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On Writing Race

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May. 28th, 2013 | 10:21 am

So I wrote this.

And got a great question from similiesslip:

I find your perspective very interesting. I may be taking this too far but I truly would like to understand... Do you feel you have the right to invent stories only about those of your own nationality?

The following is also in the comments on that piece, but I'd love to hear from the flist (and other readers) on this, so I'm putting it right out here. Feel free to respond there or here.

>>>>>>>
I am SO GLAD YOU ASKED.

OK - so for writing contest purposes, it's "done" - I wrote what I could in the time I had. But this is a piece I want to keep working on as a larger essay for a literary journal. I don't think I covered what I want to cover as clearly and specifically as I can, and I think the ending is a little glib. So your question gives me a chance to think through what I'm trying to say more thoroughly.

Contextually, last week I wrote a piece in an urban black male voice - so hey, if I don't have the right to appropriate other cultures, that's sure hypocritical. I'm in South Africa right now, where I think about race and racism and racial history and cultural interaction pretty much every day (and where the story is much more complex than white=bad/oppressors, black=good/victims), so this is the drum I'm beating right now. And I just watched the remake of Total Recall, which opens with a written line, "Living space is now the most precious resource on earth". Then it cuts to the hero in an apartment that is at least 650sq ft, probably more like 800-900, and I'm like Dude, your spatial wealth is completely out of keeping with what the movie just told us and now I don't believe anything else this movie has to say. Because right now, every day I pass people living in shacks and shipping containers, in a country where living space isn't even close to the most precious resource.

When I first saw the contest prompt, "Write about Indians", I thought, That's pretty racist. (NB, I don't think it was intentionally racist, I think it was an idea that seemed simpler inside the suggestor's head than what I received, and neither I nor the suggestor own an absolute truth here). I thought, Well, shit, are we gonna get fifty "Native American legend" pieces from people with an indigenous great-grand-uncle and a dreamcatcher over their bed?

When I read kandigurl's piece (here), I thought she tackled it from a really neat angle--yes, it's a legend-type piece (and I don't know how much research she did or her cultural or racial background), but she's drawing on a lineage she owns and that her readers know she owns: the lineage of being a serious hula-hooper/hoop-dancer. She's approaching a cultural construct from a perspective that she has a right to tell--not casually making up cultural/racial history. So without having to justify her "right" to tell the story by writing a lot of personal bio, she's gotten in how she's connected to the material she's working with.

belleweather positioned herself as a narrator outside the world she's talking about (India - her piece is here) and discussed the pull she feels toward India, why she wanted to go there and what happened along that journey. Definitely viewing the culture from the outside, and her intersection with it.

And I also read comments from (I think) xo_kizzy_xo about not wanting to do either Native Americans or Asian subcontinent Indians because she didn't know enough about them to write them.

So from all those, I thought, well, I travel a lot, and I meet a lot of people who could be classified as "Indians" in one way or another, and often my interactions with them are clouded by enormous cultural assumptions and stereotypes.

- When I go to Alaska, "Natives" are the local "low" social class. They aren't all Inuit. "Eskimo" is offensive. The Native population is rife with alcoholism, domestic violence, child abuse, and every other social issue that goes with being low-status and low-income. Most Natives I've met are in service or menial positions. But there's a strong movement towards the reclamation of heritage, and the University of Alaska-Anchorage is one of the places that's happening. What I've experienced here, at another tribal dance event in a state I can't remember, and in learning a Japanese dance from native Japanese, is that cultural outsiders learning a dance from cultural insiders always do it like a "DANCE!" and the cultural insiders are always much more casual about the steps. So when we/me as a white person tries to learn more, my eagerness to do it right leads to not doing it right.

- In India, I was made incredibly welcome by almost everyone I met. But there's always the barrier of privilege--not only can I enjoy the culture around me and then go home to a place with drinkable tap water and excellent sanitation, I also get sent to the front of lines and treated more carefully. Some of this is because I'm a guest and the Indians I meet are being nice to guests. Some of the Indians I meet want my money and white/tourist money is bigger than local money.

- Every street performer I know (I think people who read me usually know I'm a street performer?) is prejudiced about gypsies. We ourselves are an outsider class, often viewed with suspicion or veneration, but the gypsies are our natural enemies. Our tribe jockeys with theirs for space in which to ply our trade and tries not to get stolen from or ripped off while they try not to let us take over their working territory. We advocate for or against panhandling laws, which directly impact Rom people's ability to make a living.

