Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Justine's "Damned" Post

Last night, I read this post by Justine Larbalestier and couldn't get to sleep for a couple of hours after. I wanted to post a comment, but couldn't get all the thoughts that were crowding into my head out in any sort of coherent way. So here they are now, for you. Don't you feel lucky? *grin*

Justine is a solid ally to people of colour. She puts her money where her mouth is, walks her talk, and does her best to help promote and further the efforts of authors and bloggers of colour. She also writers her characters of colour from what I like to refer to as the "inside out." Not everyone does. When characters of colour are written from the "outside in," it is obvious. They are there because of an external reason, they are not organic to the story and to themselves, and they sort of sit on the page, instead of living in the story with the other characters. This is true of any character that lacks depth and complexity.

My main concern with the above-linked post (and what I sensed from some of the comments) is that some folks may walk away from it with the idea that, "Hey, I did my best, and if they don't think I did a good enough job, well frack them."

I know this is not what Justine intended. I'm almost positive that she meant to say something more along the lines of, "Stop making it an issue. Writing people of colour is no different than writing anyone else. You'll get that wrong, as well, so just go ahead, do it, then face the music." In other words, own it. Wherever you're at, whatever ignorances and prejudices you may possess--they will come out in the writing. Stop being so afraid; face them. Then do the very necessary and painful work we are all meant to do on this planet: grow.

This is what I mean by writing from the inside out. From what I gather, Justine would approach writing her characters from their human-ness first. They are psychological, emotional beings *first*, and then the layers of their cultural, ethnic, and social/economic identities are added on--this is where the research comes in. When you're writing from the outside in, you start with the "other"-ness (thereby researching that first) and it is almost always harder to get it right that way.

I'm with Doret when she says in the comments that she is skeptical when white folks write PoC characters. The history there hasn't been so great. In an ideal world, PoC would get to tell our own stories--in the vast chorus of contradictory, complex, multi-faceted voices we encompass. We would be represented in all our compexity just as white folks are on television, in the movies, and in magazines. But we do not live in an ideal world. There is a glaring dearth of PoC getting publishing deals. Always has been, but certainly more so now that the economy is in the midst of a swan dive.

Even in my own personal experience--I have a book out, I've had positive (some might say rave) reviews for SHINE from established industry resources, and my book is selling. Yet, here I am, back at square one, having to prove that there is a market for my work; that there is a market for South Asian authors *beyond* writing about race and discrimination. Across the pond, there is more acceptance of stories by and about "Asian-Indians" that are funny, that are fantasy, sci-fi. Look at the success of films like Bend It Like Bekham, Bhaji on the Beach, and books like Narinder Dhami's delightfully funny MG series, Bindi Babes (made into a television series, if I'm not mistaken), and Jamila Gavin's fantasy novel, Coram Boy (made into a play) -- not to mention the numerous television shows featuring South Asians in a variety of roles.

So, to my white brothers and sisters: certainly, write your story. Populate it with a true reflection of the world you live in. Bring to life strong and powerful characters of all colours. Do so with the ferocity of an ally and the tenderness of family. But please don't be so cavalier as to shrug and say, "I did my best, and frock you if you don't like it--plenty of your people thought I did a great job." Take the criticism in as well. After the urge to defend yourself has passed, pick through the feedback and see if there's some learning there. Because the reality is that masses upon masses of "our people" have absorbed toxic levels of self-hatred from the images and messages (and *inaccurate representations*) that surround us. Many of us have learned to believe that we are less than, not worthy, undeserving--and are simply grateful to be allowed to exist among you without fear.

I would add to Justine's analysis and say that you must, absolutely, throw your heart and soul into getting it right. And if you're *worried* about getting it right, that's a good sign--it means you care. It means, to you, it is important to be respectful, to be accurate. And then stand fast in those gale force winds of criticism. Don't just take the pats on the back and the "thank you so much for acknowledging that I exist" feedback from PoC. Listen to the stuff that's hard to hear, too. Even if you have to leave and come back to it when it's not so hard.

