Write What You Know: Limiting or Authentic?

by Guest Contributor Neesha Meminger

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?

Memoirs of a Geisha was highly successful, both in book form as well as in film form. Yet that “memoir” was written by a man, and Mineko Iwasaki’s own memoir (the retired geisha upon whose life and work Memoirs was based) has hardly received any of the fanfare or accolades that the former enjoyed.

A recent YA (young adult) release, Chains, about a young African-American slave girl who longs for freedom was written by a highly lauded, prize-winning white woman author – Laurie Halse Anderson. Chains has received rave reviews and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

On her website, the author writes, “As I researched [the history of slavery in America] I began to hear my main character, Isabel, whispering to me. She was chained between two nations . . . .”

As a writer, I totally get this. Characters show up in my head all the time without my summoning them up or even being aware of when they arrived.

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?”

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.”

So maybe that is the key: questioning our privileged locations within the social and economic framework within which we all live, write, and create, and then allowing that new consciousness or awareness to shape our work before we set it free to impact and help culturally define our world.

Alexie’s statement seems less about the products being created, and more about the systems in place that privilege and advantage some over others. In other words, rather than continually going to authors and filmmakers who already have a voice and platform, perhaps authors and filmmakers from under-represented communities should be sought out and nurtured/cultivated so that they can find, hone, and have their own voices heard.

Recently, Mary Ann Mohanraj, author of Bodies in Motion, wrote a terrific blog post about this very topic. She provided a detailed, “how-to” guide on writing about what she terms CoCs – Characters of Color. In a note at the end of the post, she writes,

“One final note. Let’s say you, the white writer, are now deeply interested in Sri Lanka and would like to incorporate Sri Lankan characters into your fiction. I think that’s great, and give you full permission to go ahead and do so. (Not that you need my permission. You don’t!) You write some Sri Lankan characters, and do a great job, and everyone pats you on the back for doing it so well. There’s still one small problem.

I’ve encouraged white writers here to write about other cultures, other ethnicities. But sometimes we run into the problem that most, or all, the representations of a culture are coming from outside the culture. It’s so much easier for you or I to get published in America than it is for local Sri Lankan writers to get published, I can’t tell you. The difference of scale between the American publishing industry and Sri Lankan publishing is enormous…. The point is, given this discrepancy, I feel that it behooves me, as an American author who benefits from Sri Lankan material, to do everything I can to promote Sri Lankan authors. Primarily, that means buying and reading their books, posting reviews, spreading the word…

I wouldn’t say that any writer has to do any of this. As a writer, your main obligation is to write your truth, as honestly and well as you can. If you’ve fallen in love with another culture and want to write about it, please do. But if, in addition, you can do something to help writers from within the culture get their voices heard — well, I think that’s a good thing.”

The Sri Lanka/America analogy can be extended to authors and filmmakers of color/white authors and filmmakers, as well, in terms of privilege and access to those businesses. 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.”(And on a side note: let’s face it – we’re writing YA. It’s all about identity issues, folks. Even when it’s not YA, there are still tons of “identity issues.” Is there a point when we are “done” with the identity search? Especially when identity is fluid and ever-changing – depending heavily on geography, changing social and economic structures, etc.? Aaaanyway…back to the topic).

So, my question is this: would having more white writers producing books and films about people of color help writers of color? Would it be beneficial for there to at least be characters of color out there for people to read about and watch on screen, regardless of who writes them?

If white writers or filmmakers write and create the experiences of people of color, does this open doors for authors and filmmakers of color?

And what about the “limiting creativity/artistic expression” argument? Is it reasonable to ask white or male writers and filmmakers to “take responsibility” for the images they produce? What if we extend this to say that authors/filmmakers who have not experienced rape cannot write about or create films about rape? Or artists who have not lived in another country cannot write about or produce films about living in that country?

What about the converse: if men cannot write from the perspective of women, and white writers from the perspective of people of color, then what about women writing from the perspective of men? Or people of color from the perspective of white people?

What say you, oh Racialicious readers? If someone were to write a book or make a film about your life, who would you want telling your story? Would it matter what their background was? Or would you rather have someone teach you how to use the tools of the trade effectively so that you could tell your own story?