Hello Ladies (and of course any gentlemen), I would like to pose a question that stops me from starting a writing project that I am particularly interested in. Ever since I can remember I have been interested in the plight of the African American people and their ongoing battle for freedom and equality. I would like to write a novel about a family embroiled in this lifestyle and to that end I would like your opinion on the question I ask myself -- could I do justice to such an undertaking given the fact I am a white Australian. In other words does colour matter?
I would be interested to hear your ideas.
People of non-African descent have been writing stories about people of African descent for ages. The same can be said vice versa about people of African descent writing from another racial/cultural POV.
Last year I did a book review for New York Journal of Books for Pigeon English. It was written by a white Brit through the POV of a young black schoolboy. While the story was very convincing, I didn't like the ending because it seemed too stereotypical in that it compounded the idea that people in a certain situation always meet the same type of end no matter what they do. That bothered me so much that I posed a topic for discussion in this group, “Can’t Black Folks Be Happy?”
I guess the only thing I can say is that if you do write from a POV and culture that is vastly different from your own that you do it with great sensitivity to your subject and not compound stereotypes. Dig deeper, do research, do whatever you can to make it authentic.
BTW, we're going to publish a book in March, an interracial erotic romance, that was written by a white woman whose main protagonist (an Australian) falls in love with an Aboriginal man. It addresses racial issues. The book was accepted by our editor at the time who is Hispanic, it was edited by me, an African-American, and proofread by a white woman. We all enjoyed it. However, when I tried to get a few authors to read an early copy for an endorsement, one of them (an African-American woman who writes in the same genre) was deeply offended, and the other, a white woman in an interracial marriage, couldn't finish the book because of the explicit content. Regardless of this, we're proud of the book and can't wait until The Guided Tour releases.
You can't please everybody. And if you consider the controversy caused by Katherine Stockett's The Help, you'll see what I mean.
Good luck! :)
Zetta, it is true that some black writers write about worlds or experiences other than their own. But I have heard more than one black writer who has been asked why is this main character white or to change it to black by a publisher/editor. Why is it perfectly okay for white writers to write black stories but not vice versa? Of course that should not stop anyone, especially with all the options, but I'm just saying this is a reality.
I am reading Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. She is white writing about the Tutsi and Hutu conflict in Rwanda, and the main character is a adolescent Tutsi boy. It is great writing and characterization. I think this book, a new release, is going to get quite a buzz. As always, I ask myself, would this book get the buzz it gets or do as well if a black/African writer had written it? I still wrestle with that because I agree with Miss Queenly that so many of our stories are underexposed. Even with all the options we now have, I know a great many black writers who want a traditional publisher and do not want to self-publish or digital publish. Some of them are fabulous writers who have put in the hard work, but can't get a break.
I reviewed another book for NYJB called Forest Gate by Peter Akinti, a black man, whose book came out before Pigeon English that was written by a white man. Both books relate to urban life in a rough London government housing estate. Both books are from the main viewpoint of African immigrants and their transition into British society, both books have characters that end up with a similar fate. Both books have been well received and critically acclaimed.
While I enjoyed reading both books, I gave both books roughly the same rating in another forum because what it tells me is that it doesn't matter who writes a story--black, white, red, green--that if the subject matter and characters come from X background they will meet Y fate. It's a theme that's been drummed into books, etc. so many times that it's hard not to be prejudicial when you see yet another book with a similar storyline. This is what depresses me because it tells people that if you write about this subject, there can't be any glimmer of hope. It has to stay tragic in order to convey its message.
I'm not trying to dismiss or ignore the hardships we face as a race. I just prefer to read more literature from African POVs that inspire hope or can show that it IS possible to triumph over adversity regardless of your situation. It's not impossible, and it's not something that only happens in fairy tales.
As far as black writers who can't find a traditional publisher--but not wanting to self-publish--it is not impossible to get published. And when you say "traditional" publisher, do you mean the major NYC conglomorates? Hell, it's hard for ANYONE to get a break in there, that's why small and indie publishers are so important. WE take the risks the "big dawgs" don't, and for every NYT best-seller, the author will admit that sometimes pure LUCK takes a part. Not just when it comes to getting published but getting exposure. Don't believe me? Here's an interesting article by J. A. Konrath. ;-)
It takes time. It takes perseverance. It takes belief in oneself. If you can't get a break. Make it yourself.
There are options. If none of the options feel right for you. Create your own. You may be onto something big. But if you give up, you'll never get a break.
I'm familiar with Forest Gate. Some on my online book group read it and had good things to say despite the despair. I prefer to read stories of hope and I hope that is reflected in the stories I write and want to write but I think the journey cannot be ignored and oftentimes the journey to happiness is hard. The reality is that some folks have had hard lives. So a story about two little African boys who make a suicide pact is not unheard of. The indignities of day to day survival and embroiled in tribal warfare is overwhelming to me as an adult.
