skin color

A Justification for Writers

The following is by Writers in the Grove member Gretchen Keefer, and is based upon the prompt, “Writing in another’s skin.”

Recently a writer colleague commented on her experience describing her novel to an agent. As she listed the difficulties her black heroine faced, the agent stopped her and asked, “Have you had a black person read this?” (For “read” see “approve”.) Apparently this agent felt a white woman could not write about a black woman. Can she?

Whatever my characters may look like physically, one or another of them is expressing my point of view, my opinions, and my philosophy. That is what I know and that is why I am writing. There is something that needs to be said and I feel prompted to say it, however I can.

Most of my characters are women, of course. I haven’t assigned them a color or ethnicity (except maybe in fantasy stories). It helps that my stories are short and often the events depicted are more important that any physical description of the characters. I think actors of any ethnicity could portray my characters.

I admit I do not know about prejudice or abuse first hand. I have never personally lived through a fire, earthquake or other natural disaster that destroys all my worldly possessions. I haven’t had an amputation or been raped. Does that mean I cannot write about these types of experiences? There is a wealth of information available to provide background color while focusing on resilience, forgiveness, redemption, family unity, courage and love.

In my collage literature classes we were taught that “great” or “good” literature that stood the test of time was written around universal themes – themes that appealed to a majority of people across cultures. That is why these pieces are still read and studied long after the authors are dead. Shakespeare borrowed many stories from the Italian Renaissance, yet his plays are translated and performed around the world. So what if Olivier played Othello in black makeup? Were there any classical black actors in Britain in the 1950’s? Denzel Washington, a black actor, played the (Italian) duke in a recent film version of As You Like It, with no comments about looking different from the other actors.

The play (or other story) is the thing to capture the mind (paraphrasing Hamlet). The story is what counts, not what color the characters may be.

So I say to my colleague, and to all writers, “You go girl!”

Write what you need to write, however it works out.

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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.