It is almost impossible to avoid writing work that can be read as racist. If you’re writing about people, you’re writing about identity, and a huge part of identity is race.
We are all seen through the lens of race. We all see through the lens of race.1 Whether we’re conscious of it or not. If you’re a writer you really need to be conscious of it. Because if you don’t think you are writing about race, you can wind up writing things visible to your readers that are not visible to you.
Often that is a not good thing.
When our work is accused of racism we writers tend to curl up into foetal position and get defensive: I AM NOT RACIST. I AM A GOOD PERSON. HOW CAN THEY SAY THAT?
First of all—no matter what the actual wording—it’s our work that’s being called racist, not us. The reviewer does not know us—only what we have written.
Secondly, we live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist etc. world. The odds of none of that leaking in to our work is zero. No matter how good our intentions. Besides intentions don’t count for much. If it’s not there on the page how is any reader supposed to guess what was in your head? On the other hand, there is no way you can completely bulletproof your work against criticism. Nor should you want to. Criticism will make you a better writer.
Thirdly, it’s not about us. It’s about the reader/reviewer’s life and experiences, about what they bring to the text in order to make meaning. This is how we all read and this is why we all have such different views of the same texts. It’s why I think Moby Dick is the worst, most boring piece of crap I’ve ever endured and why many people, even some whose views I respect,2 think it is a work of genius.
We writers have to accept that despite due diligence, despite how careful we are, readers’ responses to our work are exactly that: their responses. They will not always read our carefully crafted, thoughtful words the way we want them to. Sometimes they will find meanings in our work we did not intend them to find.
What follows is a discussion of how I have dealt with having my last solo novel, Liar, criticised for racism and transphobia. If you have not read Liar there are spoilers, though I have kept them to a minimum. But here’s a cut anyway:
Racism and Liar
Liar was largely well-reviewed and won a bunch of awards, including one I’m extremely proud of,3 the Carl Brandon Kindred Award, which is given to a book “dealing with issues of race and ethnicity.”
It meant a lot to me because throughout my career, in every novel, every story, I have consciously written about identity and race. I spend a lot of time reading and thinking and listening and writing and talking about race and racism.4 Those conversations, that reading, shaped Liar. Here was an award from a wonderful organisation recognising my hard work. And bonus: it was named for a novel by one of my favourite writers, Octavia Butler: Kindred.5
However, even if you are consciously writing about racism, in order to show how bad and wrong it is, your work can be read in ways you did not intend. This is especially likely if you are unfamiliar with the history of the people you are writing about, or the history of representation of that people.
Take a look at the outcry around Victoria Foyt’s Saving the Pearls. From reading the first chapter and looking at the promotional video I feel fairly confident in saying the author knows little about the history of blackface, or racial role reversal stories, or, indeed, of writing about race, racism and identity. Her intentions may well be good but she managed to step into every conceivable offensive stereotype. If you are unfamiliar with those stereotypes deploying them is almost inevitable.
Then again you can be familiar with those histories and debates and still stuff things up.
I was fairly certain when I wrote Liar that I had not stuffed things up. The book was vetted by many smart, knowledgeable writers, black and white, who I trusted to point out said stuff ups. For instance, we had long discussions about whether Micah would use the word “nappy” to describe her hair and if it was okay for me as a white writer to deploy the word. We agreed it was absolutely the word Micah would use.
It’s a word that many black people have come to embrace, which is why there are salons like Oh My Nappy Hair. However, just as many hate the word. It has a long history of being used as a negative, derogatory descriptor of black hair. Just think of what Don Imus said. It is particularly problematic when used by a white person.6 So while Micah is black, I’m not. I kept taking the word out and putting it back in right up to publication.
I’m proud of what I achieved and Liar is a book that has been important to many people. More than any of my other books people—of colour and white—have written to thank me for writing it, thanked me for representing them in ways they had never been represented before. Being thanked like that is extraordinarily heartening. It makes me feel like what I do is worthwhile.
But Liar also hurt people. If I take credit for the people for whom it worked then I also have to take blame for the people it harmed.
They, mostly, do not write to tell me so. I know about it because I have found, or others have pointed me to, blog posts about my book, which talk about Liar‘s racism. These are reviewers who know nothing about me or my politics, who have not read my blog where they would find that I write often about racism, that I think about it. They’ve picked up my book randomly with no context for me—other than my author photo—or the kind of books I write, and found it racist.
But, you know what, that’s how most people read books. Hell, that’s how I read books too. I rarely have any idea about the politics or ethics of the author. Not unless I’ve met them or have been reading them for years and read their blog, essays, interviews. But a brand new book I picked up? Not so much.
Books have to be able to stand on their own. I am a white woman who wrote a book about a black teenage girl who is a liar. There are a whole set of obvious assumptions about the book that stem from that fact. Assumptions that I was conscious of while writing the book and that I worked hard to counteract.
But for some readers I failed.
As we predicted my use of the word “nappy” was criticised. But not nearly as often as I thought it would be. Even so when I see people saying that the word hurt them I wish I hadn’t used it. Even though I still believe that it is absolutely the word that Micah would use.