Because it does matter. More than you might possibly ever know because, as PoC, as authors of colour, we are being stripped of our voices. I would love to be able to continue to tell my stories, and I will continue to try -- to keep doing my very best and putting my words out there, so that they may reach my readers. The readers who email me, desperate and grateful for a reflection of themselves not in the *characters* of a novel, but in the hand that writes them. In authors of colour, they see someone who was able to do what, for so many of us, is *still* the impossible.


Zetta said...

I love your blog's new look! And this smart response to Justine's post. I didn't read the comments, but never knew white authors "struggled" with the issue of whether or not to write about people of color. I never knew there was "pressure" for them to do so, since most POC I know don't trust white authors to get it right. Anyone can write about anything, but I agree--there shouldn't be MORE white authors writing about POC than there are POC writing about our lives and realities. I wouldn't urge any white author to try writing a book with a POC as the main character, but I *would* commend those who did try AND got it right...

Neesha Meminger said...

Thanks, Zetta, I love the new look, too! Feels more open and less claustrophobic :D.

I actually think it's less an issue of what people write, and more an issue of being open to getting it wrong, and then *changing* it (or, of course--even better, if you have the power to--giving *us* the camera, book contract, platform, mic, whatever). The problem with representations of PoC is that they're quite often inaccurate. And when the inaccuracies are pointed out, there is no listening, or revising the image/depiction. There's just this constant reinforcing of the same *wrong* images and representations which then end up becoming harmful stereotypes.

Oh!--I just AWAM today! Going to start reading it tonight!

Mrs. Pilkington said...

Oh, thank you for this one, Neesha. A big Yes, because it's not just about the good (or not-so-good) intentions; but respect, ability to listen, willingness to learn, and to do the real work that has to be done to get it right.

Doret said...

I picked up two YA books by two different White authors that featured characters of color that I couldn't finish this year. One was about a Mexican teenage boy the other a Black teenage girl. I didn't believe either character

People of color are shown in the same light. On the news or in the newspaper there is hardly any talk about up and coming, successful Blacks and Latinos or the ones with old money.

I am tired of White people featuring struggling Black or Latino teens, yes there is truth in these characters but it feels like a cop out to me.

If there were shows like Cosby Show on now, I bet there would be more middle class Blacks created by White authors in teen fiction.
Though now White authors have no reference point for middle class Blacks and Latinos.

So many White authors continue to create Black and Latino characters in poor drug infested, I saw my best friend shot, I don't know where where my father is, I got kicked out of school books.

Enough already. Its worse when the book reads so step by step cliche poor, with a one dimensional character.

Laura Atkins said...

Thanks, Neesha, for pointing towards this blog posting. I've been out of the loop lately, but this issue is such a tricky and important one. I've added my comments on Justine's blog - pointing to Jacqueline Wilson's article in the Horn Book called "Who Can Tell My Story." (comminfo.rutgers.edu/professional-development/childlit/books/Woodson.pdf). This links to what you've said, to Mayra's comments on Justine's blog - that white people writing characters of color need to really know their character, to know people, to consider it deeply, and then be ready to take the feedback and criticism. I've just finished Shine and need to write about it on my blog - but just to say here how shameful it is that you still need to fight to get your books considered. Shine obviously shows how capable you are of writing an engaging, rich and enjoyable book that explores complex themes. If I were a publisher, I'd sign you up for the next several books!

Laura Atkins said...

Oh, and about British books featuring Asian (as in South Asian) characters. Yes, perhaps there are more than in the US, probably reflecting the much more visible South Asian presence in Britain. But there's still such a lack. You've got a few authors: Jamila Gavin, Bali Rai, Narinder Dhami. But there could be much, much more, and in general, the books published here are more white-dominated than in the US (at least in my experience). Different paths, but a great deal of room for major improvement...

Neesha Meminger said...

Laura, as always, your comments are spot-on. I just posted about Jacqueline Woodson's essay. Lovely and powerful. Thank you so much for that link.

I also really appreciate the "inside" view of publishing in the UK. I've always suspected some of what you've observed, but it is hard not to idealise when it seems we're so behind here (in terms of South Asian representation).

Doret: now I'm wondering which books you're referring to. :D

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