Thursday, May 21, 2009

What do white writers have the right to write?

It's a tongue twister, this question--but more important, it's a challenging dilemma. An artistic, cultural, political, even moral dilemma. One that all white writers of conscience come up against, it seems to me, sooner or later. And have to grapple with as seriously and honestly as possible if they care to claim any social relevance for their fiction.

I'm talking about the issue of how, when, whether white writers can/can't/should/shouldn't/must/mustn't create characters of color. I've thought about this a lot. I've read quite a few opinions on the subject. I've spoken to quite a few writers and readers. And I've changed my mind--sort of, maybe, uneasily, worriedly.

This is particularly pertinent to me right now because my story "All the Ashleys in the World" has just been published in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of Nimrod International Journal. This is the first story I've written with people of color as the main characters. It's about a 12-year-old girl in Queens whose mother, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, is arrested in an ICE raid on her work place and is being held in a detention center.When I started writing fiction, 10 years ago now, it seemed to me that for a white writer to write the stories of Black or Latino/a or other people of color characters was an arrogant presumption, even a kind of theft. That it amounted to an expropriation--a taking of something I as a white writer have no right to take, that is, the experience of life as it is lived by people of color in this society, or, and this is really the point, I think, the expression of that experience. The right to tell the story, the stories. Who am I to claim that right? A right that writers from the oppressed communities have fought hard to claim for themselves. And even if it were somehow okay to try, what white writer could even come close to getting it right? How can anyone who grew up white in this country possibly understand the experience of people of color? Experiences, rather, plural--and there's another issue, for the range of experiences and issues is vast and complex, people of color are not some monolithic entity, not some singular Other defined purely in relation to the white majority, no, of course not. For a white writer to skirt the issue of racism, how large it looms in the lives of people of color, would be a cop-out. On the other hand, to define characters of color singularly as creations of racism, solely as oppressed and not as multidimensional people encompassing the whole gamut of human experience, would be terribly wrong, offensive, shallow and insensitive. Yet isn't it enormously presumptuous for a white writer to feel entitled to make just these sorts of creative decisions in crafting characters of color?

So the bottom-line questions for white writers, I think, are: Can we write characters of color who are authentic? Can we write characters of color in a way that is not insensitive? And, even if we think the answers to these two questions are yes, still, are we writing about lives that are not ours to write about?

For a long time I worried that I'd be fooling myself if I thought I could write authentically and sensitively about characters of color. Regardless, it seemed to me that it was not my place to try. I read pieces by Black and Latino writers who made the case strongly that white writers should not write Black or Latino/a lives, and it seemed to me that I ought to defer to their view. Then I began coming across other opinions from other Black and Latino/a writers who had the other view, some who even challenged white writers to demonstrate the reach of their imaginative empathy by creating living, breathing--real, not symbolic, full, not flat--believable and sensitively wrought characters of color. Then, as I moved further into the writing world, attended conferences, made friends, I started meeting more writers of color who held this position very strongly. Do we not exist, they asked. Do we not have a place in your stories? How dare you write a world without us. Sure, it's hard to get it right, but you damned well better try. Now I saw (duh) that there is no uniform view, that people of color have as many nuances of opinion about this topic as about any other. Which meant I'd have to decide for myself.

All my fiction--I have now written one novel, about a dozen short stories, and the first 75 pages of a second novel--is to one extent or another political. Sometimes directly, other times more subtly. In one way or another, all of it addresses social issues, including racism. All of it includes characters of various nationalities, and gay and straight, and women and men. In my first novel there are two important Black characters. Both are close friends of the two protagonists. But in that novel, as in most of my early stories, the protagonists themselves are white. As I read and listened to the divergent viewpoints about this question of who has the right to write what, it dawned on me one day that, oh crap, I was falling into the "gay best friend" trap, only in my case with Black characters. I think the characters were true and real and well written, but they were not the pivot point of the tales. I began to feel that if a story came to me in which people of color were central, that I ought to try to tell it, in a way that would be as true as possible to the lived experience of the characters. Maybe I wasn't a good enough writer. Maybe I was too trapped in my own white experience. But I hoped that wasn't so. And I began to think that I should not shy away from the attempt.

Around the same time I started thinking about the issue in this light, a little girl started stalking my imagination. A kid of about 12, standing alone on the edge of Union Square listening intently to the speakers at an immigrant-rights demonstration. Sad and angry, confused and determined, and all alone. She staked out space in my subconscious and wouldn't leave, emerging more and more frequently up into the realm of conscious thought. Then I started hearing her voice, feeling her pain, worrying about her, dreaming her, until finally, with much trepidation and self-doubt but feeling as if I had no choice, that I couldn't run away from her any longer, I started writing her story.

The writing itself went fast. The story took a few unexpected turns--the scene I'd originally seen, of the child, Ashley, at Union Square, did not end up in the story at all--but they felt right. The editing and revision process was slow and methodical. The consultation was more thorough and complete than any I'd before undertaken. Several people were kind enough to read drafts and help me correct and polish. That includes several Latino/a friends who graciously found and fixed my many errors in the Spanish that is sprinkled throughout the story. And my lover Teresa Gutierrez, who has strong views on cultural appropriation, weighed in and critiqued it. (Note that this last sentence is revised from what I originally wrote here; in that original version I sort of hid behind Teresa or used her approval to kind of cover myself or lend legitimacy to my writing this story, which was wrong and a cop-out.)

Now it's been published, in a special issue about Mexico in which most of the other writing is by Mexicans and people of Mexican ancestry. This is an honor, as well as awfully humbling. I hope I did justice to my characters and their story. I think it was right to try.