You Can’t Write That. Oh really? Just watch. 🙂
The title of this blog post comes from a very tender spot in my life as an author and a Black woman growing up in the USA. Several years ago, I dated a close-minded individual (Who Shall Remain Nameless) told me that I couldn’t write my recently published novel, Forbidden: Book One of the Gabriel Lennox Series. At the time, it wasn’t published and while I waited for that new chapter in my life, I had continued writing additional books for the series.
I wouldn’t describe myself as rebellious, however, when someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m determined to prove them wrong. Especially when that something will benefit me. And then, filled with resilience, I channel my inner samurai:
Since I had considered He Who Shall Remain Nameless a friend, I was shocked and disgusted, not only because he was trying to tell me what to do, but mostly for his ridiculous reasons.
“Your protagonist is white,” he stated. “And British. Why don’t you write about vampires on the African continent since you’re African-American? Make it about slavery. Make it about something you know.”
Now, he had me perplexed and wickedly amused. First of all, I’m not from the African continent and know more about England than the diverse continent of deserts, savannahs, rainforests, and 55 states! COUNT IT — 55 states! Heck, I know more about England than I do about my own country of 50 states — uhhh, we’re still at 50, right? RIGHT?) So, quite gently, quite softly and without blinking or even smiling, I explained to him that I chose to write about a white, British vampire because the book was a metaphor for a large problem in our world: the monstrous problem of white hegemony in a world of brown-skinned people who have been bled dry by the cruel and grotesque racism of the pale White Man. Did I tell you that I have a wicked sense of humor and a perfect poker face? If I didn’t, Deadpool insist that it be said again:
Psst. I have a wicked sense of humor that
is often sarcastic and outright ironic . . . and a truly perfect poker face!
He Who Shall Remain Nameless didn’t remain exactly silent though. He sputtered with outrage, eyes comically bulging outside of the sockets while I stirred more honey in my cup of tea. Shame the poor dear couldn’t laugh at my naughtily, wicked wit!
Fast forward to the present day – I’m published and he’s still single.
Back in October of last year, I participated on a series of panels at Necronomicon, Tampa Bay’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Convention to share my perspective on the misrepresentation of minorities in Science Fiction and Fantasy as well as the lack of minorities in the previous stated genres. In this discussion, when I use the word minority, I speak of people of deeper color and/or those who have been marginalized in the world – Latinos, Blacks, and Asians.
Now why is that?
Some could argue that there’s no market for books that represent minorities with equality and quality to their white counterparts. However, one could parry with the counter-argument: if the product isn’t offered in the first place, how can demand be gauged?
So, again why are there few books with minorities as the main characters and/or published authors?
There are a lot of reasons. Let’s list and analyze some of these . . . each one brick by suppressive brick.
The Market Gatekeepers
First, I must say that this (the lack of books with protagonist – who are people of deeper color) is mostly a Western (primarily United States of America) phenomena where thousands and thousands of books that the “Market Gatekeepers” allow to be published, marketed, and consumed by the public are teeming with an all-white cast . . . or worse . . . one or two people of deeper color thrown as if to appease a check list of things to do in the politically correct world. On the African Continent, there are a lot of Black authors who are masters of Science Fiction and Fantasy ( http://www.tungstenhippo.com/content/afrosf-science-fiction-african-authors). Authors I’ve just begun to know of! And here is a link to authors of African descent within the US of A: http://www.forharriet.com/2014/08/7-black-women-science-fiction-writers.html#axzz40U9bxTN9. Why are they not popular here? Unfortunately, they don’t get a lot of exposure. Readers must be vigilant in their search for authentic stories, unique worlds, and diverse perspectives. We mustn’t rely on the Market Gatekeepers to feed us more nutritious and well-rounded literature. Ever had a meal where you felt full, but weren’t satisfied? Well, that’s what the Market Gatekeepers often do. They stuff you with delicious, everyday cheesy potato chips, but you’re hungry an hour later for something . . . else.
The Deathtrap of Stereotypes
On the panel, some audience members asked if it was okay for whites to write or tell a story about a person who was of a different ethnic background. I think that doing so is a wonderful idea. White authors, especially famous ones, should break against the mold, which would in turn open doors and windows for other up and coming authors.
Likewise, Sharon Draper, an African-American author, who wrote an award winning book called Out of My Mind. Melody, the main character’s ethnicity isn’t described or stated. Melody could be anybody and this ethnic mysteriousness works for that book because Draper was writing a story about a mind-blowingly intelligent little girl with a disability that able-bodied as well as handicapped could relate to regardless of color. Draper used personal experience and so much more to write this book with such depth it breaks my heart each and every time I reread it.