Sapphires, Jezebels and the Tragic Mulatto
Some people were enraged by the cover image with the word LIAR emblazoned across a black woman. That’s one of the many reasons I did not want a representational cover for the book. In fact, that was the main criticism the book faced. Liar has an unreliable, lying, sexually active, possible-murderer protagonist who is a black woman. Here we go again. Why is it always black women who are liars? Who are violent, angry, and highly sexualised? Why are they always Jezebels or Sapphires?
Those are question I thought about a lot while writing the book. That’s one of the reasons all the main teenage characters are of colour. The murdered boy, Zach, is Hispanic. His best friend, Tayshawn, is African-American. So is Zach’s girlfriend, Sarah.
I also made sure Micah, Liar‘s protagonist, was not highly sexualised. When the book starts she’s (maybe) had sex with one person: Zach. Sex is important to the story, but I was very careful to make Micah no more sexualised than most teenage girls. She thinks about sex. She’s attracted to some people. She’s also way less sexually active than the two main male characters, Zach and Tayshawn. If anyone is slutty in my book it’s Zach, not Micah.7
I ran into the problem that the bar for being considered sexualised is way lower for a woman than for a man. And even lower for a black woman.
There is also the running metaphor about Micah and her family being an animal/beast. Again this has a long horrible history in depictions of black men and women. Which is why I made it something that comes from the white members of Micah’s family and why I made her mixed race. The other members of her family who identify with animals are her white grandparents and cousins and uncles and aunts. Not her black father. There is in particular one white character, not a relative, who also identifies with animals in the same way that Micah does. I wanted to be very clear that this animality is not because Micah is black.
I also wanted to make it clear that part of her understanding of her sexual drive comes from her identification with those animals and how she imagines their sex drive to be. Again it’s not because she’s black.
But despite the fact that I did what I could to address those criticisms there were still those who read Micah as a racist caricature in a direct line of descent from the Jezebels and Sapphires.
There have also been a few readers who were struck by Sarah, the official girlfriend, being lighter-skinned than Micah the unofficial girlfriend. Except Sarah isn’t lighter-skinned than Micah. I worked hard to make it clear that Sarah is darker skinned than Micah for precisely the reasons those readers outline. I absolutely was not going to feed into the noxious notion that the darker your skin the more animal you are; the lighter your skin the more virtuous you are.
But they did not read the book that way despite my efforts.
When I first saw that criticism I was inclined to roll my eyes and complain about their crap reading skills. But is it their fault?
In Liar I was writing against centuries of racist misrepresentations of sexually-active, strong black women. We’ve been taught to read those women as having darker skin than the good girls. To value them less than the light-skinned girls.
To turn that on its head I had to be very, very careful and very, very clear. I went far enough for some readers but not for all. I’m the one who needs to do better. When you’re working on toxic ground created by centuries of racism you have to be very, very careful.
I believe it’s incredibly important to write against these stereotypes. If we give in and make sure that all black women characters are asexual, gentle, and kind we wind up with another set of stereotypes. Plus why can’t women of colour have as wide a range of representations as white men? No one looks at a book about a white man who’s an habitual liar and assumes that it’s a comment on all white men. I’ve never heard anyone complain that, say, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley is an indictment of all white men and clearly means they’re all psychopathic liars.8 White men never have to stand for their entire community.9
Then there’s the myth of the tragic mulatto, the mixed race woman who can pass as white, who is torn between two worlds, who is constantly victimised and has almost no agency, and always dies at the end of the story. She has to give up her black family and identify solely as white, though because she is not white, she can never truly succeed: and that is her tragedy.
This myth is entirely the creation of white writers. We white writers have been unhealthily obsessed with the tragedy of passing for centuries.
Any white person writing a character who passes white, really needs to think long and hard. They need to know everything they can about the myth of the tragic mulatto. They need to immerse themselves in black writing about identity. Funnily enough in novels by black writers where passing is part of the narrative the character who passes does not always have to give up all connections to black communities and family and they don’t always have a tragic end.10 For a fabulous YA example read Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl where the woman passing does so, not because she really wishes she was white, but for practical reasons: she wants to fly. Passing is the only way she can. She does not leave her family behind. Seriously, read Flygirl, it’s wonderful.
I was very determined that Micah not line up with the tragic mulatto. Micah’s father has a black father and a white mother, but he identifies as black largely out of a desire to have as little to do with his crazy white family as possible. Micah’s mother identifies as white though there are hints that she may not be entirely. She is estranged from her family.11
Micah is relatively light-skinned, but unlike the tragic mulatto she cannot and would not pass as white. She identifies as black, not mixed race, or biracial. (This identification, like her father’s, is partly fuelled by her rejection of her extended white family’s illness and animal identification.) She is not torn between the world of whiteness and the world of blackness. She does not long to be white. She is not a passive victim. Spoiler: She does not die at the end of the book.
Yet some have read her that way despite all those lengths I went to in order to prevent that reading. Clearly, I need to go further and write clearer and better.12
It’s Much Harder for Black Writers
I’d like to point out that my black writer friends cop way more criticism for all of this than I do.13 They are constantly being asked why their books can’t be more uplifting. Why do they have to depict the negative aspects of black life? Why can’t the girls they write about be good girls? And the boys dutiful, law-abiding, and church going? Why do these black writers hate their race?
