Writing Outside One’s Racial Box: A Primer

Writing Outside One’s Racial Box: A Primer

When I began writing The 13: Ashi-niswi I didn’t know I was blissfully wandering into a minefield. I guess I must live in a bubble.

The 13 is historical fiction—the tale of 13 Native American (Anishinaabe/Ojibwe) teenagers who seek to restore the honor of their band by tracking down and savaging the Dakota war party that devastated their village. When I described the project to a fellow author, she raised an eyebrow and said, “But you’re a white guy.”  At the time I was unaware of the ongoing and heated conversation about the appropriateness of writers stepping outside their racial boxes to write about races other than their own.

My reaction was, “huh?”

She recommended that I look into the then recent (September, 2016) controversy surrounding a speech by author Lionel Shriver presented at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival.

Ms. Shriver expressed her views about “cultural appropriation,” a term referring to objections by members of racial or ethnic groups to the use of their customs or culture—or even characters of their ethnicity—by artists or others who do not belong to those groups.

She criticized as “runaway political correctness” efforts to dissuade artists from drawing on ethnic
sources for their work. Shriver, author of 13 novels, deplored criticism of novelists like Chris Cleave, an Englishman, for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book Little Bee.

She noted that she had been criticized for using in The Mandibles the character of a black woman with Alzheimer’s disease who is kept on a leash by her homeless white husband. And she defended her right to depict members of minority groups in any situation, if it served her artistic purposes.

“Otherwise, all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina,” she said.

Officials in charge of the festival were so upset with the address—which they claimed was not on the agreed upon topic—that they publicly disavowed her remarks.  Links to her appearance were also temporarily unavailable on the festival website, leading Shriver supporters to complain of censorship.  Counterprogramming, billed as a “right of reply,” was hurriedly organized for Shriver’s critics. The rebuttal was scheduled opposite a session in which she was promoting her new book The Mandibles.

Author Jonathan Franzen, at the opposite extreme, says race is unlikely to be a theme of any of his future novels because of his lack of “firsthand experience.”  The well-known writer of five novels was quoted in Time Magazine as saying he hasn’t yet penned a book about race because he doesn’t have “very many black friends” and has “never been in love with a black woman.”

“I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character.  If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily, even to want to write fully from the inside of a person.”

Following the controversy, the British newspaper The Guardian interviewed 10 authors with a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  What follows is not only their various points of view, but a primer on how to write or not to write outside the racial box:

Hari Kunzru
“Clearly, if writers were barred from creating characters with attributes that we do not ‘own’ (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on), fiction would be impossible. Stories would be peopled by clones of the author. Since trespassing into otherness is a foundation of the novelist’s work, should we restrict ourselves in some way to avoid doing violence to those who identify with our characters? The injunction to refrain from cultural appropriation sounds like a call for censorship, or at best, a warning to self-censor, an infringement of the creative liberty to which so many…profess themselves attached.”

Kamila Shamsie
“Don’t set boundaries around your imagination. But don’t be lazy or presumptuous in your writing
either—not for reasons of political correctness, but for reasons of good fiction.”

Aminatta Forna
“Literature is an imaginative art. To suggest that writers cannot depict characters unlike themselves is patently absurd. Books would have to be peopled with characters exactly like the author.  Jonathan Franzen’s remarks about not being able to write a black woman character because he has never been in love with a black woman made me squirm. He said he must have the experience of loving a category of person before he can write about them. That’s hard to believe for all sorts of practical reasons, but, beyond that, writing is about imagining how others think and feel and how that informs their behavior; it is about offering a different way of seeing and in so doing it creates empathy. I tell my creative writing students: ‘Don’t write what you know, write what you want to understand.’ I write from a place of deep curiosity about the world.”

Chris Cleave
“Cultural appropriation is a valid concern and I’ve long been on record as respecting those who raise it. I do write across boundaries, though. I do my best, when I write, to be everyone. In my novels I cross boundaries of gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality and class. That’s the best way I know to tell stories about our world, where those fault lines define our society. I show scenes from both sides, using one character to view another…. Why? Because my characters’ eyes can be sharper than mine since my own identity has no lock on a unitary or objective way of seeing things.”

Al Kennedy
“When writers write, or readers read, they’re consenting to be someone other than themselves. The reader of properly crafted work can share emotional and psychological space with a character. This is a practice of empathy…. Believing in the power of human imagination and experiencing empathy gives you reasons to act and invent on behalf of others.”

Stella Duffy
“‘Write what you know’ is a tired maxim that most writers abandon eventually, ‘Write who you are’ is even more restrictive. I want to write and read work that is as multifaceted as our society. I think it’s vital we write widely and inclusively to help shift publishing from the mostly middle class, mostly white place it is now. We can write who we are and who we are not and do it well if we write with passion, strength and care. We’re bound to get it wrong sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If we want our writing to reflect the truth, then our characters and their experiences must be as diverse as the world in which we live.”