- At the festival in Macedonia, I'm pretty sure Elvis found that kid and beat the crap out of her. We didn't see her around any more. And I don't know whether I hate child abuse more or less than I hate having kids making a living by stealing from me. That's a hard thing to think about--that I'm directly complicit in a child being beaten for attempting to make her living in conflict with mine. Is it any better that kids stopped stealing from us after that? Because that means the penalty was actually a deterrent. We learned later (and this belongs in the longer version of the essay) that the armed guards around the equipment tents were for show, to make the performers feel better. No-one would steal from a Pane-owned tent, because they would be killed, as an example. So there's a lifestyle that has existed for thousands of years--Rom--that is now being brought into conflict with whiteness with some serious consequences. Stealing is wrong and it hurts me personally as well as the festival's ability to entertain the local population for free. How do we reconcile those two elements?

As a writer, I feel like I/we have a responsibility to tell the stories of others with purpose and as faithfully as we can. We don't have to make "others" heroes, but we must be honest with their story, and we must do the work to have the right to tell their story. For my piece last week, I thought about it very technically in terms of the structure of young black urban male linguistic signatures, and worked a lot on making the story about a full character who was this person and trying to avoid stereotype. I ran the piece by three young black men who I've known for years (they were my students who are now my colleagues, and they're all actors, so they think about dialect/speech patterns) for feedback. Most of my pieces about India so far are about my experience there. I've encountered some ideas in my female Indian friends and colleagues that I'd like to write about, but they're on the back burner until I know a lot more about them, so I don't say something stupid for lack of research.

So, I think what I'm driving at with:
"I do not have the right to tell their stories"

Is that with regards to "Indians", I don't yet know enough to tell a story from inside an "Indian" character of any denomination. I'm building my resources towards that, in terms of knowing Indian and Native Canadian and Alaskan Native people, and observing in their worlds when I'm there. So maybe one day I will, but not yet.

And with:
"I will never have the right to invent their stories."

My sense is that I can report faithfully, but I don't want to just make stuff up. Like I said above, I think kandigurl skirted that nicely by telling a story about a lineage she owns, and belleweather wrote about a culture from the outside. (By the way, I haven't read any other pieces yet, so I'm not using this post to intentionally imply that anyone else's work is racist or inappropriate) I think in two more years, I might be able to write a piece about Indian women writers balancing their artistic and personal lives, but I'm not going to be making up any origin stories or invent traditional-feeling legends because I don't belong to that culture and I think it would be presumptuous to do so.

So. This is a tough issue--I want to be able to have freedom writing who I want to write, I don't want to create racist or appropriative work.

So how do I/we do that?

_____________________________________________
And if you have time for direct critical feedback on the piece itself:

Of what I'm trying to say, what actually got into the piece? And of what I've discussed here, what belongs in the piece that isn't there?





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Comments {43}

Kizzy

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from: xo_kizzy_xo
date: May. 28th, 2013 02:50 pm (UTC)
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My piece was discovering native history in my own backyard then finding either many discrepancies or nothing at all in my research :)

I see your writing of late as more in the creative nonfiction sense, in that you take a RL slice of life and form a narrative around it. I treasure that kind of narrative because it not only introduces me/the reader to something I/the reader may know little to nothing about, it it also gives a voice to whatever that RL slice of life is.

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whipchick

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from: whipchick
date: May. 28th, 2013 02:54 pm (UTC)
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I have to say I love slice of life stuff - I love getting to look up facts and figure out how to connect them to a narrative. Dick Francis wrote a ton of mysteries, all related to horse-racing, but each from a different perspective - one hero was a glassblower, one a caterer, one a wine-merchant, etc. I loved that every book let me learn about a new world.

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similiesslip

(no subject)

from: similiesslip
date: May. 28th, 2013 03:21 pm (UTC)
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I'm going to keep thinking about this.

I appreciate you explaining it in more detail though.

I guess .. my first reaction was .. if that was how you feel, then I would be extremely limited in what I would be "allowed" to write as my experiences are so small. So my initial reaction was disappointment.

But in reading your wider explanation, I guess I never thought as much as I should have about ... the role of responsibility in the depicting other people, even fictional people.

So, that is something I need to think more about in my own writing. I'm disappointed that I have been so...casual about it.

I guess I somewhat viewed writing as "an escape" for me which is selfish. I never thought much about the responsibility side of fiction. I know one needs to portray accurately if writing for publication. I just never applied the same principles to my Idol entries.

