Monthly Archives: September 2013

Writing Characters of Another Race As It Pertains to Southern Cross the Dog

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Writing characters of another race is an ongoing craft/political interest obsession of mine. I’d say my thoughts on the subject are evolving, but at this point, they are deepening as well.

More and more, I do not think “freedom of the imagination” reigns supreme. More and more, I do not think one should consider writing another race and/or culture with any lightheartedness. In an ideal world, art and freedom would reign supreme, but because we don’t all enjoy the same freedoms and privilege, the act of writing another race is not that simple. And to think it’s that simple is to discount and dismiss the complications out there–complexities that include race and racism, no small things in the cultural landscape.

Then there’s the idea of “pulling it off,” or “getting away with it,” as Gracie Jin’s astute little post on polymic points out. Mainly, she asks the question, “Who gets away with writing another race/culture?”:

How many celebrated white writers have written characters who were not exactly like them? William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Pearl S. Buck, Colum McCann, Yann Martel, and Arthur Golden immediately come to mind. In a society masquerading as post-racial, it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man. People of color, on the other hand, are expected to speak only for themselves.

So there’s what. And she makes a good point.

Then there are the words, “getting away with it,” which in and of itself sounds shady (this, brought up by Tayari Jones on twitter). Is it a shady thing? And what’s so shady? Does the writer think that all writers should be able to write outside their race, or does she think no one should?

I have so many questions.

To that end, Matthew Salesses and I sat down with Bill Cheng, author of SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG to discuss the very subject of writing and race. In particular, we wanted to talk about writing characters of another race. The interview is published at ALIST Magazine.

It was a conversation that had its dose of friction and honesty and exhilaration. Friction, because Cheng and I don’t agree on most facets of writing characters of another race. Honesty, because Cheng and I were able to speak frankly about race with Salesses’ moderation capabilities. Exhilarating, because this is the kind of conversation that usually happens behind closed doors, and here we were discussing in a format intended for public consumption.

The interview is long. Salesses chose to run it unabridged; we touched on many things that would have suffered had they been put out of context.

Bill Cheng wrote a very good book set in the Jim Crow South, with nary an Asian American character. Cheng is Asian American, has never lived in the South (nor has he visited), and of course, was not alive in the Jim Crow historical timeline. Provocative. Risk taking. Daring. I find that pretty awesome.

But I also wanted to know what was going on in his head and heart when he wrote this book, for my edification as well as yours. Was he aware of the political nature of his doing so? How did he approach writing another race?

So does Bill Cheng “get away with it?” I’m not sure. The reactions to his interview with us at ALIST are spurring all kinds of reactions. And it’s interesting to note his observations and thoughts alongside the points made in Gracie Jin’s polymic post.

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Filed under Race, Writing

On Opportunity and Unexpected Collaboration

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Busy Mockingbird’s post on art collaboration with her four year old is inspiring. She is an artist. With a sketchbook. All artists know that there is sacred space–for me, that’s a Moleskine or my novel on Scrivener–for Busy Mockingbird, it’s her sketchbook. And you cannot invade sacred space. Nope.

Unless you’re a child. And you are all, “Sacred space? Huh? No. All space is shared space with me!”

And that’s what happened with Busy Mockingbird. Her daughter took over her sketchbook:

No longer had I drawn my first face (I love drawing from old black & white movie stills) had she swooped over to me with an intense look. “OOOH! Is that a NEW sketchbook? Can I draw in that too, mama?” I have to admit, the girl knows good art supplies when she sees them. I muttered something about how it was my special book, how she had her own supplies and blah blah blah, but the appeal of new art supplies was too much for her to resist. In a very serious tone, she looked at me and said, “If you can’t share, we might have to take it away if you can’t share.”

Oh no she didn’t! Girlfriend was using my own mommy-words at me! Impressed, I agreed to comply. “I was going to draw a body on this lady’s face,” I said. “Well, I will do it,” she said very focused, and grabbed the pen. I had resigned myself to let that one go. To let her have the page, and then let it go. I would just draw on my own later, I decided. I love my daughter’s artwork, truly I do! But this was MY sketchbook, my inner kid complained.

Not surprisingly, I LOVED what she drew. I had drawn a woman’s face, and she had turned her into a dinosaur-woman. It was beautiful, it was carefree, and for as much as I don’t like to share, I LOVED what she had created. Flipping through my sketchbook, I found another doodle of a face I had not yet finished. She drew a body on it, too, and I was enthralled. It was such a beautiful combination of my style and hers. And she LOVED being a part of it. She never hesitated in her intent. She wasn’t tentative. She was insistent and confident that she would of course improve any illustration I might have done. …And the thing is, she DID.

The result of the spontaneous collaboration is ASTOUNDING. Busy Mockingbird draws the human heads, and her daughter draws the bodies. This means dinosaur bodies. And slug bodies. And lobster bodies. And human bodies, too. But different. Together, they are amazing. Seriously, go take a look.

I was mesmerized. Mostly, I was hopeful.

You see, I’ve been, for the most part, miserable these days. I love my kid, but my life has been turned upside down. Inside out. Gutted. Meaningful fiction writing has been impossible. Sleep has only just recently been attained (and nowhere near pre-baby levels). I know, it’s only been 7.5 months. But still. My writing life is in shreds. I want to get back to my novel. How do other mom-writers do it? Is everyone lying?

I made a crack that said Busy Mockingbird’s post made me fantasize about my daughter finishing my novel.

Busy Mockingbird has some of the collaboration prints up for sale. I bought a print to remind me of the potential of collaboration with my daughter, if not literally, figuratively. And to tell myself that motherhood doesn’t equal loss. And to continue to give in and let go. There may be unexpected gains in doing so. This is new space. New sacred space. Scary as hell, and expansive as not-hell. There’s gotta be good stuff here. I’ll keep the faith.

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Filed under Life, Motherhood, Parenthood, The Personal, Writing