Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Race and Writing

There has been a ton of great conversation lately on race in writing--the editing of Huckleberry Finn to remove a derogatory descriptive word, the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the movie version of Hunger Games, plenty of other fab blog posts and discussions spurred by these and other events.

First, a pair of opinions. Yes, I think it's lame that someone felt the need to edit the "n" word out of Huck Finn, and would only be ok with this if they had put in something completely ludicrous that would draw even more attention, like "bubblegum sparkle ostrich feathers," so that you were reminded of their idiocy as you read. And no, I don't think it was bad casting unlesss Lawrence turns out to butcher the role, as, yes, I think Katniss is white. Historically, Appalachia is a predominantly white area, and is in fact often cited as one of the few regions where white people have poor access to health care, education, and other opportunities, making it somewhat of a rural inner city in terms of access. I could really digress here, but I won't.

But what is it about race and books that has such a propensity for setting us off?

Well, race is sensitive and books are often ambiguous. Unlike in movies, you might not know a character's race right away in a book. Take Katniss and the other residents of the Seam in Hunger Games as an example--I assumed they were white because of my understanding of the setting and how I applied the descriptions. To me, olive skin and grey eyes are white descriptors, because my father has olive skin and I see grey eyes on white friends of mine (and not on black friends). But they could easily be perceived as features of a mixed racial background, as well. So be bring our prejudices--and yes, we're all prejudiced by our experiences, I'm not using that term in a negative way, but a realistic one--to the book we're reading. If this was just about whether a character was tall or short, it would be a funny happenstance--"Oh, you thought Katniss was short? I totally read her as tall! How funny." But race is such a charged subject that we have a tendency to go on the defensive, or just get really uncomfortable.

Plus, let's be honest, race has a nasty history. It takes a skilled and sensitive writer to balance honesty about how characters might feel about race with how the reader will react to the character and a world in which race may appear in different ways than it does in our experience. This is especially true in stories that take place in the past, where racism was often much more open, in an imagined future where race might take a starring role in class-making, or be eliminated or undiscussed.

In stories set in the past, some stories set today, and many stories set in imagined worlds, we have to accept that characters will be racist. Not all, perhaps, and possibly at varying levels of horrifying opinions, but nothing peeves me more than when writers--especially in historical fiction in times and places where we know the average person was a blazing racist--ignore the race question in places it needs to be addressed, or have perfect, enlightened Mary Sue characters who all have lovely outlooks on the futility of defining a person by race. Yeah, right. In our past, even white individuals who didn't personally perpetuate horrors like slavery, the Trail of Tears, or internment camps still didn't usually view other races as "equal" to them. In the present or in imagined futures or other worlds, you can avoid race--but only if it makes sense for the story. When race comes up in the story a writer has to deal with it with an honest but sensitive outlook. You have to be able to write compelling, even (gasp) likeable characters who are racists if we're going to write about times and places where racism was rampant. Hard? Yes. Even harder when readers aren't open to it? Definitely. Acceptable to ignore the hard truths about racism in favor of puppies and sunshine? Nope.

What this might boil down to, even more than race, is what we expect from our characters. We don't want to touch icky stuff with our characters--racism, sexism, religious intolerance, moral ambiguity--because it makes us look for these things in ourselves, as readers and writers. But isn't that the point of books? To provide new outlooks, safe spaces for exploring ourselves, and provocation and questions?

Sorry if this was a ramble--but it's something I'm having to look at it my own writing. I wrote one story set in a time and place when slavery was normal, and it simply wouldn't have worked to have modern-thinking characters. They accepted the black people their families owned as normal, and I didn't delve into it much beyond that. I question if this was the right attitude to take in the writing, or if it would have appeared to a modern reader to ignore the problem, even though it was an honest portrayal of history and of the characters I imagined. I'm now working on a story set in a speculated future in which my little pocket of characters is all white (not me whitewashing, but a completely legitimate circumstance). When they encounter people of other races, it's tied up with culture shock as well. How can I deal with this sensitively--yet still maintain the strangeness for my characters of people who simply look so different?

How does race crop up in your writing? What about favorite books that deal with race--how did they approach telling a story fraught with potential pitfalls?


Isis said...

Interesting subject! I too dislike when classics are re-written to suit modern standards. It can be tackled by other means. Like a forword where it is discussed, setting the story in it's timeframe, for example.

