Friday, June 14, 2024

Crossing the “Is It Mine” Field: White Authors and Character Diversity

I have a novel that I wrote last summer that takes place mostly in an abandoned theme park. It's a really rough early draft that I'm still working on, but it's one I love and hope to publish one day. The themes and characters are close to my own heart and family, including concepts like interracial families, passing, generational lies, and the burdens of the past. Still, as much as I love it, and as much as it's grown from my own sense of family, I'm struggling with whether or not it's my story to tell. 

There's an issue out there in the world of writing and publication. Okay, a lot of issues, actually. It's basically a mine field of issues where the mines are all covered in smaller mines, but the issue I'm concerned with in this project is the idea of white authors writing characters of color. As a white author, I certainly want to write a diverse cast of characters, and sometimes even center Black characters who flow from my family experiences, based on the needs of the story. What I don't want to do is create a tangled mess of racial stereotypes. There have been so many missteps and offensive books that have been published in the last few years that have caused uproar, and rightfully so, among the writing and reading community. One that always pops up in the discussion is The Help, which gets plenty of well-deserved criticism for not only centering the white character as a savior in the context of the civil rights movement in America, but also making a caricature or stereotype of the Black characters. 

On the other hand, I'm seeing white authors who seem to understand the inherent complications in writing characters of color and not only avoid them, but write spectacular stories in their genre that include either a diverse cast of characters, or completely center the characters of color. Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is, to me, a perfect example of this. I started reading it recently because I loved the Netflix series adapted from the first novel, and was sad to see the second season cancelled. While I was watching it, I had no idea that the writer of the original material wasn't Black. The setting, the rich background knowledge of the time period, and the uniquely believable characters gave me nothing but green flags. I wanted to read the first novel, the one the series is adapted from, to get a sense of how different the two versions are (not much, in a good way), and to see if the Black artists involved had to do much cultural repair to the original. Surprisingly, the original is a perfect example of a white author faithfully depicting Black characters, much like the series. One little touch, among many, that caught my eye is that the neighborhood that some of the characters move into in the second part is Woodlawn, the same neighborhood in Chicago where Lorraine Hansberry's family moved into in the 1940's, and which became the subject of the Supreme Court case, led by her father, which struck down (sort of) the neighborhood covenants that kept Black families from moving into white neighborhoods. 

It's touches like this that make Lovecraft Country the kind of work that I want to emulate with this novel, and really several of my other novels as well. I'm committed to writing about interracial families, because that's what I know and live, and I'm blessed to have family members around me to help guide me as I navigate some of these issues that can be fraught with the possibility of harm. The novel I'm discussing here involves a brother and sister, twins, growing up with an abusive grandfather as their only caretaker. Their mother died of an illness, but also of a broken heart over their father, who also died before they were born. One of the revelations (spoiler alert) of the novel is that part of the reason the grandfather dislikes them so much is because they're mixed, although they don't know it, never having known their father. Also, because he's just a horrible person, it's complicated. There's generations of family on both sides, with vastly different experiences in this country, which have culminated in the lives of these two young people, and they're on the verge of discovering how to not necessarily reconcile or solve all these problems, but to pull all that history together within themselves and make peace with both of their parents, through some supernatural means, because that's kind of my thing.

In writing, and now revising and rewriting, this novel, I'm trying to take some lessons from those who have failed to hit the target in the past, either through negligence or just oversight, as well as those who have done it well. One resource I found to help me was Mya Nunnally's article on Book Riot from 2018. You all remember 2018? Such a simpler time, right? In the article, she gives "7 Casually Racist Things That White Authors Do." It's a great resource for me and any white author trying to write characters of color, and I'd like to think about a positive for each of her points, kind of a do for each of her don'ts.

Her first don't is having zero characters of color in the story. It reminds me of the sitcom Friends (which I never found funny, don't @ me), which I'd like to think takes place in an alternate universe where Reconstruction in the South went so well, and reparations were made so completely and promptly, that the Great Migration simply never happened, and Black folks never moved into the northern cities in great numbers. I'd like to think that, but I know it's more likely that the show just didn't want to hire Black writers, let alone Black actors. So the do to this don't is to write the characters we see around us. That might require expanding our circles of friends (no pun intended) and learning more about other cultures, especially those of the people in our own neighborhoods, whom we should be getting to know anyway.

In fact, another of her points is the failure of white authors to do research on the cultures they write about. Think about all the nuances of culture, from language to food to clothing and every other aspect of life. Our characters shouldn't be based on other stories and shows, but real people. Sensitivity readers can help with this, but by the time they see the novel, a lot of it has been set in stone, if not at the publisher then at least in the writer's mind. It's better to run ideas by trusted sources, those who are willing to do the work, during the drafting process. And as with any work, compensate your beta and sensitivity readers, either through bartering or straight up currency. 

The lack of authenticity in the drafting process results in stereotypes, another of Nunnally's points of contention. The problem with writing characters based on the characters you've already seen in other media is that they're likely to be stereotypes, caricatures of people that are often limited and offensive. Even if your character is modeled after another one who seems unique and vibrant, consider that all you're doing is appealing to another trend instead of creating a realistic and fleshed-out person in your story. 

Nunnally makes several great points in her article, but the last one might be the most prevalent - the white savior. This really is a complicated issue. There's been story after story, movie after movie, where the subject is civil rights or racism, but the focus is on the white protagonist's struggle to create change, or their discovery of the true nature of society and subsequent indignation. Again, don't @ me, but To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. This approach robs the characters of color of any agency, and reduces them to something like children or underlings, completely helpless in their struggles to free themselves. A cursory look at history, in the United States and around the world, shows that in every situation of colonialism, slavery, and oppression were the subjects of racism and abuse just helpless victims waiting for a savior. Revolt and resistance were not only always the norm, but they also make for great stories. 

However, here's the rub. Let's say I want to write about a particular revolt of enslaved people in America. There's no question that I'm going to do the research and talk to the right people to get perspective on the matter and inspiration for creating the characters. But that still doesn't mean that it's my story to tell, and while I might become very caught up in an idea for a story, I probably have to tread very carefully when it comes to this matter. To return to Ruff's Lovecraft Country, he's done a masterful job of approaching the 1950's, with very realistic and frank depictions of racism, but without centering a white character, much less a savior, and without trying to Forrest Gump his way through the time period either, highlighting all the major events of the time. Instead, he's writing a horror story set in that time period, and it works so beautifully because it seems to make the point that racism is at least as horrific as any of the Lovecraftian monsters we could imagine. In fact the two horrors are so intertwined as to be inseparable, and the fact that he's chosen Lovecraft as a focal point is even more ironic, given that writer's known racism, which is also addressed and deconstructed in the novel.

So, I'm still working on my novel, which is set in two time periods, the 1980's when I was a kid, and the 1960s when the protagonists' parents were falling in love, despite all the obstacles of racism and segregation. I'm threading in my own experiences and those of all my family members as inspiration and a sort of historical mooring. And as I'm writing and refining it, hopefully I'm making it not only my story, but one that belongs to my whole family.

No comments:

Post a Comment