Growing up, I watched Golden Girls with my family. We enjoyed Sophia Petrillo’s sensibilities, her spunkiness, and her flashbacks that were framed with one of television’s best quotes:
With that said, let’s picture a golden age of technology where people—young, old, rich, poor, (please insert whatever and whoever you are)—with a clickety-clack-click-clackety of their finicky fingertips possesses the power to order a pizza, incite wars, or (in the case of this blog post) generate energy (positive or negative) around an idea or a movement.
Or a book.
How about book burnings?
Well, you don’t have to picture it. It’s happening or has happened. And I’m not referring to Nazis Germany.
And the latest outrage in the literary world has made major waves.
Interesting, speaking of white privilege, one of my co-workers believes that white privilege doesn’t exist because if it did, he would be rich and not teaching for a living. I don’t understand that logic. I really don’t. Hmm. Interesting.
But I digress. Moving on.
I haven’t yet fully researched the controversy swirling around American Dirt as deeply as I would have liked, and I will say this: When you’re a person of color, you may be quick to often applaud anything that represents you with lightning-speed, especially when you learn about it from an allegedly trusted source. It’s a reflex response to hoot, holler, and cheer because you are so thirsty for representation, sometimes compromises will be made, and your guards lowered before you fully understand or have had the time to gather all the necessary information required for sound judgment. That aside, I have researched the controversy involving Courtney Milan and I believe and support her. I also believe that she is a victim of an unfair system where the guilty individuals, who are not only aware of this injustice, are fully complicit in maintaining such an imbalanced system for their own benefit and little do they know—their own detriment. It’s truly and shamefully dysfunctional.
And this isn’t the only dysfunction afflicting the writing community.
For the past several years, writers and readers have stabbed fingers at others, opened arms, held hands, dried tears, and taken up both picket signs, pitch forks, torches or tissues in response to each other in the Industry labeling those deemed offensive as racist, sexist, not woke, culturally insensitive, homophobic, transphobic, due to what the accused has said, written, or done. Allies on both sides clash, while bystanders munch on unlimited supplies of “Giffy” popcorn (the digital comment-reading kind, obviously – punny!).
For example, there was a huge uproar regarding a YA author whose work was flagged as racist because she had slavery in her novel. With such a wintry response, the book withered, froze, and died. Well, for a time. I won’t delve much deeper into that slice of drama pie in this post though. I will say this, I’m glad that her novel has arrived on this planet.
That way, other readers (including myself) can judge her work for themselves.
That aside, I do agree that if any form of median (visual or written word) is inappropriate or hurts a marginalized group (which inevitably hurts us all) then people should indeed speak out, provided that it comes from a genuine place I like to call “constructively good intentions” because as we know good intentions alone may lead us to places we would rather not go and have no desire to visit.
What Not to Write?
Diversity Illusionist often set the what-not-to-write parameters. I considered comparing them to the Neverending Story’s Sphinxes’ Gate, but not a fully operational one. In the movie, Atreyu must pass through the gate with confidence. The Sphinxes are gatekeepers, who block out those who are not worthy to enter due to an imperfection, such as a lack of confidence. Their closed eyes symbolize impartiality . . . or blindness. But that is a flawed analogy. I also thought to compare them to the Labyrinth’s Two-Door Riddle, but again this comparison doesn’t work.
Or perhaps the malignant Diversity Illusionist are like Lucy from Charlie Brown.
Hmmm. Still not good enough of a comparison. And that’s fine because Diversity Illusionists are people, and it’s unfair to distill them into a meme, trope, or any other two-dimensional something or other. And I strongly believe that people as individuals have the ability to learn, improve, and persevere.
Remember that riveting reality television show where a dapper gent and a raven-haired beauty materialized looking like they just strolled off a catwalk or Hollywood red-carpet, before they abducted individuals whose friends and family sentenced these poor, fashionably challenged dears as tacky abominations? There are times when I would have easily qualified as a contestant on that series called, What Not to Wear. Why? Because I wholeheartedly enjoy the comfort of mumus, sweatpants, and oversized t-shirts opposed to the quasi-stylish attire (I’m no fashionista or diva, however, I have been mistaken for thus) you may witness me wearing in public. I occasionally “borrow” my husband’s boxers and masquerade them as shorts in the comfort and privacy of our home. 😊 Sorry, not sorry, I’m guilty as charged.
