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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}

dragon

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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

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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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dragon

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from: dragonwrites
date: May. 29th, 2013 09:14 pm (UTC)
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Here's the passage, in the middle of the book, that helped me feel MUCH better about what I was doing :)

He sighed. “I make no promises,” he said. “Open yourself up to the possibilities of the universe. Whether or not you find a miracle, there is a lesson to be learned.”

“Is that, like, something your father told you?”

Chuckling, he said, “That’s like something a tour guide in Sedona told me. Had a gig as a professional Indian for a couple months.”

“A professional Indian? Is that different from a real Indian?”

“Indeed it is. Ever been to Sedona?”

“Passed through but didn’t see any need to stop.” She remembered the vulgarity set into some of the southwest’s most stunning landscape. There was nothing so sacred that people wouldn’t knock each other down to exploit and destroy it. No one would commercialize her desert, though. For one thing, now she had the power and money to protect the land, much of which was legally hers. For another, its majesty was small, invisible to a tourist passing through in an air-conditioned coach. It wasn’t ripe for monetization like some places. “There’s a call for professional Indians out there?”

“Sure,” he said. “I put on a leather vest, deliver a speech about holy Mother Earth and the Great Spirit, and drive the van to the fake sweat lodge ceremony. Make big wampum. Me talkum like this, getum many tips from fat white man in wolf shirt and day-glow fanny pack. Buyem powerful fire water to drink in tepee.”

“God, I hope you’re kidding.”

“To a point. But there’s a certain class of tourist that will pay extra for a realization of their expectations. I was young. What did I know? I probably haven’t been in a sweat lodge in ten years. I didn’t pay attention to my own culture; I ran off to see what the rest of the world had to offer. Come to find the rest of the world pays good money to hear whatever it was I wasn’t paying attention to when I was twelve. You know what a real shaman charges to treat a white guy? Hundred, two hundred dollars an hour. Four hours in a hogan on a Tuesday morning and you feed your family for a month. But plenty of people don’t know the difference between a tepee and a hogan and don’t care, and they’ll still pay to be told what they want to be told.”

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