No one has ever asked me why I’ve written white characters who are not perfect: who lie and steal and murder. I’ve never once been asked why I hate my race.
No one reads Moby Dick and wonders why all white men are obsessed with killing whales.14
This is why it’s such a huge problem that there are a million more books about white people than about black and brown people published in the USA and Australia.15 It means every single character of colour bears the weight of representing their entire race. If there were more representations, more variety in those representations, and if there were way more books by people of colour, it would be way less of a big deal.16 This also applies to movies and television and pretty much all art, ever.
If we lived in that world Micah would not be read as standing for all black girl teens. She’d just be Micah.
One set of criticism of Liar that I did not anticipate and therefore did nothing to address was that Liar depicts a trans character who is a liar, mentally unstable, and identifies with animals and that therefore Liar is transphobic. There is a long history of trans characters being depicted as psycho killers. A famous example is Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge.
This reading concludes that Micah is a trans character because early on in the book she pretends to be a boy. She does this because she is mistaken for a boy and thinks why not go with it?17 Within two days she’s found out and she only lasts that long because she stays out of most people’s way. After she’s found to be a girl—again because she’s not good at passing—she claims to be an hermaphrodite.
I intended both lies to be opportunist, plucked-from-the-air lies. As is her next lie that her father is an arms dealer. Micah gets more pleasure from people believing fantastical lies than from relatively easy lies.
She also makes this claim very early on in the novel:
I’m undecided, stuck somewhere in between, same way I am with everything: half black half white; half girl half boy; coasting on half a scholarship.
I’m half of everything.
This is the main passage that gets quoted by people who read Micah as trans.
Here’s what I intended with that passage: I meant it to be read as Micah being self-aggrandising and overly dramatic. Very much part of the m.o. of an habitual liar.
She start with the claim of being “half black half white” then moves to “half girl half boy.” Those are large claims in terms of identity: our race and our gender are two of the fundamentals. But where does she go next? To class? Ethnicity? Sexuality? Religion?
No, to the fact that she doesn’t have a full scholarship. Which is not only not the same kind of claim. It undoes the drama of the previous claims. It’s as if she were to say, “I’m strong! I’m smart! I collect tiny tea cups with lizards painted on them!” One of these is not like the others. It was meant to be wryly funny. I am aware that very few people got that joke. I failed.
A friend, who was a scholarship kid, read Micah’s claim as being very matter of fact. As shorthand for saying she was halfway between the rich kids and the poor kids. Which is a very big claim about identity, specifically about class.
I’m embarrassed I didn’t see either of those alternative readings.
I did not intend to write Micah as someone who feels like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. Micah strongly identifies as a girl, just one who is not especially good at fitting the various stereotypes of femininity. And, yes, that is something I took from my own life. When I was a teenager I felt the same way.18 I was also once mistaken for a boy. Micah, like I was, is amused that anyone would think she was a boy. She thinks it’s fun to run with it to see how long she can get away with the trick. She gets away with it longer than I did. I was busted as soon as I said something.
Notice, of course, that I’m talking about what I intended. Readers are not privy to my intentions. They’re not mindreaders. They’re coming to my work with their own life experiences.
As someone who is not trans, and has known very few trans people in my life, and none of them particularly well, it did not cross my mind that anyone would read Micah as trans. My cisgendered privilege made me completely unable to see that reading of my novel until it was pointed out. I could see only what I intended.
Were I to write Liar now I would write that part of it differently. Not because I want to lock in one true reading of the book—that’s not possible or desirable—but because clarity is always worth striving for.
A singular reading is not desirable because art exists only in the interaction between the text—whether that text is a poem, a book, a graphic novel, a song, a sculpture, a painting, a movie, or whatever—and the reader. If everyone responded to our work in exactly the same way we would be living in a blasted cultural hellscape of total boredom.
Those readings of Liar and the anger and hurt expressed has made me find out more about trans politics.
I was familiar with some of the absurd arguments around whether transwomen can be part of feminism or not given that some feminists argued they were not “real” women and thus could not understand patriarchal oppression because once they were patriarchal oppressors. Pro tip: any argument that employs the word “real” to qualify identity is always going to be a rubbish argument, whether they’re trying to define who’s a real woman/man/black/white/Star Trek fan/gamer or whatever. But I knew little beyond that.
Three years ago, when Liar was published, I was unfamiliar with the term “cisgender.” When I was at university the term used was “gender normative” and, from what I can tell, it did not have the range or nuance of “cisgender.” I still feel awkward using it because it’s still a new term for me.
I have been reading and talking about feminist and sexual and racial politics for decades now. I feel confident about writing across that terrain though I am, of course, still stuffing up, still learning. I do not have anywhere near that level of knowledge or comprehension when it comes to trans politics.
I will be reading and listening for a long time to come.
For those of you have not thought much about any of these questions, I hope laying out these examples, showing you my thinking in writing them, and the critiques that have been made, give you a sense of what is at stake and why it matters. Why you should be thinking and reading about identity and politics.
