WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW: LIMITING OR AUTHENTIC? Blog post at Racialicious, by Neesha Meminger

I want to talk about this excellent, thought-provoking Racialicious guest post, by Neesha Meminger, when I'm not so tired. Here are a few excerpts:

Is it cool for white people to write from the perspective of people of color? How about [...] for men to write from the perspective of women? [Etc, right?]

[...] 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.

[...] 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.” [...]

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?

Meanwhile, go read the rest of it, and check out the discussion over at Racialicious. What do you think?


CashewElliott said...

“No, this editor declined because she already has a European title about identity issues.”


Her points are great. I especially think it's an interesting idea that as more white/male writers write from perspectives of persons of color, it may help erase the boxed-in phenomenon - the categorization of a work as this-or-that ethnicity. This stuff requires a lot more thought than I'm capable of right now.

As a white male, I wonder about this stuff, and I doubt I'll ever try to take it on. My favorite undergrad prof, a white male, always made a funny face when people talked about it, and said, specifically, that with regard to these issues, a writer needs to be very sensitive to questions of privilege.

By the way, I've been stalking a few of the blogs of people on MFA blog. Congratulations on being the first of about 30 to have something worth posting on. Unfortunately, you are not likely to find the same on my blog.

Eric said...

Great discussion on Racialicious, something I've been coincidentally pondering for a while too. Personally speaking, if the writing's good, then I'm fine. You can be whomever from whatever socioeconomic background as long as the story is true and honest. That may seem like an obvious thing, but I do think it is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: if you take the time and energy to steep yourself in a culture and belief system that's not your own in order to fairly and appropriately present said culture, then it'll come out in the writing, right? I've read countless stories by people in privileged backgrounds that have done due diligence to the stories of minorities.

The problem is (like anything, really), is that it's so easy to do something half-assed and think it's wonderful. Even worse if it gets published. There's just too many people who think that they can write the "Asian Experience" because they've eaten noodles in Chinatown, or the "Black Experience" because they've watched The Wire. It's really a matter of bad writing chasing bad writing in my opinion, not a matter of "oh, you're white, you can't write about my culture." Good writers (good readers, too) know what's true, what's honest, so I'm not concerned about that.

To the matter of how many "ethnic slots" a publisher may have for the year or whatever, it's a horrible thing, but unfortunately it's something that has been going on forever, in my opinion. It's really more a symptom of the privilege and institutional racism that's been in place for centuries in the United States, and really, it occurs in dozens of other industries. I guess what I'm saying is that none of it surprises me anymore, being cynical and all.

That's my longwinded reaction in a nutshell. ;)

found said...

Wow, great comments, guys! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Sorry for the late reply---I've been in a bit of a weekend stupor, and I'm just now feeling up to serious thinking again.

Cashew: That line really makes it all click, doesn't it?

I'm glad you found the post worth commenting on. I checked out your blog, and I'll definitely be coming back. (For one thing, a close friend happens to be an ex-Mo, so I'm always interested to hear people talk about that.)

I do agree that that's one of the most important things to take away from this: that we all need "to be very sensitive to questions of privilege." Just being aware of the system and its flaws is really important.

Eric: I agree. I can definitely tell when a story reeks of exploitation. But when an author has written something "true and honest," that comes across on the page, too. You can tell when an author cares about (and understands) their characters, and when they don't.

It's the thing about the publishing slots that really, really upsets me. It doesn't surprise me, either, but---what can be done about it? I think that's the big question this article is asking, and I don't have the answer. I agree that institutional racism is no new thing, but we can't just accept it. It's something I'm definitely going to keep thinking about---I feel like my own writing usually falls into that multicultural category.

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