But the more I think about what you wrote, maybe I should.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: May. 28th, 2013 07:11 pm (UTC)
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Viewing writing as an escape is totally valid and legit, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise!

For me, "getting it right" is a moral obligation. And hey, this is a little pretentious, but writing for me is so much of what I am that writing something wrong or false is a "lie" - it feels wrong the same way hurting someone's feelings feels wrong. I love writing, and I love being good at it, and I feel like--for me--the price of being good at it and being lucky to have people who are willing to read, is to be as well-researched and as honest as I can be. And that can mean, talking to someone who is like the character, or looking up facts, or thinking really hard, or being willing to write my own bad behavior in a personal essay.

I don't think it's that we're not "allowed" to write people different from ourselves. In fact, for me, one of the most exciting parts of writing is to meet someone interesting or go to an interesting place, and then research/interview/think a lot about what I've seen and try to write it in a way that feels like the truth. Sometimes the truth is writing in someone else's voice and trying to get it right. Sometimes the truth is writing from my perspective and acknowledging where I'm ignorant, or working from an assumption instead of a fact (and I think it's interesting in terms of both essays and fallible fictional narrators to call that out in the narrative).

So it's a journey. And it's OK to journey narrowly, and focus on your own experience, and it's OK to broaden that journey and focus on the experiences of others. Either way, you're going to end up with a lot of interesting information that you can put into words and share.

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Rowan

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from: mzrowan
date: May. 28th, 2013 03:29 pm (UTC)
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I very much liked the previous piece and this one. The amount of thought you put into this is, sadly, commendable. I say "sadly" because in an ideal world, everyone would put that much thought into how their culture, experience, and privilege intersect with and influence what they write.

Another thought I've had about this for some time: it seems like there's a bit of a catch-22 in the current moment, in that most published writers are still white, so if they demur on writing non-white characters, then there's a huge lack of diversity (as there has been down through the ages) in the stories told and the characters who populate them. I guess what I'm saying is that the world needs more writers like you right now. ;-)

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: May. 28th, 2013 07:14 pm (UTC)
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Thanks :)

And yeah - that's such a huge issue! It's a cycle that's hard to break - young people of color or of different cultural backgrounds don't see characters they identify with, so books are not as interesting to them, so they don't get to the point where they want to make their own books.

I'm working on it :)

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blahblahblah, whatever

(no subject)

from: kathrynrose
date: May. 28th, 2013 05:37 pm (UTC)
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I'm a white woman, raised in the South, (hah, notice I capitalized "South," yeah. okie dokie then) so racism is a thing I think about all the time. And I can think myself into a knot about it. I don't expect to have a magic answer any time soon.

But, this makes me think about an experience I had during the last nanowrimo, where the shoe was on the other foot. One of the great things about nano is the message board, where people can leave research questions (My character is a plumber, what kind of tools will he carry?) for people to answer. It's a time suck, but it's an entertaining time suck.

Last nano someone asked a question about life for gay couples living in rural east Texas in the 1980s. Hello. I "came out" in Shreveport in 1980, and rural east Texans in the 1980s either drove to Shreveport or to Dallas for their entertainment back then. I knew a lot of rural east Texans. Hell, I dated a couple rural east Texans.

So, of course I answered the question and monitored the thread and low and behold someone was answering matter-of-factly with not at all accurate responses. The answers sounded like they were coming off a sitcom or something. The person represented themselves as having lived in east Texas in the 1980s. Well, yeah, after checking I found they were born in east Tx in 1981. Hello?

Even if a young person is gay, they don't really "get" what life was like for gays and lesbians pre-AIDS, pre-internet, pre-Ellen, pre-DADT.

So in that situation I felt like people I knew and cared about were being misrepresented and my culture and history was being written wrong.

So I don't feel like I can write for a character in a different culture, and if I had to, I'd be researching my ass off, and (like you did) running things by people I trust who know. And it would be much easier for a short story than a novel.

But it's something we have to think about, and it's one of those conversations that work best when anger, fear, and guilt are set aside for the duration.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: May. 28th, 2013 07:17 pm (UTC)
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Yes. Yes. Yes.

And I think one of the things we overlook is the level of loudness of the voices of the privileged. Not because we're mean ol' racists, but because our voices are amplified by the culture around us, and we don't even know it.

