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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.


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}


Unsurprisingly, I have a few more thoughts

from: drwex
date: May. 29th, 2013 02:15 pm (UTC)

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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