No matter how thoughtful you are about race, gender, sexuality, class etc. etc. there will always be readers who will read your work in exactly the ways you were working hard to avoid. If you write racist characters their actions and words will be read by some as proof of you-the-writer’s racism.
But that’s good. It keeps us writers awake to just how hard our job is, just how much work has to be done to change the world we live in to make those readings impossible.
We cannot use “it’s too hard”, “I’ll be criticised” as an excuse not to write ambitious books, not to write thoughtfully about thorny issues of identity. Doing so is our job. Yes, even when writing comedy. Yes, even when writing a book with only white people in it. White is a race. White has a history. So does white supremacy. There is, in fact, a whole field of study: “whiteness studies” that you should have a look at. Toni Morrison’s collection of essays, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is a great place to start.
Always do your research. Here’s a page of links to useful posts on writing about race. If you’re writing about black people, even if you are black, read black writers. As Chauncey de Vega puts it:
Please people, I am begging you, stop mentioning that damn essay [Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege”]: deferring to white people’s expertise when talking about racism is itself an act of white privilege and white supremacy. Start with Du Bois, and other people of color before you become giddy with the “discovery” of white privilege. Black and brown folks were doing it better, first, and many years before the Invisible Knapsack of Privilege first circulated on these Internets.
On the other hand, it’s also good to know our limits. I will not be writing a trans character any time soon because I simply do not know enough. As I said I’m very early in the research phase and I’d love to get more recommendations for good books by trans people.
None of this is easy. We all get it wrong. I hope my examination of Liar above shows you just how hard it is. But I hope, too, you can see how worthwhile it is. And how getting defensive and putting your head in the sand helps no one least of all the writer that you aspire to become.
For me that is the joy of what I do: striving always to be a better writer.19
TL;DR: When writing about identity you will stuff up about race/gender/class/sexuality/etc etc. Do not let that stop you doing due diligence. Write the best you can, as thoughtfully and well-researched as you can. Be ambitious. Learn from your mistakes. Listen to criticism. Keep writing.
- Yes, even if you think you don’t see a person’s race. [↩]
- Hello, Megan! [↩]
- Which is not to say I wasn’t proud of the other awards. I was and am! [↩]
- I touch on why I have so doggedly wrestled with issues around race and racism in these posts. [↩]
- If you haven’t read Kindred or any other books by Butler, DO SO. Genius. [↩]
- Though it is by no mean only white people who get called out for using the word. Look at the controversy over Carolivia Herron’s book, Nappy Hair. [↩]
- I kind of wanted to hug the readers who commented on that. [↩]
- Co-incidentally—or not, really—Highsmith was a big influence on Liar. [↩]
- Yes, there are many more than one white community. But, guess what? There are loads of different black communities too. [↩]
- In Nella Larsen’s Passing for instance the character passing has a double who does not pass, which cuts across the grain of the familiar white version of the story. [↩]
- Putting it like that I suddenly realise that perhaps Micah’s mother qualifies as a tragic mulatto. Crap. [↩]
- That sentence DOES NOT break grammar rules. And even if it does I did it ON PURPOSE. #stupidpedants [↩]
- And to make it doubly unfair, white writers like me also tend to get more praise for writing black characters than they do. [↩]
- Or with writing overly long really boring books about men who are obsessed with whales. With white whales no less. [↩]
- The two countries I know the most about. [↩]
- Notice the “of” there in “it would be way less of a big deal”? That’s a USian extraneous “of” what we Australians don’t use. See? I am a USian-Australian! Bilingual, me. [↩]
- It was also a sly reference to Scott’s Leviathan books, which he was writing at the same, where Derryn is passing as a boy in order to serve in the armed forces. Having grown up on books like Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders, I have always wanted to write the classic girl-pretending-to-be-a-boy-in-order-to-do-something-cool novel. So far Liar‘s as close as I’ve gotten. [↩]
- Sometimes I still feel that way. [↩]
- Thank you, Doselle Young, for your notes on this post and for the conversation over the years that led to it. You are the best. [↩]
I guess you do what you can do. If a reader looks hard enough, there is always the possibility they will find what they are looking for. If they are looking for something racist–just because they see a white woman on the back of the book–they will likely find it.
Awesome post 🙂
Thanks for taking the time to write this out. I loved Liar, and it’s helpful for me to think of it again through the lens of other people’s reactions and your own thought process. I appreciate that you hold both as real and true.
Bravo. Somebody had to say it. As you say, writing “works of inclusion”
can be fraught with representational dangers.
But. Perhaps the trick is to either be less ambitious
about over-complicating the character, or the plot. When the plot is
simpler, you can focus more on rounding out the character
so that it is harder to find awkward, unintended flaws in
The way they are being represented.
Otherwise you may have to accept that your protagonist, which your narrative logically find extraordinary in some way, is therefore never going to fit neatly into anyone’s
pigeonhole of race/class/ gender rectitude.
Hi there, 2mara and Carol:
2mara – I don’t think Justine is at all suggesting the issues she’s discussed are somehow all in the reader’s mind. Was that really the takeaway or am I misreading you? Inquiring minds want to know.
