Writing & Race: Black Men, Cubans and Gypsies are Living in My Head!

Two of my novels include a Black man as the protagonist. In a meeting a few weeks ago, I overheard the statement that Anglos cannot write about Black people because they don’t have the experience and knowledge base.
I suppose the statement above would apply to my writing about Asians, Swedes or Native Americans or any other culture of which I am not a part.  I understand the point and agree that there are many compelling arguments for and against writing from the viewpoint of a cultural identity that is not one’s own.  On the other hand, when writing fiction, isn’t that what writers do as they get into the minds and lives of their characters? The statement became more and more absurd to me as I thought about the classics. But it called me to look at my own writing and why I write about the characters that are in my own stories. 
My desire here is not to haggle about whether or not I know enough about the cultures that I write about to include them in my novels and stories, but to look at the larger picture of the basic human condition with our imperfections, inadequacies, hopes, dreams and fears.  A writer must explore the questions of what is common to every family, every woman every man, every child.  What are our common bonds, and how do we strive to rise above adversity? What forms us at human beings, and what is our deepest yearning? I believe every human being comes into this world with unlimited potential, and then the world gets hold of us and leads us on our own hero’s journey. I believe each of us has an innate desire to do good and to try our best. I do not believe these traits are restricted to only one culture.  I believe hope and determination are what we all hold onto, no matter what class or culture society wants to drop us into. And some in our culture are not so nice.
I think that blanket statements like the one I first mentioned only tend to marginalize us and polarize us from one another.  Because to jump right to the conjecture that the inability of one person or another to write about another race is the norm is to not only miss the larger picture of our cultural need to love one another by understanding one another, but also to dismiss the great novelists of the world.
I have lived in the South my entire life and can write from the perspective of a southerner. No, it’s not always about race. But to leave race out of in my fiction is to deny my own history. My experiences with others of differing cultural backgrounds is part of what compels me to write. My interactions with African-Americans has been life-long.  No, I can never in reality get inside the head of a Black man and know his thoughts. Oh, but I can in my writing. I have a couple of Black men living in my head who wanted their stories told. I also have gypsies, mechanics, and a couple of Cubans living in there that have been transferred to the page.  I believe I present their stories with honor and honesty. If they were real live people they may or may not think so, especially if they are characters who behave badly. Ah, then comes the time for redemption. Or not.
If writers only wrote from their own perspective, only a tri-racial person could have written Huckleberry Finn.  And what about gender? Some of the best novels I’ve read are written by men using female protagonists. Wally Lamb immediately comes to mind as a contemporary writer who uses female protagonists. And then there’re religious denominations, professions, and endless other plot twists and turns that writers use for their characters.  Of course, there is a ton of bad writing in the universe to back up the argument that a writer shouldn’t write about something they know nothing about. To fully develop our characters writers simply must do our research. Writers cannot write without doing our homework. In a sense, we must become the characters we write about, immerse ourselves in their worlds.
I don’t think the argument is a matter of writing from another perspective; it’s a matter of bad writing or good writing. Writers are chameleons who can be any thing and any body. That is one of the pleasures and joys of writing, to get into that dream state of becoming our characters, seeing the world through their eyes, and revealing that world to our readers, while the newspapers pile up at our doors, while the outside world lives in chaos, and while characters keep developing themselves in our writing, telling us their troubles, their yearnings, and where they want to go.
What is your experience in writing from other cultural perspectives?
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2 responses to “Writing & Race: Black Men, Cubans and Gypsies are Living in My Head!

  1. Point on, Emma. Kathryn Stockett has gotten a lot of grief for writing from the viewpoint of the black maids in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, but then again, her novel, “The Help,” has been on the New York Times top 10 best sellers list for 76 weeks (it's number 5 today). As you say, it would be dishonest to leave race out of our writing, especially in the South. The point, I think, is, as you say, to “present their stories with honor and honesty.” I can't wait to read about your black men, gypsies and Cubans. Write on!

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  2. I believe thinking someone can't write from a certain perspective because they are not that perspective is not understanding the rich choice of definitions of “perspective” including “the state of existing in space before the eye”, ” the state of one's ideas”, “the facts known to one, etc., in having a meaningful interrelationship”, ” a mental view”. These all call out to the writer of fiction. One's “mental view” can allow for endless possibility for the character and need not be hampered by absolute truths. In any event, I wonder if all black males see themselves or others through one lens – I think not.

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