Should Culture Dictate What Characters Authors Can Comfortably Create?

This was the BBC.com headline:

Spy Author Anthony Horowitz ‘Warned Off’ Creating Black Character:

Author Anthony Horowitz says he was “warned off” including a black character in his new book because it was “inappropriate” for a white writer. The creator of the Alex Rider teenage spy novels says an editor told him it could be considered “patronising” … Horowitz, who has written 10 novels featuring teenage spy Alex Rider, said there was a “chain of thought” in America that it was “inappropriate” for white writers to try to create black characters, something which he described as “dangerous territory”.

Dangerous territory, indeed.

What are we to make of this? Is an author limited to only writing characters within their race? What about gender? Religion? Age? Ethnicity? Sexual orientation? Where do the boundaries stop?

The old adage, “write what you know,” is a thesis that implies a writer should limit their imagination to the parameters of their own life and experience. But does that maxim still hold true today? Certainly in these times of viral accessibility, contact, research, knowledge, and interaction with people, places, and things far outside our own proximity is as every-day as 24/7 updates from the farthest corners of the globe. Our ability, consequently, to gain perspective sufficient enough to write outside one’s own “house” is not only doable, but, perhaps, universal and insightful, presuming one does it well.

But is it “patronizing”? Are we, as writers, simply not allowed to write outside, say, our culture, regardless of how well we might do it? Has society become so compartmentalized, so hypersensitive, politically correct, and wary of triggering repercussion, resentment, or misinterpretation that reaching beyond our own skin — literally and figuratively – has become verboten to us as creative artists?

Interesting questions, these; particularly when you consider that men have been writing about women since time immemorial without particular societal concern that they couldn’t possibly know, couldn’t authentically muster, the requisite experiential perspective. It was a given that they could get the job done; accepted without debate. Yet the specificity, the sensitive and unique nature of being female, could be considered as disparate from the male experience as being black is to a white person, but that hasn’t stopped male authors, from Vladimir Nabokov to Wally Lamb, from creating their women of note.

Which is fair. Because the explicit job of an author is to climb inside the experience of LIFE, real or imagined, to tell compelling stories that reflect the incalculable diversity of detail, nuance, thought, and emotion of any variety of people, places, and things. And the creative mind can find and translate authenticity whether writing about Martians, coquettish teens, dogs who play poker, or characters who exactly mirror the author‘s gender or race.

I’ve had my own experience with this interesting conundrum: my last novel, Hysterical Love, was told through the first-person point-of-view of a thirty-three-year-old man, and it goes without saying: I’m not one of those. Yet I felt completely capable of infusing my story with authenticity by relying on my skills of observation, as well as my experiential knowledge as the sister of five men, the mother of a son, the wife of a man; my years on the road with rock bands, and the immersive research of being a close friend to many, many men throughout my life. I’ve been told I pulled it off, even by the men who’ve read it, so my conviction proved out.

But is the divide between cultures, races, wider than that of gender diversity? Does a white writer delegitimize their prose by including black characters? Is the reverse true?

I don’t think so. I think it depends on the writer, the quality of their work; the depth and sensitivity of their depictions. Those are my initial responses. But I also understand the question:

About two years ago I had an article up at HuffPost titled, No, White People Will Never Understand the Black Experience, a piece that became a flashpoint for much conversation on the topic of race. It was written in response to events of the time, particularly the egregious injustice of Sandra Bland’s arrest and subsequent (and inexplicable) jailhouse death, and the cacophony that arose amongst, amidst, and between parties on both sides of the racial divide as a result. My own thesis, my perspective on the tangible limitations we each have in perceiving and assessing the realities of life outside ourselves, is made clear by the title alone. But while there’s obviously much more to that debate, here and now we’re discussing the issue as it relates to the job of being an author and I have some specific thoughts on that.