"So in that situation I felt like people I knew and cared about were being misrepresented and my culture and history was being written wrong."

And it's amazing how much that matters. And how often it happens to people outside the majority.

And yes, it's very hard to have the conversation without it feeling personal.

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clauderainsrm

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from: clauderainsrm
date: May. 28th, 2013 05:55 pm (UTC)
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Since I don't comment on contestant entries - or try not to - this gives me a good place to give you the FULL request of what was simplified as "Write about Indians":

"And I think it would be fascinating to ask people to write about Indians -- without specifying anything else -- because there's so many options, and different ways people could look at the topic."

Confronting cultural stereotypes and people's perceptions were inherently a part of the exercise.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: May. 28th, 2013 07:18 pm (UTC)
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Love it! The suggester has definitely succeeded :) And it's nice to know more about the context they were coming from, and that it's a wonderful, literary provocation rather than thoughtlessness or racism.

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LiveJournal

Interesting posts on writing, race, and privilege

from: livejournal
date: May. 28th, 2013 06:06 pm (UTC)
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User mzrowan referenced to your post from Interesting posts on writing, race, and privilege saying: [...] second post expands on and gives some more background on the first, and is titled On Writing Race [...]

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MamaCheshire

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from: cheshire23
date: May. 28th, 2013 10:40 pm (UTC)
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This is something I've been struggling with a bit, intermittently, when I write the Runaways-verse.

Laura, the character as given in the original Runaway Game whose voice I usually use when I write those stories, is "ambiguously light brown" - her physical description mentions brown hair and eyes but no specific ethnicity. I consciously chose to make her Latina, which I am not myself, because many of the young women similar to Laura that I have encountered in my work are Latina (as are my goddaughters, and my mental image of Laura is quite similar to one of them). So...a culture I've had a great deal of contact with over the years but is not "mine" as such. I try to be mindful of how that would change the story from her having my own background (Polish-Ukranian and raised by very liberal, mostly lapsed Catholics), but I'm not always sure I get it right. (In fact, all of the lead characters in that 'verse, for me, are "ethnic Catholic" but of an ethnicity other than my own. Hmm. That's making me think about why I'm choosing to do that. John the pizza guy is portrayed as a "big Italian guy" in the original work, but why Kevin became Irish etc., I'm not as sure of.)

Also another thing: I wrote this a few years back after one too many cringe-worthy questions in little_details - it addresses mental illness rather than race and is a lot shorter and angrier than what you've written but I think maybe in somewhat the same spirit?

Edited at 2013-05-28 10:52 pm (UTC)

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: May. 29th, 2013 08:29 pm (UTC)
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And I think there's a lot of value in writing characters different from ourselves, as it helps us step into the shoes of the "other" and try to see the world from another view. Even when we're in the process of learning how to do that, it's a good exercise, and in terms of doing interesting research, it's fun.

I liked your piece, too. Yeah - I think I'm not saying, "don't write another race/culture/etc", I think I'm trying to say, "do it responsibly."

So in that sense, other cultures are like alcohol... :)

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Belleweather

(no subject)

from: belleweather
date: May. 28th, 2013 11:30 pm (UTC)
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So first, I'll cop to the fact that "write about Indians" was my prompt. Is it racist? Potentially. What I was thinking (as much as I was thinking, since I submitted my prompts right after I fucked my back up and was on so much vicodin that I couldn't see to type) was about the many uses and connotations of "Indian", not only Native American v. South Asian, but also the 'Indies' that columbus discovered and the Caribbean West Indies and the different 'Indias' that exist in what has only recently become one single country. Each of those geographic Indies-es has many different ways to view what it means to be an Indian. I think it's fascinating that we make one word and one concept do such amazing double and triple and quintuple duty in our language. So yeah. To be honest, I'm very happy about the writing and conversations that have come out of the prompt because people have been approaching it in exactly the way I've hoped they would and I suggested it because I thought it would be awesome to read.

Second, it's interesting that you reference my piece in this because the kind of social justice that your work espouses is something that epically elicits a very strong "Kill it with FIRE!" knee-jerk response from me -- not necessarily because it's wrong but because it's done wrong so often and so narrow-mindedly and so cruelly, particularly in the circles I frequent, that I have lost the ability to look at it in any fair way.

