It’s not unusual to come across the kind of discussion I found on Absolute Write the other day, in which well-meaning writers try to hash out a safe path through the minefield of racial identities. If you’re a white writer, is the “racial default” in character descriptions necessarily white? How do you describe characters who are outside that racial default setting without being racist? Can you write outside your racial default without being racist? Can you write outside your racial default and still be authentic? What happens when you step outside the lines that are supposed to define your racial identity?
I’ll admit, it was very late in the game of writing my most recent project that I even contemplated this question. Maybe I’m a little dense, but it really didn’t occur to me to ask: can a white girl write convincingly in the voice of a black man? The overriding feeling I had and the one I still have above all others is that the narrator, Axyl, is an Okie like me. He was born and grew up not thirty miles from where I grew up. He was raised by the same kind of working class family I was raised by. He has the same cadence to his speech and the same uncertainty about how far he’s willing to embrace his redneck upbringing.
I don’t pretend that I have a clue what it’s like to be a black man in redneck America, but I have lived as an outsider in a community that should have embraced me, if inclusion were only a matter of race. I was kicked out of Sunday school and harassed for being an atheist. Everyone in town knew about my father’s criminal habits and his lengthy stints in prison, and people talked about it, not always behind my back.
Years later, living in rural Japan, I had a taste of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racial bias. Dozens of times people got up and moved, when I sat next to them on the bus or train. I learned to cut my own hair, because I couldn’t find a single barber or hairstylist who was willing to cut gaijin hair. There were restaurants in my town where I couldn’t be served and stores where the shopkeepers put up the closed sign if they saw me coming.
These feelings are in my narrator’s experience. After all, isn’t that the job of a writer: to borrow from our own experiences to inhabit the lives of people who don’t exist? It’s an odd task and one that can’t require the exactness of journalism. Approximation is all anyone can provide.
The strangest part in all of this is that after a dozen or more people had read the manuscript and offered critiques, the question of my race vs. my narrator’s race came up many times. The question of my gender vs. my narrator’s gender came up a few times, but oddly enough no one asked me whether I felt comfortable writing as a multiple murderer. I’ve never killed anyone, but apparently that discrepancy between my life experience and my narrator’s life experience seemed unimportant next to the question of skin color.
I wonder, too, exactly how long the lines between races will stay sharp. They’re blurring already, and writers and readers are both trying to figure out how that affects their perceptions of characters. For an interesting observation on the failure of race to color inside the lines, see sci fi writer Tobias Bucknell’s great post on his experience as a “Caribbean writer.”
I think about this today, because of all the hubbub in the news about our new president. Many commentators have remarked that “a black family in the White House changes everything.” On certain levels, I have no doubt that they’re right. The Obamas represent a sea change for racial minorities in America. Barack Obama even gets mentioned in my book, as some successful counterpart to my narrator. The son of a white woman and a black (and largely absent) father, my narrator is in the same awkward gap Obama has described being in: too black to fit in with white people or too white to fit in with black people. Neither one nor the other. Neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm?
As I contemplate the process of querying this book, I am in uncertain waters. The book, though it has elements of the fantastical in it, doesn’t truly fit with the “urban fantasy” genre. I have called it “literary fiction with magical realism,” but perhaps it has too much action to suit literary tastes. It’s perhaps too raw and ugly to consider itself “commercial fiction with magical realism.” I find myself looking at agents who represent “multi-cultural” novels, but I always end up with the same question: Am I out of the running for multi-culti because I am so pasty white? Will my skin color become an issue more than the contents of the book?