Race. Writing. They have to collide at some point. But what’s the implications of being a minority writer? What are the responsibilities? It’s a risky topic….but what the hell. Only live once, right?
I was workshopping a story in my writing group when the issue of race came up. It was really a small mention, almost passive, but it sparked a lot of thought for me. Here was the passage that started it:
The lock to the front door was broken again. They had just fixed it this morning and, apparently, had done a shoddy job. Burglaries and break-ins weren’t common in the Lake Merrit area, but living in Oakland with freely passable doors wasn’t something that helped the white residents sleep at night.
One of my group-mates had a critique of the passage, stating that ‘…wasn’t something that helped the white residents sleep at night…’ was a strange thought, assuming the main character himself was white. I found that a little odd, as I didn’t really give any indication that the main character was white. Granted, I hadn’t given much indication that he was black, either (except, maybe, for the very passage you’ve just read). It reminded me that in America we tend to assume that characters are the standard white male or female unless stated otherwise. Even I, an African American, have this automatic view after growing up reading literature by white authors.
Think about the American fiction books you have read. How many times are the white characters introduced as white or caucasian? Compared to the amount of times someone is introduced as black, asian, latino, etc, etc? In fact, we can argue that if the author does not explicitly state a race, American readers will most likely picture that character as Caucasian.
Then there is the other side of things. As a black writer, I’ve wondered how my writing would be accepted. Would anything I write be considered ethnic literature? When I think about famous writers, most of the minority ones focus on cultural themes in their works. What if I don’t want to deal with cultural issues? What if, when a person picks up a book from the horror section and sees the picture of a black male on the back, I don’t want them to think, oh, it’s a black book? Is that wrong of me? Do I have a duty to bring the black perspective to my audience? What responsibility do we have to incorporate our ethnic background into our writing?
For example, I started a fantasy book with a society dominated by civilized werewolves and vampires. Here’s where I hit a cultural dilemma. As I was writing, my characters were naturally white, as that is the race that has dominated the genre I have read and seen on television (from Lord of the Rings to Goosebumps to Stephen King). Sometime into it, I realized that this was a little off: if I was truly ‘writing what I know’, wouldn’t all my characters be black since that’s what I’ve grown up around? Wouldn’t I incorporate all of the cultural nuances from the black community, much like Harry Potter taught us about current British culture? Shouldn’t I?
Maybe I should. But I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want that to define my book. I wanted it to be seen as a good story, and nothing else. Some of us may have ambitions of writing the next Great American Novel. But that means something different than the Great African American Novel or the Great Asian American Novel.
So, where does this lead me?
It seems to me that diversity is a good medium. Some of my characters will be white, some black, etc, etc. The only thing about that is, it’s not really much different than any other successful/popular white author. They virtually all include diversity at some point. The challenge for me is incorporating my minority perspective into my writing without isolating the general public (as that is my desired audience, NOT solely the black community). This could be done by having black main characters, but with a ‘supporting cast’ typical of what the average American is used to. Or having a strong minority character.
In the end, I just want to write good horror stories which scare the crap out of you, whether you’re white, black, or purple. But do I have a greater responsibility than that, as a minority? What are your thoughts?