I don't personally buy the axioms behind that kind of social justice -- I don't believe that we should parcel humanity's stories out into some sort of ownership based on race or culture; I think those stories are a common heritage and should be treated as such, but also treated with respect. I also don't think that very strongly policing (and in my experience, mostly policiing with shame and fear of public dogpile) the media we read and write is a good way to effect change in the actual world OR to change people's attitudes. And as a free speech maximalist, I don't like the silencing aspect that comes out of this type of social justice. I'm a big "the answer to bad speech is not less speech, but more speech" person, and I hate the idea that we're silencing people from telling stories until they have them 110% correct and are sure no one is going to be insulted or hurt by them. Partly because getting things wrong or only sort of right and reading other people who get things sort of right has been a big learning experience for me in finding and correcting my own blind spots. Mostly because there's never, ever going to be a story where no one is offended, ever. So the silencing is really powerful.

On the other hand, I think you're right on with the idea you wrote here that we need to approach other people's stories with a lot of humility and research and work -- we need to treat them with respect, not with a sort of "oooh, shiny!" levity. I think you did a good job with that in your original piece. I almost didn't post mine because I wasn't entirely sure that I could do a good enough job (and out of the silencing effects of public dogpile.) I'd wanted to write something about the West Indies, but sadly, there was a time crunch. :(

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blahblahblah, whatever

(no subject)

from: kathrynrose
date: May. 29th, 2013 12:00 am (UTC)
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So first, I'll cop to the fact that "write about Indians" was my prompt.

I don't know if you saw that Gary commented somewhere on this post with more information about the way the topic was suggested, and honestly I wish that information had been included on the topic post, because I think it initially came across as at least "easily misunderstood."

Also, we, the often broken, often angry inhabitants of the internet do tend to take things in the worst possible kneejerkian way, regardless of intent.

When I first saw the topic I thought, "no way in hell am I touching that," and then after reading cheshire23 and whipchick's entries, got brave enough to write mine, which was something I needed to break the surface of, so I'm glad you suggested it.

I didn't read yours until today, and I don't think I commented, but I did feel like you had one of the best, if not the best entry on the topic, and it is clear how much respect you have for the people you write about.

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dragon

(no subject)

from: dragonwrites
date: May. 29th, 2013 01:14 am (UTC)
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Read with interest :)

When I conceived the idea for my last book, I knew that it was going to be set here, in the Sonoran Desert, and I knew that it would need a germ of a central myth, and I did a lot of research to find the right one and to handle it in a culturally sensitive way. Because the work was to be regional, I couldn't ignore the region's history. I found maybe a half dozen different versions of the same myth (all native American stories, but all different, and all localized to different parts of the country and different peoples) but I deliberately left out any really complete telling of the legend because I wasn't looking to co-opt someone else's culture; I just wanted to put the right monster into the scenery. Where I include the bare bones of the myth, I have a Navajo character collect the Pima Indian tale from a Tohono O'odham character.

At the same time, because of the regional nature of the story, I felt like what would have been really racist would be to not include native American characters. (I notice that I'm always saying "native American," and I notice that all the native American people I've ever met call themselves "Indians." FWIW.) I was nervous about any suggestion of racism if my characters fell flat and examined every word for stereotypes. I felt like I knew enough Navajo people to do justice to a character who left the reservation as a teenager to explore the world, but I needed a lot of research into the local people, the O'odham. I was lucky to find 2 books of poetry, in English and O'odham, written by a popular local poet, Ofelia Zepeda. I studied her use of language more than anything else--the words and phrases that seemed to have the most power in her poetry--and tried to tease out the most important values communicated. I was even synchronicitously lucky enough to stumble upon her in person, giving a small reading, and got to meet her afterward and talk for a few minutes. For the most part, the characters I created were those who fit into the landscape and I didn't need to belabor their Indian-ness, but I took great care with the storyteller character, ensuring that she was not a stereotype.

Still, there is always that space of being a privileged white woman and wondering if you're getting it right. On at least one occasion, Stu Dybek insinuated to me that the perspective of the privileged white woman was less interesting than pretty much anything. I would dearly love to see how a Tohono O'odham person interpreted the story. As it is, I only have Anna Redsand's stamp of approval (she grew up on the Navajo rez, although she is white, and writes quite a bit about it). I worked pretty hard to bring these characters to life, and it was gratifying to hear readers taking them that way. I wouldn't want to write Indians out of their own landscape!

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: May. 29th, 2013 08:35 pm (UTC)
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I really like hearing about your process on this. Great point, too, that it's not about belaboring the cultural aspects of a character, but about getting it reasonably "right" within the context of your work.

