Last year, I wrote a panel proposal on writing outside of your race in fiction for the AWP Conference 2014. Writing characters of another race is a topic with which I have long been entrenched–since the days of being in an MFA program, and I was psyched when it was accepted. This an important topic that begs discussion, and is yet rarely discussed in open space. And I was thrilled to have an opportunity to discuss something so sensitive at AWP with some respected writing friends and mentors.
At AWP a couple months ago in Seattle, we (Randa Jarrar, Patricia Engel, Mat Johnson, Susan Ito, and I) had an amazing audience turnout for our panel entitled “How Far Imagination: Writing Characters Outside Your Own Race in Fiction”–people spilled out into the hallway in attendance, and sat on the floor all the way up to our feet. At 10:30am in the morning on the first day of the conference, no less.
Needless to say, I was pleased with the reception. We had a very intense and enriching panel discussion, and then we segued into a Q&A that was largely audience-driven. I’m not sure in hindsight, as moderator, that I made the right call in calling first on a man who interrupted the panel mid-discussion.
“I have a question!” a man called out in the middle of our discussion.
I told him to hold off until our Q&A session. And so when our Q&A began, I felt obliged to call on him, first. Because I’m polite. And I’m a fairly competent moderator and I figured I could handle most conflict. Even though he is the kind of person who will interrupt a panel in mid-discussion because He Has A Really Important Question. I kind of regret calling on him first. But it at least opened the gates wide open on what is sensitive terrain.
And we made some lively and important points on the panel, much thanks to our brilliant panelists.
There are a couple reviews of our panel up on the web. There’s a brief one here. And if you want to read about our panel in detail (albeited biased detail), The Atlantic did a write up of AWP and gave a major shout out to our panel. I’m very delighted at the amount of real estate allotted to us, even if it did make panelist Randa Jarrar sound shrill and reactive, and the dude-with-a-question into a well-intentioned victim. But then again, I think you could write an entire article about the complexities of our panel topic and how they play out in the writing world.
Excerpt/transcript of our panel after the jump…
Here is an excerpt from his article, during which David W. Brown discussed our panel for The Atlantic.
The most interesting panel I attended, by far, was titled “How Far, Imagination: Writing Characters of Another Race in Fiction.” Serious literary fiction takes the reader deep into the mind of a character. This is fine if you are, say, John Updike, and you’re writing about white men. But what if you want to write a character of a different race? How can you really, really understand what that means? The consensus of the panel was that this is a very hard thing to do indeed. But, said Mat Johnson, a professor and author of the acclaimed novel Pym, “I’m trying to write about the world, and if you’re trying to write about the world, usually other ethnicities, other cultural backgrounds, other genders, other sexual expressions, come into the text. And so I understand why some people get very uncomfortable very quickly about the question of writing outside of one’s race, particularly, but also writing outside your personal identity.”
That said, he said, “It’s very easy and quick to say ‘I can write whatever I want to write and I can do whatever I want to do.’ The next step is a responsibility—you have to really engage the character, engage in a historical understanding of how characters of that race have been portrayed, engage in, really, something beyond ‘I’m just going to have a puppet that holds up my preexisting notions of how this race acts.’” To do this, the author must understand racial stereotype and the history of propaganda, to say nothing of the complicated history of race and racism in the United States.
It was a compelling argument. When the panel took questions, however, things got really uncomfortable really quickly. The first questioner was a white guy who spoke with a kind of cowering nervousness that proved prescient, as he was cut off and then engaged by Randa Jarrar, a professor and sometimes-contributor to Salon. Here is the exchange:
NERVOUS WHITE GUY: I tend to work with undocumented immigrants in Washington there are a lot stories there that need to be told but that’s not a group that’s gonna be able really to tell those stories—
RANDA JARRAR: How do you know that? I’m sorry. [but in a definitely-not-sorry tone]
NWG: Well because first of all, and again I feel a little out of place doing this because as a white male I feel like—I’m a little out of place. First of all a lot of them have a fourth-grade education. Second of all, they’re not native—this isn’t the culture they’re telling the stories to—my goal is to tell their stories to the broader community and having worked—
JARRAR: You mean not to their community?
NWG: Well to their community too but this has to do with getting their stories to the dominant community so they can understand what’s going on in this community. Does that make sense? I mean, I feel an obligation to help—
JARRAR: What’s the “dominant community”?
NWG: The Anglo community.
JARRAR: So you’re appropriating stories about—by immigrants with supposedly 4th grade educations and selling them to the dominant white community, and I think you really want to interrogate that.
The moderator tried to inject a little levity, but the whole thing went downhill from there. NWG then added about a dozen apologies, and then kind of gave up and said, “You’re right, maybe I can’t do this,” and then offered a blanket apology: “If I have offended anyone—please help me work through this.”
In retrospect I’m not even sure what the guy’s question was, exactly, except that maybe he was just asking permission to keep going on his book. In which case the panel decided that, at best, this guy needed to just get the immigrants’ oral histories and edit maybe an anthology or something, or maybe hook the immigrants up with a nonprofit writers workshop where they can write their own stories—something! anything!—but just give up the idea of writing a book of your (i.e. NWG’s) own.
After the discussion ended I bumped into NWG and figured, what the hell, I’d be a journalist and just ask what his deal was.
This was his deal. His name is Greg and for 12 years he has worked for a Catholic charity in Spokane, helping undocumented immigrants. (The nature of the help and the definition of “undocumented” were never specified.) He said: “I just feel there’s an obligation to tell a story that people aren’t hearing.” He explained quite honestly that your average American just doesn’t care about this problem, and isn’t likely to search the issue out at bookstores. “Maybe I have credit, if we’re dividing people into groups like that—maybe I have a certain standing to tell their story.”
Then he choked up, and then he started crying. Not weeping, really. Just a lot of tears and long pauses. He explained that when he goes before his group’s clients, he’s always met with crossed arms and closed ears, and told These people are illegals and need to get out. Once clients learn the human story, however, they change, moved by the torn families and poverty and suffering and so on. “I watch them become receptive,” he said. “My goal is to open up an audience to be receptive to something they wouldn’t hear otherwise.” It seemed pretty obvious that this was serious business to Greg, who believed that writing this book might make a real difference.