, it’s the tactile sensation of reading. Turning an actual page. Hearing the page turn.

The Kindle has its various attractions for me–the aforementinoed instant gratification, and the fact that I can carry an entire library with me on a plane.

I have friends who say they read more on Kindle (and anecdotally, I’ve found these friends are mostly software engineers (including my husband) who might be more attuned to reading a screen)–but for the most part my social network says they too read more hard copy books.

Do you buy more books on Kindle/as e-books? Or as hardcopy books? Why? And which format do you find more readable?


Filed under Reading



I am not sure why, when I was dealing with infertility for 13 years, so many mothers either stayed silent or looked at with me pity and said I was missing out on the Greatest Thing Ever. They rarely shared with me motherhood hardships. I had to figure out the upside of being childless, and embrace a life without a child.

And now that I am nearly 7 months pregnant, I am not sure why so many mothers congratulate me and then share all these AWFUL things (sleepless nights, subjugation of personal dreams, no time to write, no time to groom, your vajayjay will no longer be the same, etc.,) about motherhood.

Couldn’t they have switched the juxtaposition? Why not tell me how hard motherhood is, when I couldn’t be a mother? And tell me about motherhood’s joys when I’m pregnant?

And either way, I’m going to have to deal with my life. I’m going to have to figure it out. Why not at least be kind?

I am going hysterical with panic about writing and motherhood.

I went to the NYPL last night, where I heard Cheryl Strayed talk about WILD, The Dear Sugar column, and mostly about her writing life.

A large chunk of her talk focused on “writing like a motherfucker, during which Cheryl discussed “motherfuckertude.”

And whodathunkit: in reviewing her words last night, they are the VERY things I need to hear with regard to this whole panic about motherhood and writing.

Here are a handful of quotes from Cheryl Strayed last night:

“Being a motherfucker is a way of life, really. Having strength instead of fragility. And leaning hard into work rather than anxiety.”

“I actually think true motherfuckerhood has to do with humility, doing the work. Resilience and faith, being a warrior.”

“Being a motherfucker is about digging really deep. About going beneath the surface to find the truest thing.”

And there you have it. I’ve gotta be a motherfucker about my writing. I feel better now. Juxtaposition wins–I thank my good friend Nova for inviting me to the talk last night. Her kindness and generosity juxtaposed with my panic. Cheryl Strayed’s kindness and wisdom juxtaposed with my panic. It can overcome so much.

I’ve been a motherfucker before. I can be a motherfucker again.


Filed under Life, Pregnancy, The Personal

Freaking out

Looking up

I’ve kept this news on the down-low. For so many reasons. Because it makes me feel vulnerable. Because I don’t want to jinx it. Because it is scary business. Because it’s been a largely private journey. Because I’m wary of everyone’s reaction to the news. Because everyone expects me to be giddy-happy, and the journey has been so complicated and heartbreaking. Because it fills everyone else with expectations.

Because it’s one of the things I’ve most desired, and I wanted to keep it to myself for awhile. Because it’s one of the things I’ve most desired, and I wanted to protect myself for awhile. And I’d like to keep protecting myself, but it’s just impossible.

But now–I feel compelled to share, because I am freaking out, partly because I’ve been shrouding myself in quiet privacy. And this fear–this fear has found its way into the crevices of my identity as a writer–because my identity itself is changing. I’m in this weird transition–from one thing to another.

Because you see, after thirteen years of trying and not-not-trying and multiple times given up and then, after wiping my tears on my sleeve, forged on ahead again…I’m pregnant. I’m over 26 weeks pregnant, in fact. About 2/3 of the way through my pregnancy.


And yes I’m happy. It took me a long time to allow myself to relax and be happy, to say it will be okay, that this is real. I shared with one friend and then another and then another, one at a time, dipping my toe into the water, revealing my secret, getting used to saying, “I’m pregnant.”

I couldn’t even say, “I’m pregnant” to the OBGYN receptionist on the phone, which prompted her to say, “Why are you making a checkup appointment with an OB? You can call your primary care physician, you know.” To which I said in garbled voice, “Because I’m prrrrrregnannnnnnt.” Oh it felt weird to say that. It felt like someone else saying so. It felt unreal. In those early weeks, I was cocooned in caution. The caution cocoon happens when you try and try and try and never get something you want.

We reached milestone after milestone. In disbelief at the good news each time. Deep down, we were thrilled. Deep down, the drumbeat picked up its pace. And yet, we measured our outward reaction, because all those years trying to get pregnant? They took away a big chunk of our innocence. And that’s okay. Sometimes things cost innocence.

I’m not freaking out about being pregnant anymore. I’m excited. I’m not freaking out about giving birth. It’s going to happen. I’m not freaking out about the changes in my body. It’s a part of the process.

There is a new freakout: I’m freaking out, as I do most changes in my life, about how it will affect my writing, which is a core part of my life, identity, and sanity.

Some of my non-mama friends have told me it’s just like anything else–that I’ll just make the time–that people have jobs and responsibilities and they manage to carve out time for writing. But I have a strong feeling that motherhood is unlike anything else–even while pregnant, this thing has taken over my psyche, my thoughts, my heart, my finances, my time, my body, and my time. It’s all-consuming.

For the record–I haven’t had that creative-burst that people say women have during pregnancy. It just hasn’t happened, thus increasing my silent freak-out. I really wanted to finish a major revision of my novel before giving birth. That isn’t going to happen, even though I’m forging onwards in my revision so that I’ll have no regrets.

The closest I’ve ever come to having something hijack my writing is my stroke, which left me completely unable to write fiction for nearly two years. And yet my stroke recovery was still a time focused utterly on myself. That ain’t motherhood, either.

I am positive that longterm, motherhood will be amazing for my writing. That it will inform me as a human and in turn my writing. That my kid is going to give me tons of ideas and windows into the rooms of life that I haven’t yet entered.

But short term? I am anxious. I know I won’t be able to revise my novel for a few months. But will it be a year away? Two years away? I don’t know how I could handle that.

How do you manage? How do you transition your identity as a writer into motherhood? What are tips for making time? How long did it take to get back to your writing? Are there things I’m overlooking?

I have so many questions. So many questions.


Filed under Life, Pregnancy, The Personal, Writing