Carol – I’m not sure I’ve followed the point you were trying to make here as clearly as I would like, honestly. Could you please clarify so I have a better idea of what it is you’ve meant to say, particularly in regards to the suggestion that authors might try to be “less ambitious about over-complicating the character, or the plot?” If I’m reading correctly, it seems you’re suggesting that a well-conceived plot and a well-conceived portrayal of PoC might be somewhat mutually exclusive. If so, please explain this thesis in more detail and, if that’s not what you intended, please correct my interpretation.
Thanks so much, folks.
2mara at 1: I don’t think this post means what you think it means.
This isn’t about people looking for racism in novels and finding it even though it isn’t there. It’s about the fact that all reading takes place against a vast and layered historical background that we all approach from different directions. And that writers unknowingly (and to varying degrees, though perhaps unavoidably) allow the racism of our milieu to seep into their work.
This is pretty explicit in paragraph 6: . . . we live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist etc. world. The odds of none of that leaking in to our work is zero. No matter how good our intentions.
But at least your cluelessness does prove its own point, that some people find whatever they want in a text.
I worry about this stuff in my writing. “Only write about people of the same race, sex, ability level, class, cultural background, and sexual orientation as me” isn’t a good call; doing otherwise inevitably means getting something wrong, despite my best efforts.
…and, weirdly, what made me feel better about this was realizing that even when I am writing someone who matches up with me along certain axes, I can still inadvertently call up offensive stereotypes. I’ve got a protagonist of the same sexual orientation as me who’s going to look problematic to some people because of stereotypes associated with that, for all that I’ve tried to build in a lot of things in the story to make sure that’s not the only representative of that group, and that it’s not presented as something inherent to that orientation, and so forth.
But my feeling better isn’t the point. Trying to do better is the point. And ultimately I’m not going to learn to do better based solely on my own guesswork, or even my own research; improvement is going to come from other people, directly or not, looking at the problems I still have and pointing them out.
The power of story is that it allows us, for a little while, to live behind the eyes of another human, to see things we’d never see and be people we’d never be. This is as much true for the writers of stories as it is for the readers.
Writers (and readers) _should_ stretch themselves, cautiously and with great compassion and humility, as Justine suggests here. It’s not easy. It might never be perfect. But authentic characters, drawn with open eyes, will always be more powerful than those that require no effort to create. And discerning readers know that – that’s why they share their experiences, good, bad or otherwise. It’s a process that makes us all more compassionate & understanding.
Christina: Thank you! I have to admit I don’t enjoy talking about my own work. That’s part of why this post took so long. I had to reconstruct what I was thinking way back then. I’ve written so much since I stopped work on Liar. I hate re-reading my own books.
Fade Manley: But my feeling better isn’t the point. Trying to do better is the point.
I think that is one of the hardest things for writers to internalise: our feelings really aren’t the point. Actually, it’s probably the hardest thing for anyone to internalise about pretty much anything.
Justine @8: I tend to think of it as the second step of the most important thing that I got out of my English Lit degree: “Quality and taste are not the same thing.” Or, “What I like most does not map perfectly to what is most skillfully made.”
Learning to separate my emotional reaction to something from my overall judgment of it was sort of what put me on the path to actually grokking things like “Intent is not the ultimate arbiter of an act’s morality” and other useful statements.
And…heck, I wouldn’t say I’ve got that down perfectly. I still tend to refer to things I didn’t like as being inferior to things I did like, except for when something is a guilty pleasure or very clearly Excellent But Not My Thing. But I try to remember it.
Fade Manley: Exactly!
Well, almost. Nothing will make me concede that Moby Dick isn’t a pile of boring poo. I won’t even admit that it’s well made boring poo. 🙂
Hee. Meanwhile, I think that Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? is the book I have hated the most in my life, but god damn, it’s brilliant writing. (I have never read Moby Dick, but I did read a really entertaining detailed commentary by someone who was reading it! That’s close enough, right?)
I didn’t realise how much I’d missed your blog until you started up again on a semi-regular basis. So thank you!
And thanks also for this post. Very clear-headed explanation of what went through your mind as you wrote Liar, and how (I guess) intent doesn’t always matter. I did not take any of those things away from Liar, but then, I read it from a position of privelege. I appreciate seeing the different ways that others interpreted the various aspects of the story.
But that’s good. It keeps us writers awake to just how hard our job is, just how much work has to be done to change the world we live in to make those readings impossible.
Dear Doselle: (sorry for the overnight delay!). I’ll try to clarify. One thing that I notice in many contemporary “mainstream” books is that when choosing to write about unhappy or troubled protagonists, the dive so deep into the complicated mind of the protagonist that you lose the character and all you are left with is the pathology. Most readers don’t want any character to be reduced to pathology…most people are bigger than their problems or their ego-driven tics. (this is the biggest mistake I feel Sapphire made in the novel *Push*.)
