Two weeks ago I mentioned that I’d been criticised for making the main character in the Magic or Madness trilogy black when the story isn’t about her being black. I said I’d write more about it and then didn’t. Mostly because there are so many disturbing assumptions in that criticism that it makes my head explode. And also because I was secretly hoping someone else would post about it.
Well, yay! Tempest did:
Why, they ask, does the character have to be non-white if the story isn’t about being non-white? Because, I say, every story of my life isn’t about my non-whiteness. Sometimes it’s about my ability to let go of a crush, or figure out what raptor birds are doing on my fire escape at night, or what I plan to do with my life after college, or why I love the view from on top of a mountain yet fear the way up. If that’s true for me, it’s true of other non-whites, too.
And, you know, there are lots of non-white people in this world. It’s all right to have a few stories where they just exist, okay?
Specifying race helps to fill a character in, but doesn’t necessarily mean that the filler is standard and clichéd. When the reader first reads that Brenna is of a specific ancestry rather than a general, unspecified one, it makes her more real. Same with Reason. That’s what it adds to the story.
Many white writers are nervous about writing characters who aren’t white and seem to think that if they do so there must be a reason for it. They fear being criticised for writing people who have a different skin colour to them, they fear getting it wrong. On the other hand they worry about being criticised for having no non-white characters. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
To which I say, well, der. Of course, you’re going to be criticised. If you write and people read the words you have written some of them will not like those words. Doesn’t matter if you’re posting on your blog, writing an email, or publishing a novel.
My trilogy has been criticised for being too Australian and for being not Australian enough, for getting the American characters completely wrong, for getting Sydney and New York City wrong, and for many other things. That’s what happens when stuff you write is out there where people who don’t know or care about you can read it.
If you’re not going to write something because you’re afraid of criticism why bother writing at all?
As for why Reason has to be black: It’s because she is black, okay?
Also, Tempest, you have raptor birds on your fire escape at night? Really? That is so cool.