To move away a little from your subject, but not too far, I hope. You talked about interpretation and it's easy, I think to forget that your own unique interpretation is the correct way to see something. For example, in Neil Gaiman's Sandman there is a character called Wanda, a transexual woman. She dies in the end. I read a very interesting article that shoes how your prejudices works when you interpret that story. A feels that as Wanda dies it proves that Gaiman, despite depicting Wanda in very positive terms, are hostile toward transexuals. B, on the other hand, delves on what makes a story a tragedy. That Wanda is the nicest person in teh story, she is good, unselfish and caring. Her death is the biggest loss and that is what makes the story a tragedy. Nice people die unneccarily regardless of their sex or race and in fact Gaiman proves he accepts transexuals when he allows Wanda to live or die like any other character.

Is A right, or B? My own intepretation is that B is right.

And here I ought to come with a brilliant conclusion, but I can't really make one, so hopefully I have made some sense anyway... :)

Connie said...

I really appreciated your post. I think one of the things that drives me away from a lot of historical fiction is when the characters espouse modern/politically correct ideas that just didn't exist in that form at that time. History and people are messy. Can someone be a hero without holding to modern values? I think so. I hope so--especially since a lit fict book that I'm querying is set in the past and the MC espouses some ideas/beliefs that modern readers might not agree with. But it seems to me that this is one of the points of historical fiction--to explore something "old" that's new.

MrsC said...

Gosh I immediately started to think about American Gods and there is Isis already using Gaiman as an example author. The piece in AG about the slaves gave me nightmares. There was nothing in the telling that really gave the author's position except that he told it. Gaiman will write about things and leave you to work it all out. I love that. He handles issues really well, and will not shie away.
IT is so easy to assume that a writer agrees with the actions of their characters and is even somehow living vicariously through them. Indeed some authors do just that. But to relitigate the past when something is set in the past I think is a bit dodgy. Writers who wrote at the time are only writing what they know or can know - writers writing about the past now have choices to make.

Hema P. said...

This is a subject, like you mention, that is ridden with pitfalls. The book I'm working on is set in history, too, and so it has servants, and slaves in it. And I don't let the characters (especially the ones from the past) delve into it. Why would they, when they're born into that system?

The bootomline for me when I'm dealing with a sensitive subject in my writing is: Writer honestly, but also responsibly.

Rowenna said...

Isis--great point! I wanted to talk sex/gender issues, too, but I thought that would turn into a megapost. Sounds like a good topic for a future blog post! And awesome example!

Connie--yes, that's a huge pet peeve for me, too. I don't read histfic to read about modern people in funny clothes :)

MrsC--great examples--I, too, love when a writer leaves you with plenty to chew on and work out. And historicals have such great scope for that!

Hema--great point. Why would characters ingrained in a system question it? I don't ask myself why I wear shoes to work or other very "basic" things about my own culture. :P

Isis said...

Gaiman is one of my favourite authors!

I just finished re-reading Jane Eyre and was struck again about Mr Rochester's contempt for his mad wife. Because she is mad, yes, but also because she is a creole and of mixed race. He is the hero! A flawed hero, yes, but Brontë also describes how he depsite of his feelings, make sure that his wife is very well cared for. Well, I donät think she is by modern standard, but back then madhouses then were appaling placing and Berta is kept at home with a private nurse. It is also stressed that he doesn't keep her at his other propertity, because the air that is too unhealthy.

Or take Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe is a hero, but even if he saves the Jewish Isaac of York, he still display contempt. Also, Scott's portrayal of Isaac is not especially positive, even if the one of Rebecca is. But in movie adaptions Ivanhoe's attitude is much more positive and understanding.

Caroline said...

Excellent post as always. Can you come over and write for me sometime? :-)
Slavery is present in both of my books, and I am sad to say that I do white wash it somewhat, but I try to foil that with opposing viewpoints held by the majority of the populace. In my Civil War novel, the plantation owning family treats their slaves very well, and even sets one of them up as an overseer. That might be a stretch although the girl explains that it is an odd thing for them to do. I
think I get a little more historical in my Rev War novel. The male MC has a plantation--thus slaves--and when he's questioned about it by the female MC (being that she's British and was raised to detest slavery), he simply explains that it is a way of life. He doesn't like it but he does it anyway. I think that would have been a fairly accurate depiction at that time as slavery was still fairly new in America. Fairly being roughly 100 years, of course.
Otherwise, I try to steer clear of the topic. I probably shouldn't given that I am a historian, but oh well. Maybe I'll go back and be more forthcoming.