Now one of the best things about SF/F lit, when it is done well, is that the plots and characters are complex, and even sometimes multiplex. But working successfully with so many narrative variables is a tricky balancing act. You have to be very careful with it, otherwise you can end up with characters whose tics erase their personhood. I don’t say eliminate complexity. I say balance and refine it. SF and Fantasy by definition sorta deal with extraordinary people facing complex environmental situations. The plots are usually thought experiments in how to work through of resolve a problem that has something to do with complex and extraordinary things. I find that if you allow a protagonists to have onscreen moments when they are *not* victims of their environment or their own psychology, they become more real and relatable to the reader.
Mundane fiction (so to speak) has been having a two decade romance with pathology, which I think has resulted in an overabundance of over protagonists that seem like stereotypes or exploitation opportunities to many readers. I would hope for SF and fantasy not to repeat that mistake.
Re-reading this post, I found myself remembering a conversation with two African-American genre writers who discussed removing their author photos from the back of their latest books in order to increase sales.
Because there often appears to be a misconception among many genre readers that books written by PoC (in this particular instance black men specifically) aren’t for them, will contain unrelatable characters or likely to be somehow instructional in some manner.
Not so for white prose authors who choose to use PoC as their protagonists.
In the words of KRS One: “Why is that?”
DOSELLE YOUNG: [T]here often appears to be a misconception among many genre readers that books written by PoC (in this particular instance black men specifically) aren’t for them, will contain unrelatable characters or likely to be somehow instructional in some manner.
Not so for white prose authors who choose to use PoC as their protagonists.
In the words of KRS One: “Why is that?”
I’m not sure about all genres but in YA I suspect it has to do with the idea that POC only write what are called “problem” books. Because somehow, the logic goes, writing about people who aren’t white can only be writing about their struggles with some problem: living in the ghetto, struggling with drug addiction, being a teen mother etc etc. In the YA world the view has been that POC don’t get to play with dragons or have adventures, they only get to have their survival chronicled.
Fortunately this has started to change. Just not nearly enough.
More broadly it has to do with the absolutely pernicious notion that “white male” is neutral. So a white man author photo does not constrain the possibilities of a book. A white man will write about anything. Once you introduce non-neutral variable along the axes of race and gender those possibilites constrict. A woman author? Clearly there will be romance, clearly the scope will constrict. Because women can’t write big books. And so on and so forth. It is to vomit.
I wish I was making it up but I have heard and read those sentiments over and over and over again. And you point to it yet again, Doselle. It fills me with despair.
Doselle, thank you for asking the question in just that way. In my experience (I can only speak for myself), the portrayals of PoC in the media and literature have for a long time been seen or pereceived (by many) as narrow focused just as Justine says — problems, survival, things SPECIFIC TO “them” but not “universal” to the human experience, as if the experience of PoC is not just as universal.
This is why I agree with Justine that “white male” is often perceived as the neutral stance, the universal, in the largest cultural sense but also specifically within the SFF genre as it developed in the USA and UK. (In fact, this is one of the reasons I wrote Cold Magic and sequels the way I did — I wanted to write a fantasy novel in which the neutral universal stance — the one that expresses the story’s highest level of privilege that no one thinks about because it is the default expectation – is embodied in a young man of African ancestry.)
Kate Elliott: Problems, survival, things SPECIFIC TO “them” but not “universal” to the human experience, as if the experience of PoC is not just as universal.
Yes, this is the part that drives me nuts. The whole set of issues around “relatability.” The idea that white readers can not relate or will not relate to POC characters. But somehow POC readers are going to be totally fine with white characters.
It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as that notions keeps shaping what books are published what movies and television is made. Aaargh.
It’s so absurd. One of the characters I most strongly identified with in my late teens was Dana from Octavia Butler’s Kindred. And I am, by no means, alone.
Really excellent post. And I’ve been enjoying your return to blogging too! I very much appreciate your being willing to discuss, honestly, the critiques you’ve dealt with when it comes to your own work. I dread being called out for all sorts of things I haven’t considered because of my privilege blinders, but at the same time, I can’t let it stop me from trying. I remember last year when I posted about LGBT YA stats, a commenter took me to task for cisgender privilege. While I had heard of the term, I did not know how to use it and I had to do a lot of thinking and learning about it. I still have more to do.
The issue of “relatability” is a whole other can of worms. Which, if you’re going to continue blogging, maybe it would be worth a discussion?
Malinda Lo: Thanks. I am definitely going to be continuing blogging. Though not every single day. And, yeah, the whole “relatability” thing is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s at the heart of the “white” covers debate.
I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s starting to see the world differently from having our cisgender privilege pointed out to us.
@justine: in re: your request for further reading by trans authors – have you read “Whipping Girl” by Julia Serano, or “Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism” by Patrick Califia? I found them to be a good jumping off point.
Jenna Rose: Thank you. I didn’t know either of those.
Recommendation: “Look Who’s Morphing” by Tom Cho is my favourite book by a transgendered author.
CAROL: “One thing that I notice in many contemporary “mainstream” books is that when choosing to write about unhappy or troubled protagonists, [the authors] dive so deep into the complicated mind of the protagonist that you lose the character and all you are left with is the pathology. Most readers don’t want any character to be reduced to pathology…most people are bigger than their problems or their ego-driven tics.”