Using stereotypes is simply the use of lazy thinking. And writers shouldn’t fall prey to this. Our minds should be ever growing with new and expressive ways of explaining the world and trying to make sense of its often irrationality and cruelty, but I digress. Creating characters with relatable stories should be fun, fun, fun! One way to kill that excitement and freshness is to use stereotypes. For example, some common stereotypes of characters who happen to be minorities are having the highly intelligent Math whiz Asian, the slang-speaking street smart Black man, the strong, independent Black woman, or the seductive Latina or Latino male Lothario. Such a cast is boring, disrespectful, and frankly STUPID! Instead of rehashing these boring, stale bits of crust, we enjoy ourselves with something new and different by actually thinking outside the proverbial box. Do a little research! Visit the local library (my favorite way of garnering information), use the Internet, mingle and socialize with people who are a part of the culture you want to learn more about and relinquish your writerly senses to creative abandon. 🙂
And no!!! By me offering this advice, I’m stating or even implying that the individuals you speak with are The Representative or The Expert on their Ethnic Group or Culture. However, better to gain a little knowledge from actual people instead of looking up information that could be outdated. For instance, when researching for the nation of Io in my dark fantasy/science fiction hybrid, Prelude to Morning, I reflected on and recalled my conversations, encounters, and interactions with the people of Japan when I visited as a teacher and ambassador for a Sister Cities trip. I wanted the Ionese people to resemble the Japanese in this other world and using facts helped to not only breathe life into my characters, but kept me grounded and delighted with the results.
In one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, the Cat in the Hat says, “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Writers write. Obviously! And readers read. Oh yes! And as an avid reader, I’ll read any book regardless of the main character’s color, ethnicity, or gender, provided that the story is one that interest me. Now, the difference between a mediocre writer and a fantastic one is how much he or she reads. I promise my students that the more they read, the more they will be able to see what writers do well and be able to emulate the skill. Writing, like all things worth doing takes practice! And creating a cast of more diverse characters that represents a present and growing market, we must broaden and stretch ourselves as well as our minds.
The Blight that Just Won’t Die
My second oldest brother, Ronnie, owned a t-shirt that reads, “Racism is a disease. Are you ill?” He wore it with pride in the 90s and over a decade later, racism in the world, especially the United States of America is alive and well. It’s like a cockroach on steroids that continues to crawl and scurry along in the shadows that some are afraid to speak about or against because they’re afraid it’ll unfurl its giant wings and claws at their faces.
I won’t go into detail here about racism, but you’re welcome to check this post on my blog https://adaratrosclair.wordpress.com/2015/07/22/desperately-seeking-answers/
Below are links of racist incidences revolving around the published literary world:
Don’t fall into this black hole of negativity and ignorance. Please. If you have a story to tell, tell it. And if the characters don’t resemble you or they are individuals simply new to you, take the time to learn who they are, explore their many nuances and idiosyncrasies. Not sure where to begin? On the internet, there are plenty of resources for transracial writing (I prefer the word transethnic because there’s only one race – the human race).
Here are a few places to begin:
Transracial Writing for the Sincere: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/12/transracial-writing-for-the-sincere/
People of Color Underrepresented in Children’s Literature http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201403241000
Further Thoughts and Considerations
While reading some of the comments left on the above link, Matthew S Ann Maxwell’s words made a lot of sense to me (especially what has been empathized in bold by me):
“I would question the statement about being boring or false. There is something that cannot be named or defined when people tell stories from their own experience and it is a beautiful thing. Something so deep in each of us that the way we put words together, how we talk, everything is affected by our experience and how we grew up. This is why first-voice books, books written by authors from the culture they are representing are so important. It’s a deeper connection, one that transcends the words and images, and one that children from those cultures need to see and more importantly feel as they read the books. And beyond that to read a book and see “hey this book was written and/or illustrated by someone who looks just like me”…that is a powerful thing for a child. I would question whether white authors should step back and let people of color tell their own stories. This is one way that white people can begin to recognize and address their inherent privilege in the current publishing system. This is not to say that people shouldn’t have diverse characters in their stories, that would be false since we live in a diverse world and we come into contact with a lot of different people so of course characters in books should do the same. But, writing a story where the author is white and is writing the experience of a child of color, that is one that I would question. There are things about that child’s experience that the author can never know no matter how much they study, no matter how much research is done, because they are white and have privilege in this world that has affected everything about their experience, privilege that that child does not have. This is the basis of beginning to understand white privilege. If there is a lack of diversity in children’s books and only so many children’s books about people of color are getting published right now, are white authors taking up space writing stories about people of color that would be better taken by people of color writing those stories themselves? I don’t know the answer, but as a white person, I do wonder. And that’s not to say that we don’t need even MORE stories b/c the current percentages are dreadful, but I wonder if letting more people tell their own stories instead of telling them for them would be a start.“