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Writing across boundaries and out of our safe zones

Although I’ve tackled this subject before, I keep returning to it, unsatisfied. It’s a hot-button issue and one that’s close to my writing heart. Because even after all the eloquent arguments around racial stereotyping in the novel THE HELP and recent discussion about Michael Chabon’s choice to write African American characters in TELEGRAPH AVENUE, readers and writers still ponder the politics and risks of writing POV characters whose skin color and experiences differ from the writer’s.

We’ve probably all participated in these conversations about cultural appropriation and trivializing stereotypes. What interests me most as a writer is the implicit criticism of the white author of THE HELP for even attempting to tell the story of the black maids – because how could she possibly know their hearts, how could she presume to speak their voice? I think one adjective used was “cringeworthy.”

I remember a brief interchange on this subject at Book Expo America a couple of years ago. Standing in line at the Algonquin booth waiting for Martha Southgate to sign copies of THE TASTE OF SALT, I fell into conversation with the woman next to me. Near us was a stack of galleys of Naomi Benaron’s Bellwether Prize-winning novel, RUNNING THE RIFT.

“I’m really looking forward to reading that book,” I commented.

“Not me,” said my queue neighbor. “I don’t like it when white people write about Africa. People should respect racial and national boundaries and leave stories about Africa to African writers.”

Should we?

I guess it’s an understandable position, but terribly limiting and sort of sad. If we only write from our own perspective – from our own race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, sexuality – how do we contribute to the cross-border connections that might help society mature out of its provincial toddlerhood to a place where equality and justice are more than politicians’ slogans. I believe contributing to those connections is part of our responsibility as citizen-artists.

Imagining characters beyond our safe comfort zones, across the boundaries of race and gender and experience, brings us into dangerous territory. Creating the world of a novel through the eyes of a character very unlike ourselves, especially in the presence of cultural and political oppression, might be an almost unattainable goal. We certainly risk getting it wrong. But it is so very much worse to not try.

So how should we respond when honest writers get it wrong? When work is culturally or racially cringeworthy? Gently, perhaps. Maybe we can acknowledge the huge challenge of writing across culturally-militarized zones and try to treat each other’s efforts with a bit of mercy.

Note: Are you interested in writing across cultural boundaries and other issues related to the fiction of social change? I’ll be leading a workshop on the subject on Friday, November 9, 2012 at Grub Street, in Boston.
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