I’ve the read response over again several times and I’m still finding a fundamental problem: you seem to have conflated the author choosing to write a main character who happens to be PoC with an unhappy or troubled protagonist. As a PoC who happens to be the hero of his own rather colorful life story, I can assure you that I am neither particularly unhappy nor troubled. More, I feel relatively confident I’d make a rather relatable protagonist in a number of genres including, but not limited to, SF, urban fantasy, crime/noir and the occasional mommy porn (Fifty Shade of Black? Think about it, people!). In short, my ethnicity and the personal history that comes with is not a pathology but a unique point of view.
Rather than plop this all squarely on your shoulders, I’m going to presume, to some degree, that you’ve been exposed to quite a few ‘problem novels’ in your time; mainstream fiction in which the central character’s life as a PoC is a source of great pain, lamentation and woe. My condolences if that’s been the case. No one should have to suffer through even one problem novel–particularly the subset of problem novels detailing the exploits of nice white folks who oh so happy to help shine a light on the problems of us darker folk. If you’ve suffered through even one of these particular novels, I’ll be the first to sacrifice a goat to the Elder Gods on your behalf.
“Now one of the best things about SF/F lit, when it is done well, is that the plots and characters are complex, and even sometimes multiplex. But working successfully with so many narrative variables is a tricky balancing act. You have to be very careful with it, otherwise you can end up with characters whose tics erase their personhood.”
Okay, now you know how I said I’m neither particularly unhappy nor troubled? Well, I am a little troubled by the above statement (or the whole of your reply) because, again, you’ve made no mention of a character’s race, ethnicity or culture. Instead, you say the above: “…otherwise you can end up with characters whose tics erase their personhood.” To be fair, bad writing is bad writing, but that doesn’t seem to be what we’re talking about here. One’s race, ethnicity, sexuality and culture are not ‘tics.’ To the contrary, they’re fundamental pieces of one’s unique identity…they rest at the heart of personhood. That goes of straight white males as much as does anyone else. We all both define ourselves and are defined others along these specific axes. Hopefully, not to the exclusion of all else but still…it would be naive and a hallmark of bad writing to think otherwise.
“I find that if you allow a protagonists to have onscreen moments when they are *not* victims of their environment or their own psychology, they become more real and relatable to the reader.”
I don’t want to put words in your mouth and I don’t want to make assumptions based on information I don’t have. What I want to do, instead, is simply ask: why the assumption that PoC/transgendered characters are going to be victims of either their environment or their own psychology? Why the continued conflation of ethnicity/culture and sexuality with pathology?
A word associated most frequently with disease.
Justine, you are taking on too much blame. No one can ever write a novel that conveys to every reader exactly what she meant. Reading, itself, is a creative enterprise. No two people ever read the same book because the exact same words mean something different when filtered through the reader’s experiences and beliefs.
I don’t have all the answers… all I can offer is a rule of thumb you might use while writing:
Let’s say that Character A wants something from Character B — be it money, labor(i.e. “help”) or property. If Character B is described/defined in a way that only justifies A’s desire for money, labor or property, then B is a stereotype…
In other words, does B exist for his/her own sake, or only in order to serve the needs of A?
I don’t see Justine taking blame here. I see her as attempting to write the best book she can, considering valid critique, & taking responsibility for her mistakes. And then talking about the process in a larger context so that others can learn from her experience.
Yes, everyone brings their own baggage to a book, but that only increases the need to write better and broader books, and to create fully realized characters that are outside the too-common white, middle class (boring) protags.
I know you’re trying to be helpful, but that’s crappy advice. All characters in a book exist to serve the story. And often characters exist only to move the plot forward. That has little to do with whether or not a writer can make them 3 dimensional.
I loathe the idea that any storyteller would back off from a tale because it’s too charged, for lack of a better term. The only way things change – where characters of color are considered relatable by default, just like white characters – is if people keep writing about them, and learning as they go.
Narrative tension in any novel is created by a problem that must be overcome by the protagonist. No tension usually means no plot, (or a dull, unimaginative one, since i know on no perfect people or perfect lives. No matter what the persuasion of the protagonist. Sometimes the problems are mostly external, but usually there are inner problems that the protagonist must confront and overcome. These are usually personality flaws, although as you point out, they don’t always have to be Hitler-sized flaws. And I rather prefer if they are not. But what I have seen in too many novels (genre and not) purporting to be about people like me, is so much emphasis on the nuances of problems and flaws that you never see any other qualities in the person or their life. That is what I caution writers today against, IMO.
This tiny screen limits how I can reply. I do hope this makes sense.
In the play Hamlet, the prince has inner and outer problems to confront, some of which question his sanity and his basic decency. This goes on in most of the novels I read, what about you?
Doselle–pardon the double post, but perhaps if I give you an example of a writer who I think “gets it right” and has been writing (to my experience) recognizable main characters of diverse flavors (gay, straight-poly, leather, and a rainbow of ethnicities, and a range of disabilities) since the mid- 60s you will see what I mean. (not that you have to agree, but just to be clear.). I still think that the book “Babel 17” is as close to perfect a novel about being both human and different as anyone has ever written. The mixed Asian protagonist is, by her own admission “neurotic as hell.”. But neither she nor the Author, Samuel R Delany, let that reduce her three-dimensionality or her agency in any way.
