Can You Write Across Identity Lines?

I have come across quite a few articles on the subject of whether or not it is appropriate for a person to write across lines of ethnicity and gender. The question of whether a white author should write about minority characters is particularly fraught. Today’s article was in the Atlantic, Literature Still Urgently Needs Non-White, Non-Male Heroes.

Monica Bryne writes that she grew up reading the tales of male heroes and that as a result she grew up to be reluctant to write about female characters. There was no model, she said, for a heroes journey with a female protagonist.

…my inner relationships with my childhood heroes’ creators became troubled. In my heart, I asked Ende and Tolkien and Herbert: Did it ever even occur to you to write a hero who didn’t look like you? To use your privilege to humanize and valorize everyone, instead of just yourself?…

When I wrote The Girl in the Road, I chose to write my hero with brown skin, specifically, both as an answer to what I perceived to be the imaginative and empathetic failures of my progenitors

I have not read The Girl in the Road, so I can’t comment on Bryne’s success. It does seem to me, however, that this is the wrong approach to character creation. (And it may well be an explanation after the fact rather than a real description of her process.)

Writers write the stories they are able to tell and the ones that fascinate them and grip them enough to carry them through the long process of creation. This may be a character like the author or it may be a character that is different from the author. I suspect that a character has to be at least somewhat different from the author to give the writer the requisite curiosity to want to explore him for the years it can take to produce a novel.

For myself, I have found that when I write too autobiographically the results are self-indulgent and terrible. I need some imaginative distance from my own biography. On the other hand, the character can’t be so far outside my experience that I can’t make him feel real. So the end product is a combination what I know, what I am fascinated by, and what I imagine.

If I were to say, “There are not enough stories with African-American protagonists, and I think I should write one,” the results would be clunky. Not because I am incapable of imagining the internal life of a Black woman but because I would be approaching her as a representative of a social identity rather than as a person in her own right. The only reason I would make the choice to write from that perspective is if a story came to me that I could not imagine any other way. In which case, I would not hesitate.

In my novel Angel, I told the story of a Christian minister who is dealing with a same sex attraction, not because I felt I had something important to say about bisexuals or Christians or because I felt these groups were underrepresented. I had some questions I wanted to explore through story telling– questions about beauty, social identity, the search for meaning through religion and the connection between love and a sense of the divine. Angel happened to be the form that story took.

I have written about this before:

One of the discussion questions came from a gay man who wanted to know, “How do you know how it feels to be a gay man?”

The answer, of course, is I don’t.  I can only imagine what it feels like to be in my protagonist Paul’s position just as I might imagine what it feels like to have children (an experience I have not had) or to be diagnosed with a life threatening illness or any other fictional situation I might want to write about.

When it comes to gender and sexuality it seems as though we get a bit distracted.  There are many attributes that define any person but there are only certain ones that we tend to focus on as making up someone’s identity…The fact of the matter is I don’t actually know what it feels like to be a “straight woman.”  I don’t know if I am typical of that category or not.  I don’t know if my heterosexuality is like other people’s heterosexuality or if my femininity is like other people’s femininity.  I can’t claim to know how it feels to be anyone but myself….

[Had I written a character that was supposed to represent all gay men]….  The result could easily have been a stereotype.  Just as I do not know what it feels like to be a “straight woman” only to be myself, no individual gay man could possibly be typical of everything that is true of gay men as a group.  That was the chance I took in writing.  It is the chance that every writer has to take whenever she writes.

So I believe that authors can write across identity lines, and I agree with Byrne that you need to be careful when crossing sensitive boundaries and be aware of your own pre-conceptions so you do not inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes. But I found something a little strange in the notion that white people have a moral obligation to write about minority characters in order to right social wrongs and give them a voice. (Byrne talked about how she almost abandoned her character but decided to plow forward “for a greater benefit.”)

I join Byrne in her call for more diverse voices in literature. I am also convinced that the problem is not that diverse voices are not speaking, it is that the commercial publishing world is not listening, and we, as audience members have assumptions that interfere with our hearing.

I have written a novel with teenaged protagonists and a novel with LGBT protagonists. I have found that the publishing world has a lack of imagination when it comes to audiences. A novel about teenagers must be a novel for teenagers. A novel about gay people has to be for gay people. (My novel with a bisexual Christian minister confused them to no end because they couldn’t decide if it was for Christians or for gays and if those two identities contradicted each other.) Likewise, an Indian author is more likely to get a contract if she writes about “the Indian experience” than if she writes workplace dramas or mysteries where Indian-ness is not much of an issue.

There are a number of combined modern assumptions, that the author’s social identity is a vital component of the work, and that audiences can only relate to characters who are “like them” as well as what the categories of “likeness” consist of. These dictate what gets published, promoted, reviewed, read and received. (I have found that people are more inclined to give a allegorical reading to stories that depict characters from under-represented groups. A reviewer is more apt to ask what the author of a book with Asian characters wants to say about “Asians” than to ask what the author of a book with a middle class, white protagonist is saying about “middle class white people.”)

The novel The Help has been mocked as “white girl discovers racism.” The problem here is not that it is a story about racism from a white perspective. That is a valid story to tell. The problem is that it is the only perspective getting through. A book about “the help” from the white point of view should be along side many stories by “the help” from their own point of view.  I am sure these stories have been written. They exist. They are well told and dramatic and they are published and promoted as if they are of interest to a “niche market.”  Those inside the “niche” are supposed to identify with the characters. Those outside the niche are not expected to identify with them but to learn about them.

The problem is that the powers that be assume people in socially dominant groups have no imaginations and cannot accept stories in which their demographic does not star. The question that we need to ask as an audience is– are they right?

I will have more to say about this topic, but in order to avoid making this way too long, I will pause for now and come back tomorrow.

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