Linda Grant
“The modern novelist is caught in a contradiction…. The whole point of fiction is that you make it up, but at the same time, readers have become passionate for authenticity, for hearing the truth of other voices, other lives (and for treating them, at times, like autobiography or non-fiction—the novel as learning aid….).”

Naomi Alderman
“Of course fiction writers can write whatever they want, no matter their backgrounds.  But here’s the thing: you must try to do it well. You must be familiar with whatever tropes might apply to your character: racist, sexist, homophobic, sizeist, ableist, anti-Semitic and anything else. It’s not OK, for example, to make your Chinese character shifty and inscrutable or your fat character stupid and lazy: you need to have learned enough to understand where these false ideas come from and why it’s so pernicious to replicate them. Do better. Treat your characters as human beings. Write them as people, not ideas or stereotypes.”

Philip Hensher
“The only thing worth saying about the issue of cultural appropriation is that it has nothing to do with identity, and everything about quality. Good writing can do whatever it feels like doing. Bad writing can’t do anything. A bad writer can’t tell you anything about his or her own culture, let alone anyone else’s. A really good writer can throw him or herself into worlds they may only have glimpsed, and light them up.”

Maggie Gee
“Writers are lucky bastards. We have the invaluable chance to make our versions of reality public, and when these versions seem false to other people who don’t have the same chance, it’s fair for us to take their point to heart. Why do writers write novels? On one level to have fun and feel free; but on another, to explore, to discover. One of the things we most enjoy exploring is other people’s inner worlds, and so we make characters. Every character is in a way an invention, so a ‘lie’; in another way, every character contains part of ourselves, but they also lead us down the mysterious passage to another life we long to understand. We feel our way into our characters until, effectively, we are them as we write them. This is very like the definition of empathy…. All of us in some way are trying to understand, trying to see what we hold in common. We want to avoid building a narrow fictional world peopled with characters who are vain mirror-images of ourselves, so we walk the mile of the novel in a variety of different characters’ shoes. But living through a fictional character is never as good as knowing actual joy or love, and never as bad as suffering actual pain or discrimination. With the freedom to inhabit different others, therefore, comes a price. The price is humility about what we know, a willingness to show our characters to their models and hear the critical comments they make.”

Nikesh Shukla
“Here are some tips for writing ‘the other.’  Do your research. Do it properly. Make sure someone from the ‘other’ community reads your work before it gets read by someone with publishing power—especially if the person with publishing power isn’t from that community. Don’t get defensive if people tell you that you got it wrong. Don’t think you can hide behind ‘it’s fiction and I can do what I want.’  I think we have the right to tell stories that are different from our own backgrounds, heritages, races, if we do them responsibly.”

In sum, these authors support cultural appropriation, but qualify that support.  Writing outside one’s “box”, they say, requires thorough research, avoiding stereotyping and “cardboard characters” and striving to achieve authenticity.  But, as writer and literary critic Anjail Enjeti warns, this is not an easy task.

“Racism in literature manifests itself in myriad ways: characters whose personalities are reduced to their accents, cultural dress or foods; brown or black characters ‘rescued’ by white saviors; the ‘surprising’ friendship between a white character and a character of color; or, a white character’s journey to a ‘foreign’ or ‘third world’ country in search of enlightenment. These narratives, some of the most common and enduring in literature, exist mainly to service and conform to ‘the white gaze.’ And yet they are rarely deemed problematic….”

I hesitate to inject a few thoughts of my own in and amongst those of these literary luminaries.  But, my cultural appropriation of the Ojibwe has required me to formulate my own personal rationale.

The 13 is historical fiction placed in a “time before time” (before the arrival of the white race on these shores), and I benefitted from a surprising wealth of information with which to provide the historical, cultural and linguistic underpinnings for the story.  The Anishinaabe/Ojibwe have a rich and long oral tradition upon which I drew.  And, starting in the early 1800s, the tribe hosted many travelers and adventurers—early “ethnographers”—who wrote extensively about their experiences while among them.

So, as a journalist experienced in investigative reporting, I felt able to write authentically about my subjects.

Having said that, however, I will probably never write a piece of contemporary fiction focusing on another race.  I simply don’t, as musicians like to say, have the “chops,” the experience.  In terms of Native American literature, for example, I am certainly not a Sherman Alexie, N. Scott Momaday or Louise Erdrich.

To quote what is reputedly a Native American proverb:  “Great Spirit, help me never to judge another until I have walked in his moccasins.”

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THE 13 (ASHI-NISWI) by Lorin R. Robinson