Gretchen Ash @ 26: I couldn’t have put it better myself. That is exactly what I intended with this post. Thank you.
@Justine – thanks so much for sharing!
Carol: Hey! You should be asking my pardon not Doselle’s. It’s my blog. *pouts* You may double post whenever you feel like it.
Totally agree that Samuel R. Delany is an awesome example of a writer who gets it right and is always ambitious. As you know, he’s one of my heroes.
Excellent post. I’m glad you look at all the issues associated with writing about race/gender/etc. and still mention: “We cannot use “it’s too hard”, “I’ll be criticised” as an excuse not to write ambitious books, not to write thoughtfully about thorny issues of identity.” Maybe it’ll take you out of your comfort zone, but if we don’t write about characters from different backgrounds, these problems will only continue. And the more open, thoughtful discussions we can have about these issues, the better.
I hate that authors of color have to defend race/battle so much foolishness.
Why can’t we just write the dang story?!?
Great post. I had to laugh at the idea of a collection of essays on whiteness by Toni Morrison. Justine, maybe you remember when Morrison lambasted Jana Wendt for asking her if she would ever write about white people. Tee hee. I just think that’s funny. I’ll have to find that collection though, it sounds interesting, although Morrison is usually far too clever for me.
It’s so true about readers finding and interpreting things based on their own experience. I just hope for a day that this extends to the the cultural identity of characters. I’d rather not, in most cases write about race or culture(my latest WICKET SEASON is an exception, because it’s about cricket, which is strongly enmeshed with culture)but “generic” characters are interpreted as white by readers of all colors. I’d like to see that change somehow. I would love it if kids would see themselves regardless. Kind of like how many readers interpreted Katniss as a person of color (before the movie and its associated controversy).
I can’t tell you how much I love all that you do to talk about these issues, and while I see the point about always ceding to Peggy McIntosh (but I’m also a woman of color who keeps that essay saved on her computer and throws it at people when she gets annoyed with them), I have to say that when people who could ignore their privilege try to use that privilege to dismantle or at least bring light to it, I think it has a lot of potential for good.
I just added this to the bundle on bitly (http://bit.ly/LZtavv) I’ve been sharing with writers who are curious about issues of privilege when it comes to media and creative arts. Thanks for always being so awesome!
Annie: Thank you.
ms.j: The good news is that there are more people and more and more places in which to just “write the dang story.” I think that’s all any of us writers really want. You know?
mclicious: Thank you.
I know what you mean about the Peggy McIntosh. That essay has been so useful for so many people. And it is so wonderful to watch people begin to recognise and question their own privilege for the first time. If only we all did it!
But I also get the total fatigue with white people who so often turn to other white people to understand racism and not thinking to read, you know, the people who are most directly affected by racism on that subject. Lately I’ve been recommending Baratunde Thurston How to be Black as an amusing-but-makes-you-think 101 racism alternative.
I haven’t read How to be Black! Thanks for the link. My sci fi/fantasy class is reading McIntosh this week, but maybe I’ll see if we can bring in Thurston as well. I love “How not to write about Africa,” but it’s not even about the privilege so much as that it vindicates the times in a creative writing class in college when no less than three people wrote stories about going on safari in South Africa (? I went on safari in Kenya, and I’m fairly certain that’s not a big part of South African tourist industry) and being around all of the sad brown people and I was the only person who pointed out that South Africa is one of the whitest, most well-to-do (though not without its problems) nation on that continent.
In regards to the discussion above about cisgender privilege, I just wanted to add that there is critique out there about the concept of cisgender and cis privilege – it’s by no means universally accepted in feminist and social justice-y circles the way that other privileges are.
Here’s an article that explains another school of thought on cisgender, and why it is inadequate to describe the complexity of how gender, sex, gender roles, and gender nonconformity play out in society.
@Mallory – that link is awesome. So glad I chose to follow comments on this post.
I will say, though, that I think the cis/trans binary can be very useful, even though it is incredibly inadequate. It can be easier to begin to understand the issues surrounding gender with a binary discussion, adding the nuance after a basic understanding is achieved, than to throw that level of critique at the issue right off. I know of several trans people who use these terms for simplification of discussion, while fully acknowledging the issues are never that simple.
That’s one of the reasons why I choose to write about anthropomorphic animals instead of humans. But I know my novels will still deal with race issues.
I actually had a critiquer in a workshop class think I was calling him the “n” word based on a character’s name. (The character’s name was Trecheon Omnir. The critiquer’s name was Eche.) He started off the discussion making this claim and afterwords stormed out of the room screaming “this is why I hate white people.”
It definitely gave me something to think about for future stories.
Jeez, Rachel. That’s…odd isn’t it? I don’t get how he got the n word from that. Am I missing something?
But people storming out of workshops screaming isn’t helping things is it? Is it possible he was just being a jerk?
Thanks for this post, Justine! It’s very refreshing to see a white author who is thoughtful and reflective instead of defensive. A very good model for those of us working on our own novels! 🙂