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bringing_words

(no subject)

from: bringing_words
date: May. 29th, 2013 10:32 am (UTC)
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When I first saw the contest prompt, "Write about Indians", I thought, That's pretty racist. (NB, I don't think it was intentionally racist, I think it was an idea that seemed simpler inside the suggestor's head than what I received, and neither I nor the suggestor own an absolute truth here).

But why is it racist? Would you have thought it were racist if the prompt had been, 'Write about Celts'? Is it because the people in question have skin-colours other than white, that 'racist' was the response?

When I read the prompt, I was thinking of ways I could take it as a broader interpretation, ie, to think about aboriginal people in general, because that's what I also think of, when I hear the word 'Indian'. BUT, I also wondered if it would be something people might avoid, so as not to be perceived as racist. And that's kind of sad. I basically agree with belleweather, in that stories belong to everyone, and that we shouldn't avoid telling them because they're not our own. Saying that, I think we need to be mindful of the role stories play in mysticism and religion, because they hold different power for different people, and trampling all over that is just rude.

I guess the problem with discussing this in terms of privilege and colour is that it's very easy to come across as holier than thou. I know you weren't trying to do that, at all, and as someone who's obviously very well travelled and who appears to really question her own background in terms of and in contrast with others', you're probably in a better position than most, to write about this. Finding a balance in all of it is very difficult. Cultures other than mainstream American *do* get dismissed (and I speak from the perspective of one of those cultures) so obviously, the more people who are really thinking about this, and are aware of their own limitations based on what they know and can possibly experience, the better.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: May. 29th, 2013 08:40 pm (UTC)
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"But why is it racist? Would you have thought it were racist if the prompt had been, 'Write about Celts'? Is it because the people in question have skin-colours other than white, that 'racist' was the response?"

Great question! And nope - because "Indians" can cover a larger blanket of people than "Celts" it felt overly broad to me. Plus, depending on the culture, "Indians" is sometimes offensive - not as bad as the n-word, but up there with Negro some of the time to some of the people.

I think you make great points above, and I absolutely agree that the role of stories in mysticism/religion sets a higher bar for the writer in terms of accuracy and command of the subject.

Thanks - I like hearing your thought process on this!

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drwex

Unsurprisingly, I have a few more thoughts

from: drwex
date: May. 29th, 2013 02:15 pm (UTC)
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re the initial piece, you asked for feedback. I like the slice-of-life approach, and the this-not-that framing. However, I'd probably drop at least one of the examples and beef up the others. For example, in the comments you talked about the ongoing tension between street performers and Rom and that could (I handwave airily) be worked into the main piece to deepen understanding for the reader as well as to highlight some of the conflicts and provide a minor resolvative (is that a word?) outcome.

On background and doing one's research and being faithful, I am reminded of a phrase Tim Powers used. If you've not read him you should try at least one or two (I can recommend). He writes what would be called "magic realism" except that term has been used for a particular type of Central- and South American fiction. The idea generally is "magic is real and these historical characters interact with it." So Powers has a novel about Caribbean pirates and one about Romantic-era poets and so on.

In order to write these things he does huge amounts of research. He reads compulsively everything he can by and about the known people who will be in his books. This one liked to spend all day in the bathtub, that one had a thing for snuff, etc. But in the end, when you read a Powers novel you don't know what he's researched and what he's made up to make his story work. Thus he refers to it as "doing card tricks in the dark."

This, I think, applies to doing one's homework on things like a Black youth's dialect. Some fraction of your readers will say "hey, that's crap, nobody would talk like that." But the vast majority will have no idea. As kathrynrose noted above, her own experience in gay Texas in the 80s allowed her to spot someone's inauthentic answers, but most people don't know that history in any level of detail.

And here's the point: it doesn't matter. Whether your dialog is "right" matters less than whether it reads well. Whether you correctly capture the life experience of a six-year-old Rom girl matter less than whether you can make her a believable and authentic-seeming (and maybe sympathetic) character. You are an author and your job is to tell stories. Truth is a tool, not a dictator.

I get that you feel a moral obligation to factual correctness. More power to you. But correctness isn't always generalizable, and it ought not to be confused with authenticity, for fictional purposes.