And there had been a time when one of my stories had been questioned for existing on the grounds that “. . . you’re not from that culture.” For instance, I wrote a short story centered around a young bi-ethnic girl (half-Black and half-Japanese) coming to terms with her dual heritage, due to her mother’s love for the Japanese tea ceremony. I had some of my Japanese friends read it to ensure that I was respectful and accurate about the culture. (“Tell me truth!” “It’s fine.” “Really?” “Yes.” “No! Tell me the truth! I can take it!” “You need to fix that. And that”. “Whew. Okay, thank you.”) Even though I speak Japanese, have lived and taught there, doesn’t mean that I will get everything right. I’m all about empathy and fairness.
I wasn’t literally told by anyone (yet) that I shouldn’t write this story, but it was implied. What I find strangely interesting (and unfair) is that there are presently a plethora of white authors that get a resounding “pass go and collect $$$” for writing these kinds of stories. And they’ve been bequeathed carte blanche-status to write them and profit from them for decades. The responses—both positive and negative—have little effect contrary to what detractors from this reality have argued or believed. Detractors imply that diversity has failed, and that white people are not able to write, produce, or direct works within the Industry.
Consider this image:
For some reason, the longer I analyzed these images the more they irritated me — especially the one for Equity. Why? Because of the damn wall! If equity is supposed to be better, then why is there still a wall?! I mean, sure the boxes do indeed help the littlest person to see over the wall, but why not get rid of the damn wall! Where’s a digital bulldozer when you need one? Where’s Wreck-It Ralph?
It’s been argued that we are in a post-racial era. It’s been argued that those that bring up race are the real racists. These are fallacious arguments full of sound and fury . . . leaving people thirsty and angry. It’s like consuming a bag of Takis, which leaves your fingers covered in powdery spices and a great thirst for water that does nothing but spread the heat in your dry mouth.
In order for there to be true equality and equity, the wall must be destroyed, and until that happens boxes (opportunities) are needed.
In 2018, there was a white author complaining in the Twitterverse that the urban fantasy genre populated with the classically European vampires you may find sauntering in an Anita Blake setting, was no longer trending due to a major push for “own voices”. In turn, she felt as if she and writers like her were being pushed out. What she didn’t seem to realize is that the #OwnVoices movement, (coined by Corinne Duyvis, a white author who is all about authentic inclusion and identifies as disabled) would have little to no effect on the urban fantasy genre. Her argument that #Own Voices was taking away from her is fallacious at best, and ridiculous as heck. I will probably write more about this in a future post.
Let me be clear, of course I’m not entirely opposed to white people telling non-white stories. And if I were, would it change the status quo? Heck no! White authors just need to do it right. However, if they’ve been able to do so without pushback and the demand for more than mediocrity until recently, is there any incentive to up their game? During one of my author trips, I attended a workshop taught by Linda Sue Park, author of all things incredibly cool—especially this book:
The workshop focuses on writing “the other” with empathy, compassion, and most of all real-life experiences. She beautifully calls this technique “A Seat at the Table”. She explained the reason she’s able to write about both the South Korean (her heritage) experience and white folks is because due to the fact that whites (primarily USA) is the “standard” that most people of all ethnic groups can write about whites. But the main reason she’s able to write about white people is because of her authentic and personal life experiences. The “white standard/baseline) has been the status quo for a long, long, long time in the United States and around the world due to influences found in comic books, music, commercials, plenty of novels, documentaries, novels, and on and on ad nauseum.
Now, regarding how to write nonwhite characters here’s the gist:
Basically, if your literary soul has been lit with an unquenchable fire to write, thus “giving a face” to the supposedly faceless (ha ha ha we’re really not faceless though) ask yourself, first and foremost:
- How do you qualify?
- Have you sat at the table with this group of people? How often? Your place? Their place? A public place?
- Not just calling them up or reaching out via Twitter, Facebook, etc. for sensitivity reading, dear. I mean really sat at the table, meaning your kitchen table? Were these dear people your friends BEFORE this fire was lit? Is this a cash crop where you picked up these people as friends because you want to appear “woke”, full of virtue, glory, and cookies?
- Have you researched? How much? What have you learned about the characters and the intended audience? What pushback and/or constructive criticism may come? How will you handle it?
- Finally, what more can you bring to this conversation that will indeed grow feet independent of you? Why are you even writing this?
If this non-exhaustive list of questions makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s okay. It’s better than okay. It’s good. Sometimes we have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s good for the soul and helps us to glow and grow.
Even people within their own ethnic groups aren’t immune to the “What Not to Write” category. Tyler Perry, who is a successful producer and writer has created a lot of content during 2019. One series in particular is called, Sistas, which is about “single black women navigat[ing] their complicated love lives, careers, and friendships”. Perry is what one could describe as “Black Excellence”. However, the criticism that he has received implies that he, too, needs to ask himself the above questions based on the responses from fans:
Tyler Perry definitely shines with the luster of “star power”. So does Robert Downey, Jr.
