Monday, March 19, 2012

Race for the Fiction Writer

First of all, I’d like to thank Nadine for having me on IndieEbooks. The topic for my guest post is something that wouldn’t need to be said in a perfect world. Unfortunately, our world is imperfect and there are things that fiction writers should take into account as they hone their craft.

You knew this was coming.

It's that subject people don't want to talk about even though it's often in the back of our minds. No, I'm not talking about the birds and the bees. I'm talking about race. Most people avoid the subject because it has a tendency to evoke a lot of negative emotions for people of all backgrounds but I do believe that there is a way to broach the subject without angering people.

As such, just know that there isn't much of a concise argument I attempt to make with this post. These are mere musings meant to encourage open and collegial dialogue at least in your mind if not on this blog or on Twitter.

As one of the very few fiction writers of color that I've met on Twitter and in the blogosphere (and perhaps that's a sign that I need to virtually get out more), I feel that in the eyes of the book-reading public, the color of my skin automatically makes my work both potentially unique and, somehow, potentially unreadable to a large portion of that book-reading public.

There is a prevalent theory (one not held by this writer) that a reader of color will read any book written by a White writer but that a book written by an ethnic writer will most likely only have their books read by folks of the same ethnicity. Someone I know recently compared it to dolls in a toy store. Any girl will want White Barbie but only Black girls will want Black Barbie.

While I think the doll example rings true, I believe that this theory as it relates to books could be debunked by someone willing to do the research...research that I'm sorry to admit I haven’t had the time to do.

As it is, I do think that there is pressure on ethnic writers to write books that cater specifically to readers of the same race. As a Black writer, quite a few people will be shocked when I release novels and short stories with White or Latin protagonists. Some may even be surprised that in my debut novel, Agents of Change, my Black protagonist does not have a Black love interest. This pressure originates from the idea that there are so few ethnic writers out there that there's not much material to which ethnic readers can relate. I understand that and appreciate books like that but I think the pressure to produce such material can be somewhat constricting to the writer.

After all, the point of reading is to get lost in the story, is it not? That's why I take the reader places they've never been (or maybe to places they have been but not necessarily in the same context). If a Black reader is perturbed by my protagonist's taste in women, then the book probably wasn't for them to begin with. My goal is to get the reader to think about things they've never thought of.

I say all of this to tell my fellow writers of color that, ultimately, you can write the story you want to write. If you want to write a story specifically for an ethnic readership, that's admirable. We do need books like that. At the same time, you shouldn't feel as though that's all you can write. You can write whatever the hell you want. If it's a good story, anybody will read it, regardless of race.

To writers who are not of color, be careful when introducing ethnic characters. You know how the complaints go: "Every Black character is an undereducated thug," "every Native American character is a primitive savage," "every Latin character is heavily dependent on their large family unit." Don't be afraid to make your ethnic characters unique, even if you think people of that ethnic group will view that character as inauthentic.

In the end, you're not going to make everyone happy. Sometimes, that unhappiness stems from the story itself. Sometimes, the unhappiness can be race-related (either the character is too stereotypical or is thought of as inauthentic).

If you write a good story, stay true to yourself and your characters and think outside the proverbial racial box, you shouldn't have a problem with not offending anyone. I'll also say that if you do have an ethnic character that is a bit cartoonish, you should be okay so long as that character undergoes some sort of transformation. Otherwise, it's the same tired stereotypes and that's when you tick people off.

Again, the purpose of this post is not to agitate, at least not in a negative way. The purpose is to sort of break the ice as it comes to race in fiction.

Thanks, again, to Nadine for allowing me and my book to appear on her blog. I hope that my post was at least somewhat helpful for you all.

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