Prompt: From Within Their Skin

The discussion and prompt today was on diversity in writing. The discussion was inspired by the New York Times article, “I’m Indian. Can I Write Black Characters?” by Thrity Umrigar:

I’ve always thought about it this way: If men can write about women and science fiction writers can write about space aliens, surely I can write about someone from a different race. And I have spent my entire adult life in the United States. Why shouldn’t I write about that most American of topics — race and race relations?

The debate about whether writers should create worlds and characters based in cultures other than their own is an important one. At its core, pushback in this area serves as a corrective to centuries of colonialism, stereotypical portrayals and racist caricatures. But I worry about how we balance pertinent questions about appropriation with the creative freedom to push boundaries and take risks that are essential to good writing.

To add another wrinkle to this debate, I have never been asked about the appropriateness of creating white American characters, as I did in an earlier novel, “The Weight of Heaven.” Of course, this probably has to do with our country’s ignoble history of racism and racist stereotypes, especially about African-Americans. There’s justifiably less concern about misrepresentation of white Americans.

We talked about how the industry whitewashes the characters we write about, and the confusion from the writers and publishers about the growing demand today for diverse characters. We discussed the struggles and challenges associated with writing a character unlike the author, and techniques to see the world through different eyes.

The prompt is to get inside the skin of someone not like you and write from that perspective.

As Umrigar wrote in the article:

I have made my peace with the fact that I have to defer to the publisher’s expertise about the realities of the marketplace. But to limit myself to write books only about India is to condemn me to tell the same stories. And that kind of pigeonholing is a creative death.

So, I will continue to tell the stories that I am called upon to tell. I know I’ll spend many more interviews explaining the characters I create, and that this tension contains its own revealing, dramatic and painful story about our culture and history.

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