Inspired by the many responses and conversations that ensued after the aforementioned article, as well as others written on the topic of racial conflict, bias, and injustice, I took one of the stories referenced, about an interracial couple’s experiences with police profiling, and developed it into a character-driven novel called A NICE WHITE GIRL, a title that reflects commentary made within some of the conversations I had.

This “sociopolitical love story” is told through the intertwining points-of-view of a black man and white woman dealing not only with pushback to their new and evolving relationship, but the ratcheting impact of police profiling that ultimately leads to a life-altering arrest. It’s a story that’s human, gut-wrenching, and honest, built on the foundation of my own experiences in a long-term interracial relationship earlier in my life, as well as journalistic research and interviews, personal interactions, even friendships with members of the black community. Given a commitment to creating the characters outside my demographic as authentically and sensitively as I possibly could, without watering them down or pandering to political correctness, I believe I served both my story and its cultural demands well. Did I?

Every author relies on, taps into; mines the wealth of thought, opinion, perspective, and acculturation of their own unique life experience. Certainly that’s true. But as artists, as observers and chroniclers of life by way of prose, we go beyond that pool of reference. We reach out, we expand; we explore plot lines and include characters that stretch our imagination, that dig deep into worlds, events and experiences, imagined or real, that can pull us onto less traveled roads that might demand the challenge of research, of specific observation, even outside consultation. We take these extra steps, even for fiction, because we want to infuse our work with inherent realness. Particularly when writing characters outside our culture. That was certainly the demand I faced when embarking upon this latest novel.

But I am a white woman who’s written a book with a black male character, inclusive of his mother, his sister, and various friends. I’ve depicted their family life, their interactions, relationships, thoughts and feelings. Do I not have the creative right to do that? Will I be seen as patronizing, insensitive, off base, and inappropriate? Will this make my book too controversial for representation, for publishing, for sale? Will it garner derision and disdain from members of the black community? Even members of the white community who may resent the harshness with which I depict some of the police?

I don’t know. Maybe. But it was a story I felt passionate about, compelled to write; that took the many debated aspects and elements discussed in my articles and put them into fictional form, with imagined characters who embodied and borrowed from people I knew, from conversations I’d had, from ideas, agendas, politics, and passions that had been conveyed to me by real people expressing essential and sometimes controversial perspectives. I was determined to honor them by candidly, honestly, and without apology, telling the story.

But perhaps, as Anthony Horowitz was told, I’m entering territory that is off-limits, that puts me at odds with those who might frame me as presumptuous and patronizing. “A nice white girl” who’s stepped outside of culturally acceptable boundaries.

I hope not, because I, like Mr. Horowitz, see that as “dangerous territory.”

Just as brilliant male authors have gorgeously written female protagonists; as female novelists have conjured male characters ringing with truth; as writers of one ethnicity have honestly depicted another; as fabulists have invented entire worlds of imagined wonders, authors must be limited by… NOTHING. Not a thing. They must be free to create without fear of cultural naysaying, societal judgment, threat of reprisal, or the discomfort of crossing cultural boundaries.

The only mandate to which they’re obligated is GOOD WRITING. Writing with wit and clarity. Honesty. Authenticity. Sensitivity and depth. Engaging prose, compelling plots, and visceral emotion. And, if need be, if determined helpful, the use of “sensitivity readers” who can ascertain if the writer got the cultural references right.

But just as Idris Elba could certainly make magic as James Bond, as Anthony Horowitz could create an intriguing black spy for his books; as I can write characters both male and of a culture outside my own, so must every author of merit and worth be allowed to view the entire panoply of life as fuel for their imagination. Anything else is antithetical to the mission of art… and stymying art serves no one. Not the writer, not the reader, not the myriad members of our diverse world hungry for stories that reflect their lives. Art is imagining; creating, mirroring, and provoking… all of which can and must be achieved by artists free to explore without the limiting effect of creative and cultural boundaries.

Photo by Cristian Newman @ Unsplash

LDW w glasses


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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