Judged Not By Her Content But on the Color of Her Skin
Let me suggest an addition to your reading list in this era of #BlackLivesMatter. I was moved recently when reading the eye-opening and heartbreaking “Writing While Black” by fiction writer Laura Warrell. This short, powerful essay is a jarringly honest account of how both she and her prose have been judged because she is a Black woman writing in a world dominated by white readers, writers, agents and publishers.
Laura reveals times when feeback on her writing from workshop leaders and participants has devolved into discussions of race instead of craft; how she has felt frozen out by a prominent New England writing circle that proves an example of the "like-me" bias; and how she has been told that she shouldn't include characters of color unless the skin color is "integral to the plot." There's far more than I can summarize in this post, and I'd rather you read the whole thing.
From the opening scene of this beautiful work of creative nonfiction, my gut wrenched. Part of the pain came from the fact that Laura was a classmate of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts in their MFA in Writing program. I remember us leaning on each other at various residencies when one of us had a rough workshop experience. Whatever concerns I may have had then, however, my work was never critiqued based on the color of my skin. I see now that was yet another example of how I have benefited from white privilege.
The Paradox of Voice
Laura's essay comes as I'm struggling with race in my novel-in-progress. Now on my ninth (!) draft, I’m down to only two POV characters. One is a white man in his 20s, the other a white man in his 70s. I’ve been the former and hope to make it to the latter. In earlier drafts another POV character was a Latina in her 30s. In many respects I felt I knew her. We both grew up in a largely Latinx suburb of Phoenix, and both became investigative reporters out of a strong drive to expose wrongdoing. Still, I struggled to give her a unique voice, and that wasn’t surprising. After all, we are all more than the city we were raised in or the profession we choose. Maricela is a first-generation Mexican-American woman, with unique experiences very much unlike my own. Perhaps it’s not appropriate for me to try to write from her own point of view.
Another character in my book is a Black man in his 30s. In a writing craft book I was introduced to recently at the June 2020 VCFA Fiction Writing Retreat, the author says your protagonist should be introduced to a helper character about 20% of the way into the novel. As it happens, my 20-something white male protagonist has a helper character, the Black man in his 30s, and they do meet up about 20% in. “Great!” I thought. “That’s one thing I don’t need to fix.” Or do I? I've been asking myself why I decided this character is Black. Is it because I subconsciously wanted to include a magical Negro, the Black character who selflessly helps a white person succeed and get all of the glory? I’m writing an urban fantasy novel, and a master of speculative fiction, Stephen King, has written several novels that arguably feature magical Negros. I find myself thinking I should change this character so he’s no longer Black. But if I do that, am I then guilty of whitewashing the book? A novel should reflect society, and Black men are a part of society. My internal debate continues.
The Paradox of Publishing
I follow a lot of creative writers on Twitter, both published and aspiring. Race has been a topic of conversation in the writing community long before the resurgence of #BlackLivesMatter. There were the shocking actions last year of the Romance Writers of America, whose systemic racism within their organization has now been exposed. This followed one of my favorite speculative fiction authors, N.K. Jemisin, winning her third Hugo award despite active campaigning against her because she’s Black. Even Oprah Winfrey landed in hot water earlier this year for championing a book by a white woman about a Latina that many Latinx writers deemed not only culturally insensitive but yet another example of the publishing industry denying authors of color a chance to tell their own stories.
It was shortly after that last scandal broke that I decided not to write Maricela as a POV character. I've kept her Latina. I feel I know her, even if I can’t truly know what it’s like to be her. It would be wrong of me to take away part of what makes her who she is by making her white. I hope that is an okay decision for me to make, as a white writer.
What I do know is that when I feel this novel is finally ready to be considered by agents and editors, I will first make use of Editors of Color, where I can hire someone to review the manuscript for cultural sensitivity.
Publishing While Black (or White)
In “Writing While Black,” Laura includes this line: “Am I, along with all Black writers, competing to be the one diverse book at a publishing house?” This prompted me to recall an ongoing discussion among those writers I follow on Twitter. Editors and agents frequently post their desire to see more manuscripts from authors of color. That leads some white writers to express concern that their odds of publication are decreasing.
As a white male, one could argue that in the zero-sum game of publishing, I would have been better off writing fantasy and science fiction in the era of Tolkien and Asimov, when 99.99999999% of genre authors were also white men. Laura’s essay posits, however, that she and other writers of color aren’t necessarily benefiting from this push by publishers to expand their lists. She notes that she constantly faces the challenge of whether her fiction is “black enough” or “too black.” I have never once had to ask myself if my fiction is “white enough” or “too white.”
I’ve learned a lot during this #BlackLivesMatter resurgence, most importantly how much I still have to learn. (I felt the same way about novel writing after finishing the VCFA Novel Retreat in June.) My eyes are opening to the extent that racism is systemic in our society, with Laura’s essay the latest first-person evidence of that reality. I’ve also learned that we all have different perspectives on the same objective reality; that all of our perspectives matter; and that our perspectives drive our actions, for good or ill. My life experiences that have formed me will inform my writing. It would be wrong of me to somehow try to deny that. As I write, I must also remind myself that I can’t truly know what someone with a different life experience is thinking and feeling. All I can do is ask, and learn.