Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Musings from a black woman: I can weigh in on this!

Write What You Know: Limiting or Authentic?, by Neesha Meminger, Racialicious. Emphases mine. It is a long post, but keep reading. You can do it!

The other day, I came across a blog post by Editorial Anonymous, “The CSK is Dead (Long Live the CSK).” The Coretta Scott King Award was established in 1969 and is given to outstanding African-American authors and illustrators of children’s books.

Editorial Anonymous writes,

"If the CSK were in charge, male writers wouldn't be able to comment on what it's like to be a woman. The CSK is saying that you cannot understand what it is to be black in America unless you are black.

"Giving an award for creating art about the experience of race is a wonderful thing. But giving an award for creating art and being a particular race?

"That’s racism in action."

So this set me a-pondering. Is it cool for white people to write from the perspective of people of color? How about, as Editorial Anonymous mentions in the quote above, for men to write from the perspective of women?

[. . .]

[prize-winning white woman author Laurie Halse Anderson] also goes on to write, “Slavery affects all Americans today, regardless of ethnic background, or how long our families have lived here. Slavery is the elephant in our country’s living room. It won’t go away until we acknowledge, understand, and deal with it.”

This is absolutely true. Racism (and slavery) affects every single one of us, no matter what our background. White people should be taking it up as an issue – just as men should be taking up the issue of sexism and misogyny –and talking about it, examining it, exploring, and looking for more equitable and just paradigms. And writing a novel like Chains may be this one white woman’s way of doing that.

So . . . what’s the issue? Is there an issue?

There is the view among some writers that one’s creativity or artistic vision should not be limited or “fenced in,” and restricting writers to write only what they know does exactly that. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard some variation of, “Who wants to read about a liberal white woman from New Jersey/Iowa/Seattle?” [I would!]

However, in an interview on ustrek.org, Sherman Alexie, author of Ten Little Indians and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, as well as the writer/director for Smoke Signals, jokingly suggested a “10-year moratorium for white writers so that Indians can tell their own stories instead of having white people tell them. ‘The fact is, when white authors step away from their typewriters, they’re still white. When I get up from the typewriter, I’m still an Indian.’ He wants those authors to question their privileged positions.”

[. . .]

Next time you go to a bookstore, check the shelves and see how many books there, are in any given genre on any given subject, written by people of color. My guess is that very few genres, if any, will have an accurate representation of global demographics in the titles. And that is because there are so few writers of color getting picked up and supported by publishers in any kind of substantial way (a là Twilight, Harry Potter, The Princess Diaries, etc. And, of course, these examples hold true for film as they were all adaptations of novels).

As a South Asian author writing YA, I know from experience that many editors are hesitant to pick up more than one novel with an Indian-American protagonist written by an Indian-American author – even if the two novels are different genres and about entirely different subjects – because both novels still fall under the Multicultural category. This often creates the “everyone elbowing for the one seat on the bus” phenomenon among the marginalized authors who have to fight for that one lone multicultural spot. But I digress…

Yet, as we all know from visiting our local bookstores, or taking an online stroll through Amazon, there is an abundance of books/films by white writers writing on every subject, in every genre – with more than one writer often covering the same topic for varying perspectives. A publishing house can have several white fantasy authors and historical romance authors, even a few writing about spiritual journeys and all of those books are seen as different books. None of my white author friends have ever had their agents come back to them with, “No, this editor declined because she already has a European title about identity issues.”

I, on the other hand,
have heard that exact same phrase, substituting “European” with “Asian.” . . .

I thought about this recently as I was looking at some of my associates who insist upon socializing with and befriending others based on color and gender. I'm not kidding. It is that bad. When you look at them, you feel embarrassed for them. It is hard to believe that they are 30-year-olds living in California, instead of high school seniors going to a segregated Georgia prom.

As I try to explain to people with whom I have enlightening discussions, there is a difference between white men writing about nonwhite and/or nonmale people, and those people writing about themselves. For instance, I know infinitely more about white men than they could ever know about me or any other black woman. I have personally encountered thousands of white men in my short lifetime. That does not include the countless number of white men I have been forced to read about, listen to or watch as part of my "educational" process. In the United States, white men are in your face all the time. Unless you live on a reservation with no mainstream media access, you cannot escape them. I could tell you gross generalizations of what they like, what they don't like, how they grew up, what they think of themselves, the lies they have been told and which they subsequently believe, and who they dream of becoming and why. I could adopt a pseudonym, write Memoirs of Joe Six-Pack, and it would sell millions. (Don't steal my idea! Or, if you do, please blog about it and let me know.)

However, that does not work in the reverse. Some white men have never met any black women, or any nonwhite people at all. Others can count all the colorful friends they have ever had on one hand. They could also count the important black women they have heard of on two hands. An example:

  1. Rosa Parks
  2. Harriet Tubman
  3. Michelle Obama
  4. Oprah
  5. The overly-mentioned Halle Berry
  6. Weezy Jefferson
  7. Whoopi Goldberg
  8. Tyra Banks
  9. um . . .

There aren't even any black women in either of the Night at the Museum movies, as if black women never existed in history, or at least in museums. There are two women (barely) featured in the second one, including Amy Adams, who primarily function as Ben Stiller's younger, better-looking love interest. Or "Amelia Earhart." Whichever.

Based on my above analysis, writing what you know may be limiting, but it can be more authentic. It is revolting that so many books, TV shows and movies that include (white) female characters are written by (white) men. It comes through in the voices of those characters, like when those middle-aged men were writing about those self-involved twentysomethings. It is dishonest, less than believable and disappointing. If more nonwhite and nonmale people were allowed to actively participate in the infrastructure of corporate media, then sure, write whatever you want. But that is not the case, and I do not appreciate having my alleged story told by white men who all share the same one black friend. That is, if my story gets told at all.


1 comment:

Asian Americanist said...

You seem to make blanket statements about "white men." If there was a story about a black marine that grew up in poverty and went on to a career in the military, would the most authentic author for that be a former marine who grew up in povery and was white or a black man who grew up in upper-middle class suburbia and who got most of his knowledge of the military from movies?

What about The Wire having so many black characters, but the creators are white? Is it not their story even though Burns was a cop for 20 years and a teacher in Baltimore and Simon was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun for 12 years. Does them being white mean that The Wire isn't "authentic?"