Unfortunately, star power or quality isn’t always enough to bring in money . . . or amazing reviews. In my previous post, I used the Dr. Dolittle remake as an example for the Industry’s Make It Rain $ Playbook, and I’ve noticed the movie is not doing so well. In fact, it’s estimated to lose up to $100 million dollars. 😦 Some reasons for this could be is that audiences have known Robert as Iron Man for over a decade. Back in the 1990s, star power guaranteed a movie or a show’s success. Now, financial success seems to be more dependent on the script (writers) and the characters the actors portray rather than the actors themselves. That too is interesting.
Now, back to Tyler Perry. Hopefully if he brings in new writers that come from the demographic he’s writing (young, black millennial age range women) will most likely help to flesh out his characters, thus giving the show more depth and the audiences ability to effortlessly and effectively relate to his content in a more organic and authentic way.
For instance, I wrote and sold another short story, which I revised into a prose poem revolving around a black girl with albinism. I may be a Black woman, but I’m not a person with albinism. But I did my research, reached out to people, watched documentaries, listened to interviews to be as empathetic, accurate, and respectful as possible. I’m a writer. Words have great power. And with great power comes great . . . (yeah, yeah, yeah, I know you know) . . . say it with me:
My teenaged students hate when someone does or says something that they deem as “old” or “that’s so 2010”. I think it’s an instance of what they consider clichéd. “Mrs. Desir,” they sometimes lament, “That dab he did is so old! Yuck!” “Well,” I reply with a sigh, “Hip Hop is considered old since it was around long before you were born, so is that old too and thus useless? If so, I guess you can’t like that kind of music anymore. Too bad, eh?” A false equivalency, I suppose, but it does the job. 😊 Hee hee hee.
They often squirm, no longer comfortable with the logical question I posed. Some smile and say, “I still like it.”
I reply, “I’m glad you do.”
Conversation over. Comfort reigns yet again.
Hmmm. Speaking of comfort, it’s one of the main reasons why I think the Industry has been and continues to not only seem tone-deaf, but also what some could describe as “out of touch”. Both shortcomings are learned behavior, but when I say this it doesn’t mean that they’re acceptable behaviors because they can and must be unlearned. At times, insiders have even displayed their inability to accept change or even push for it when doing so benefits everyone. Hey, I’ll be the first to admit that change can be painful. Change can also be downright terrifying, but whether we like it or not, change often comes uninvited, unescapable, and rarely evanescent.
Likewise, if authors like Toni Morrison had invited comfort as a guest, books like The Bluest Eye and Beloved would never have existed. It couldn’t have. They’re incredibly uncomfortable works of literature, but the discomfort doesn’t diminish their impact and remarkability.
And speaking of remarkability, even the most uncomfortable books have that je ne sais quoi of marketability. One can liken them to an intolerably violent car accident . . . you want to avoid staring, fingers tightening around the steering wheel, head ducking as you crawl on in snail-paced traffic, but you just can’t . . .
In my previous post, I discussed intertexuality. I miss watching The Golden Girls (four older women share a house in Miami beach) and in the 1990s when Living Single aired, I realized that what I loved about The Golden Girls I found in Living Single. The New York brownstone setting and the younger age of the main characters added a novel layer to a familiar tale, laced with relatable themes, realistic plot twists, logical and pleasurable expectations that resonated with a new generation. Living Single was so amazing that it even inspired or as Erika Alexander commented, “invented the template” for Friends. Friends, some would argue, is an all-white rip-off of Living Single.
Intertexuality? Or something insidious? Hmmm. What do you think? Sound off in the comments.
Regarding ratings, Living Single was indeed popular, but it in no way matched the viewership of Friends.
Perhaps the Warner Bros. marketing peeps assumed that because Living Single had a majority all-black cast that it wasn’t for white people. If that’s the case, what about A Different World, which served as both a doorway and a window to American families all over the United States? This reminds me of instances of when white romance readers won’t pick up a romance novel with a black couple on it. Or, they’ll buy it for their “black friend” because it’s “not for them”. Huh? Love is love is love, n’est pas? Shake my head.
As a writer, I noticed that The Golden Girls most likely inspired (not copied) Living Single. And I’ve realized something else . . . I miss watching both shows, and have enjoyed re-watching them as they were on Hulu. I don’t necessarily need reboots and I’d love watching something that is unabashedly inspired by them in the future.
So, to answer the question “what not to write?”
That depends on you as a whole, which includes (but not limited to) your experiences, your intentions, and your willingness to let your guard down.