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.