Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Race in Fiction

Okay, I promised I wouldn't endlessly revisit this topic after my last post, but this has been floating in the forefront of my thoughts for a while. Because one of my secondary characters, Terra, is African-American, but I am, quite clearly, not African-American in any way, shape, or form, and I'm pretty sure you'd never be able to trace any African-American ancestry in my blood ever. (I used to lie in elementary school when we did genealogy projects. I'd say I had Mongolian blood, which is a huge crock of shit, but I did it because I was jealous of the other kids who got to be Irish, German, English, French, Ukranian, Polish, Italian, Scottish, Celtic, Welsh, Norwegian, Finnish, ETC PLUS A BILLION and I just got to be Chinese. I wanted to be diverse, okay.)

So naturally, I have been thinking about portraying a character who is a different race than myself and also not white (this is the default race, no matter how you look at it). Ever since Zetta Elliott (African-American author of A Wish After Midnight) wrote a guest post for Justine Larbalestier's (author of Liar and How to Train Your Fairy) blog, which at some point included the sentence, "Mostly, I just wish white authors would leave people of color alone." I am taking this out of context massively, but no matter which way you slice it, this sentence was included. You can read the full post here if you so desire, and be aware, that I am not in complete agreement with the opinions expressed. Justine also said this: "I frequently wish non-Australians would not write about Australians or Australia because they so often get it wrong." This is only a wish. She's not for censorship, but nevertheless, her views on writing what you know have been verbalized.

Even though I think this is an unfortunate opinion to have, opinions like these make me worry about my inclusion of a character who is not of my own race. My book is not making any kind of political/moral/societal commentary on race. Terra happens to be black. That's the way she came out in my head, so what? Justine and Zetta would say that I should do some serious research to make sure I'm not "writing her wrong," but come on, seriously. How am I supposed to go about doing research on "mannerisms and culture of black people" without making that sound and BE essentially racist? Even if that wasn't clearly racist, if I did do research on that subject, I'd be writing a caricature of a black person and not a real, unique individual. I guess this means I'm going to write her like I'm going to write her. That's the best I can do.

Have you written a character outside of your race? Were you nervous about it?


  1. *hugs*

    This is a hard thing. On the other hand, there are people that would see racism at work if we only wrote about characters that are the same race as we are. I would just write the characters as they come. People will always see what they want.

    I write outside my race most of the time--and my gender. I guess I haven't really thought about it much, because I'm writing from cultures I'm familiar with.

  2. I have written outside my race before, yes, and it's really difficult. I think the key is to make it so that it doesn't really matter what race the character is - unless that's important to the story, and if it's that important to the story then you definitely shouldn't be worrying about other's opinions about it because, well, that's the story! Maybe that made no sense. It's still early. :)

    Do you read a lot of stories with other races included in them besides your own? That might be a very good place to begin. :)

  3. I agree with Dani and Glam - just write the character as they are because that will be the most natural, especially if their race is more of an incidental thing than a key feature of the story/character arc.

    It's definitely hard and I worry about stuff like that all the time. I think you can only do your best and be true to the character. As for the research bit, I think the point of research, for me anyway, would be so that I'm aware of the kind of background that comes with being a certain race. It's not so much about maybe mannerisms or culture, but more about having an understanding of where a character of a certain race might come from and thus what kind of issues might be mixed up with his/her view of the world. For example, for Asian Americans who identify as Asian American (specifically AMERICAN), the question "Where are you from?" is mildly offensive or at least mildly annoying. But non-Asian Ams often don't understand why that's such a loaded question and that comes from not knowing about the history of Asians in America as being treated always as "the other." My friend and I just discussed this actually, but there are Asians too who don't get that loaded question, probably because whether they're Asian Am or not, they identify more strongly with their Asian, um, identity.

    Anyway, sorry about that sort of tangent! You definitely don't want a caricature, but I guess the heart of why they would suggest serious research is so that we get more of that psychological, emotional depth as affected by history and society.

    Don't worry too much though. You obviously care, so I think you'll take much care in creating a believable, beautiful PERSON. :)