The Culture and Race Question

When you’re a writer of colour, or one who otherwise comes out of a non-normative culture, you have a special set of doubts when it comes to your work. Even right now, writing this blog entry, I wonder to myself, “Am I the right person to write about this? Do I really know the best way to talk about it?” (That word, non-normative, troubles me a lot.)

And the truth is, I probably don’t. There are people who have experienced far more, and who have thought about this more deeply and with greater intellectual rigour than I can apply here.

But it’s a thought I’ve been chewing over in my mind with increasing frequency. And then I read this, which is more about publishing than writing, but is still kind of horrifying that Pat Smith can publish work that Preeti Singh cannot.

A few months ago, Junot Diaz wrote a scathing assessment of his MFA experience. My experience in the workshop has never been quite like he describes. Maybe that’s because this is Canada, and issues of race and culture are different here–not necessarily better, but different. Maybe because as a person of colour goes, I’m a privileged one–being stereotyped for being nerdy and good at math isn’t a remotely equivalent experience to being stereotyped as a drug-dealing criminal.

At the same time, the Diaz essay rang a few bells for me.

Like the time when I’d made my main character non-white (in a story set in Toronto; a highly diverse city) but never made that a plot point… and the feedback was “Isn’t this like Chekov’s gun?”

Why?  Because being something other than white is so unusual? In Toronto?

Like the number of times I’ve written pieces featuring Indian characters or cultural events, and been given feedback of “Can you put more Indian stuff in it?  I want to really see the colours and taste the spice.” And it makes me wonder, is my writing too spare, or are my (almost always) white readers looking for some sort of exotic cultural voyeurism that is pretty much never the point in my work?

And yet, I generally don’t get told to ground my characters more in culture and colour and spice when there are no Indian elements. I understand that there’s a degree of unfamiliarity here. But I wonder, if I wrote science fiction or fantasy with the same degree of detail, would the feedback still be to see more of the exoticism of the world?  And what if those details are not relevant to the story?

Then there’s the number of times I’ve been given suggestions which make zero sense. Another story, set in Toronto, and the suggestion was to make the family live in the Little India area of Toronto. Except, virtually no Indian people live in that area. (It’s named for the South Asian-focused businesses in the area.) Or to change the story so that parents hated the daughter’s boyfriend for being white and to use cultural insults for him (like mangiacake, except Indian) because of the dishonour he caused… except there was no boyfriend in the story, a white guy is not such a big deal, honour isn’t really a thing in that culture, and I’m not even sure I know what the insult word for white person is.

These were suggestions borne out of stereotypes for what we expect to see from writers of colour. When I was younger, I never wanted to include Indian people in my work, because I didn’t want to write those same stories. I didn’t want to write about interracial relationships where ultimately everyone realized that we’re all human and alike in some way. I didn’t want to write about the plucky immigrant longing for home but still making a life in a new country. I didn’t want to write cultural tourism about India and trot out a horror show of bride burnings and untouchability. And yet, that is so often the feedback.

It’s not that I don’t like those stories, because I do, but am I writing the wrong things? Is my work, when it doesn’t conform to those types of stories, uninteresting?

I don’t believe that. I believe as writers, we have the right to write about anything as long as we do it well. (I haven’t even mentioned the number of times I’ve read bad cultural stereotypes from white writers.)

And then, there’s the Preeti Singh/Pat Smith debacle. There are the stories that Junot Diaz relates. There are stories I hear from other writers of colour. There’s the awkward moment in the workshop when someone randomly says “What if you made this character Indian?”

This isn’t a coherent blog post, largely because these are thoughts I merely chew over without any resolution.

I don’t know the answer.

I only know the doubts.

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3 thoughts on “The Culture and Race Question

  1. I agree with you totally. It is really challenging (and I am white so probably not that challenging, given the still dominating idea that we somehow represent the majority…ugh!!) to stretch beyond that age old, write what you know, adage. I heard it, in every workshop I have ever taken. It has been discussed and what we have always come down to is this: it is safer to write what you know; you have a better chance of being published if something feels authentic; the writing will be easier if your characters have lived through what you yourself have lived through. Bollocks, boring bollocks.

    And guess what? If you are a writer like me, you meet people in your mind, in your dreams, you create stories for them and most of the time they are nothing like me, most of the time they are the opposite of me. I don’t want to tell my story. I want to tell someone else’s so I can learn from them. But I have had two people (so called in the know) who tell me a novel about a transgender senior woman will never be published as written by a cisgender young (ish) woman. So I am screwed??

    I think we should be allowed to write characters of any ethnicity, culture, gender, sexuality, etc. etc. and we should be able to put them anywhere we want. Timbuktu, Disney cruise ship, diner, shopping mall, wherever they happen to belong. And that’s the key, I guess. It has to feel that they “belong” because if they don’t the reader will be asking why? Why are they there? What are they doing? And if they are somewhere they don’t belong it HAS to be a part of the story. And this isn’t because we have an audience of racists, it’s because we usually, hopefully, have an audience full of thoughtful readers. People who have read everything they could get their hands on since they were very little. And it is because of this that we as writers get stuck on the tropes and mechanisms of storytelling. All that shit that for years made writing publishable. Joseph Campbell anyone?? There are expectations that have been built by us (when we were simple readers) and it is our job (now that we are writers) to tear them down.

    And don’t get me started on the author character relationship. So many readers (thoughtful, well-educated readers) presume a connection between author and story…they look for it…they WANT it. So if you want to write what the audience wants, it’s a no-brainer. You write about Little India and I’ll write about children of alcoholics. Jayzuz, haven’t people read enough of the same old same old? Wouldn’t they be happy to read about an Indian woman who isn’t defined in stereotypes and cliche? Or a daughter of an alcoholic actually not defined by it?

    But my challenge to you is this: What is so wrong with a white guy writing a story about a white guy who sees things through cultural stereotypes and narrow-minded judgments? I say let him write it. I say let him explore that side of his character, as long as he understands it is a side, and not just “normative” thinking. But how can we even ask a writer what he is thinking? And does it matter? Maybe he’ll learn a little about himself along the way.

  2. I’m so happy you wrote about this topic. I’d actually rather hear from writers closer to the average experience than Pulitzer prize winners and NYU MFA attendees.

    It sounds like the stories you’re writing are just the stories I’m always looking to read and can’t find on the shelves!! I’ve heard so many people argue that if race isn’t going to be a major plot point then why does it matter? But I think it’s sad when only White characters are allowed to have whole lives.

    I struggle a lot with the fact that if I stay true to my characters, I will often lose a lot of readers. And that Preeti Singh article? Scary and sad.

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