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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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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!

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