Yes, writing can and does perpetuate stereotypes. I've just finished watching Anna Sarkeesian's second "Tropes vs Women" video and wincing as she pointed out one glaring example that had passed under my nose undetected as I played one of those games. Authenticity owes it to the reader and to the story to be more than a stereotype, more than a pasted-together set of tropes. But that doesn't in turn require a deep cultural dive on every character you bump into for every story, unless you really enjoy doing card tricks in the dark.

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fourzoas

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from: fourzoas
date: May. 29th, 2013 02:46 pm (UTC)
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This issue is near to my soul, and I think I have much to say, but in the end, it always boils down to this:

Write what you want, when you want, how you want

and know that

I read what I want, when I want, how I want (and must and need)

but

We--you (writer) and me (reader)--need each other, so if you stab my soul, and I tell you that it hurts, your response will tell me what I mean to you, and I will act accordingly.

(Of course, there's much to say here as well about the problems associated with flat and stereotypical representations in our mediated world...and when I have time, I may say them on my LJ. This is just what I can say right now before I dash off to a meeting. Cheers and I'll check in later to see how the conversation is evolving.)

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lriG rorriM

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from: lrig_rorrim
date: May. 29th, 2013 05:45 pm (UTC)
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This entire conversation, and your actual entry this week, make me incredibly happy. Confronting these issues and talking about them, and especially talking about how and why they make us uncomfortable is just such an awesome thing.

I basically spent the entire weekend engaged in similar conversations at WisCon, and one of the resources that was repeatedly brought up was Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's Writing the Other. These two authors put together a workshop specifically on this topic, and then wrote a book to help people who are interested in 'getting it right', in as much as there is a right to get it. These authors do not believe that it's better to never write people who aren't like yourself. They reject that premise and try to find ways to navigate these issues. Disclaimer: I haven't actually read this. Yet. But it's on my kindle and in my stack of must-read stuff, and it's been lauded as such an invaluable tool that I would feel remiss in not mentioning it.

I think a lot of this comes down to realizing, when we're writing about another culture, or race, or gender identity, or any of it, that we are approaching it from an outsider perspective, and no matter how attached we may get to the stories we create, the characters we dream up, the situations we put them in, they we need to take care to realize them fully. I'm not saying a straight white cis-male can't write a brilliantly realized African American lesbian character. I'm saying that doing so is harder, and he's more likely to write her well if he takes the time to do the work and do the research and talk to people who are very different from himself.

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Hats!

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from: i_id
date: May. 30th, 2013 09:11 am (UTC)
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I'm not saying a straight white cis-male can't write a brilliantly realized African American lesbian character. I'm saying that doing so is harder, and he's more likely to write her well if he takes the time to do the work and do the research and talk to people who are very different from himself.

He also needs to think very, very carefully about whether or not he is 'just' writing a character, or stepping up to speak for people he has no right to speak for and making it harder for their own voices to be heard.

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medleymisty

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from: medleymisty
date: May. 31st, 2013 02:54 am (UTC)
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I'm really late to this conversation, due to sleep deprivation and having many other things to read and write demanding my time.

I find it interesting because I'm a little scared to post here, because I am a white woman but my voice doesn't sound like the rest of the voices in the comment thread.

I admit that when I read the social justice warrior type blogs I kind of get the idea that I'm not supposed to touch anything ever that comes from another culture, and I'm probably going to hell because I like to listen to rap and I find a lot of meaning in Buddhist philosophy.

But personally, I think there's gradations and shades. Like yeah, I like to listen to rap, but I consider myself fairly informed on the social situations that the rappers are talking about, and I don't...ugh. I've isolated myself from popular culture so much that I actually am ignorant of so many things - like I tried to watch that Feminist Frequency video linked in the videos about tropes, but all those images of women being violently restrained were a very troubling and triggering shock. It's like when you haven't had any soda forever, and then one day you get a Coke, and you're like "Dang I didn't know it was that strong! What is it doing to my stomach?!"

I've noticed this with commercials too. I haven't watched TV in over a decade. When we're in a public place with a TV, it's so intrusive and wrong, and the ads before movies actually make my brain hurt.

ANYWAY! My point there was that maybe I am just not aware of the ignorant insensitive racist ways in which white people listen to rap, so I'm missing a big piece of the conversation there. I mean, I sometimes hear about those awful "gangsta" blackface type of college parties - is that a good example?

My only experience in this area really is writing my own culture - my Farmer Brown universe, which is set where I grew up and uses the dialect I grew up hearing. Thinking of other representations of my culture and what I would want, say, a middle class white woman to do if she chose to write my culture....

Ugh. That was an interesting mental exercise, because now I understand the position of "Hey, how about just not writing us?" a lot better. And also the point that someone else brought up, about it drowning out our own voices. I can write my peeps quite well on my own, thank you, and I have to admit that, if say, there was an anthology of Appalachian fiction and an outsider's story was picked over mine because they had contacts and degrees that I didn't, I'd be pretty freaking pissed.

And it's not even just the contacts and degrees. It's also what I see right here in this comment thread. A whole language and way of expression that puts you inside a club, that makes the editor of said anthology more likely to relate to your voice and your views on things and to pick your story over mine, even though I've lived mine and you just researched yours.

With that said, though - I don't want to be all bitter and righteous and judgemental and like a social justice warrior and be all "No you can never write anything Appalachian!" Because hey, you know - I once had an idea for a Sims story set in Twinbrook about a Creole private investigator. Chickened out on it though.

My plan was do a ton of research. A TON. And to try and run it by anyone I could who could maybe give me some perspective, although Creole people are hard to come by in the Sims community.

I guess, you know - like anything, you just have to try your best and be as conscious of other people as you can possibly be, and be willing to accept it and correct the problem if you're informed of a problem. I'd want someone to listen to me if they ran their Appalachian story by me and I pointed out stereotypes and prejudices that they might not have been aware of, and I'd totally listen to someone if they pointed those things out to me in a story of mine.

As it is, I think the best route for me personally is to tell my story, because hey - my group needs a voice of their own. A voice that is quite willing to do all she can to claw her way through class and regional barriers. :) Although granted, like I said, I very much protect myself from popular culture so it's possible that I am not aware of just how tough those barriers are.



Edited at 2013-05-31 02:57 am (UTC)

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Dom

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from: comedychick
date: Jun. 3rd, 2013 05:38 am (UTC)
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if say, there was an anthology of Appalachian fiction and an outsider's story was picked over mine because they had contacts and degrees that I didn't, I'd be pretty freaking pissed.

From places I've seen and looked at submitting stuff to, generally the editors will ask you to include in your cover letter (or if they don't, it's certainly advised in the cover letter advice I've read) information about yourself that relates to how well you can write the story you've written. Meaning, if you're Appalachian and writing an Appalachian story, the editor would like to know that, and probably give you extra props for it. I'm pretty sure if I was an editor, that's what I'd be doing.

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tigerweave

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from: tigerweave
date: May. 31st, 2013 01:07 pm (UTC)
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Ah that description of dancing makes a lot of sense of what I experienced in Melbourne regarding Spanish Dancing. If I took lessons at the Spanish Club in Brunswick (suburb) I was learning from a woman with hardly any English, who taught by clapping and moving and calling out to people and showing them how to do it better. She taught steps, she taught style, and she taught music-feeling. She taught how to put pieces together to go with the music and with other steps of the dance. Like a mosaic. How the pieces could fit together, both dance and music with the guitarist who sat in the corner of the room, playing.

If I went to a Spanish dancing school run by an Australian woman who'd spent 10 yrs in Spain dancing, she taught steps that built up into specific dances with specific steps for each part of the music. Choreographed to perfection to a recorded piece of music that of course played the same way exactly, over and over.

I ... think it's unlikely I've even met a Native American, Although I've had two online friends who are. So I'd have interpreted it completely differently and wouldn't have had any trouble writing something that was my own story but about Indian people.

But that's not really what you're asking. You're asking about what kind of right do we as white people have to write about other cultures? And if we do it, how realistic is it and therefore how valuable piece of writing is it?

You know what? When thorny questions like this come along, I've discovered if you flip it round it sheds some light on it.
"What right does a First Australian have to write about white people's culture? And if they do write characters who are white, can they even do it realistically? And therefore how valuable a piece of writing is it?"

I can answer that from what I've read of Aboriginal people. Yes they DO write about white people. Yes their writing DOES have white characters in it, and yes indeed it IS valuable a piece of writing.
What you find conveyed is ***their*** understanding of white people, their understanding - or lack - of white culture. Usually their white characters tend to be a bit charicaturey. But then again, so do a lot of white writers writing about white people, really.
And yes it IS valuable writing. It's their stories, and their stories are including their experiences of white people as aboriginal people.
And to tell their stories they HAVE to write about that other culture, the white, dominant one. They've got to get in there and do the deed, as well, or not, as they can. Because if they don't, the story can't be told properly

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