A few years ago there was a proliferation of hard knock memoirs of black women who beat the odds to become successful. After awhile I got tired of them because it became one long stereotype, abuse, incest, poverty, foster care, prostitution, someone lends a hand, 0dds overcome. I remember some of my friends saying but this is not what all black women experience. It certainly wasn't our experience. But the memoirs about growing up in two-parent middle class homes didn't get the acclaim the others did. I've come to beiieve that as a society, no matter what color, we crave the sensationallsm, the grittiness, the dirty secrets and laundry, crave attention.
I agree, we have to define and make our own successes and not wait on others to recognize what we have to give. Yes, some of the writers I am talking about want S&S to validate them. Others are going with smaller presses and indies that don't give them the advances they feel they should have. And yes, it is all about luck, chance, destiny, timing, whatever to capture the eye of a New York editor. As you said, perseverance is the key.
Since I'm up, I'm going to go ahead and weigh in on this one, because it's a topic I feel very strongly about.
One thing that Kathryn Stockett and Eve Ensler, who are both white women, have in common is that they take/appropriate the stories and lived experiences of women of color and edit and embellish them to speak for us with their white privileged bodies and voices.
As a writer, an artist myself, I would love to tell you unconditionally not to let anything stop you from writing and, at the same time, white people co-opting/appropriating the experiences of People of Color is really a problem. Nothing made me realize this more than exploitative white savior works like The Help, Ensler's stuff, and conversations with Beverly Diehl. It's a thing and has been a thing since slave narratives and maybe before then.
Personally, and there are some folks of African descent who are going to disagree with me, I wish white people would just keep their noses out of the business of writing our experiences for us because we can speak for ourselves and we do speak for ourselves all the time, every day. It's a matter of who gets heard, and most of the time it's not folks of African descent/Black peoples.
I take it that you will be attempting to write from the prospective of a Black family? If so, I don't understand what you mean by "lifestyle". If you see me, a person of African descent, my Blackness, as a "lifestyle" or a "lifestyle choice", I definitely don't think you, as a white woman, should be writing about people of African descent. My life is not some commercialized "plight" you should be trying to pitch to a publisher, which is something I tried to explain to a white writer like Beverly Diehl, whom I tried to have several conversations with on this topic. I would not buy your book. That's my honest opinion.
Yes, in most cases if not all of them, race matters. In my experience. Black is Black. Black is not the "new gay". Woman is not the "nigger of the world" or any of those other racist catch phrases from white-dominated social movements. I sincerely wish for peoples of African descent to continue to tell their own stories instead of having them filtered and appropriated by white people and their voices for profit and recognition.
The only problem is is that there is not enough of "us" out there writing "our" stories. Or if they are, they are compounding on certain stereotypes that frankly don't do us any favors.
Frankly, I'm tired of all the "angry black" stories, ghetto stories, oppressive stories about "us." While I don't argue that may be the reality of SOME black people, it's not the reality for all of us. I can't tell you how many people from the Soul Patrol have tried to say I'm not "black enough."
Would Waiting to Exhale be any different if it were written from a white woman's POV? No, in my opinion. All types of women can appreciate the story. Same with The Joy Luck Club.
IMO, it's not a matter of our stories being "filtered and appropriated by white people" when many of us is more wrapped up in "reality" TV, rap music, and the like and have either no knowledge or appreciation of what their ancestors or own parents have/had to endure.
I began writing stories years ago because I wanted characters to reflect me and the people I know, and like you've said, more of us need to write "our" stories and appreciate the variety of "our" stories.
IMO, the real problem is when people--of any color--rely upon stereotypes to tell a story regardless of POV. Stereotypes cheapen the author, the reader, and the people the stereotype is based.
Your use of "scare quotes" is alarming. I take it you have an issue with the use of "us" and "our". As do I, but I'm only using us, we, and our so as to speak to the topic. I want to make that clear, with the understanding that I do not and cannot speak for every single person of African origin.
If you don't see anything wrong with taking stories written about Black women/WOC by Black women/WOC and swapping them out for a white woman's POV and authors, I have nothing else to say to you on that matter.
I wholeheartedly agree with you about part of the problem being writers relying on stereotypes to tell a story. I'm pretty sure the people where I come from will tell me my work isn't "Black enough" either. Honestly, however, I think you're underestimating the potential of unpublished and underexposed writers, such as myself, who would like to have creative and original work put out there but are having troubling getting published/recognized because of the flow of the market and how people are being socialized and educated to think about literature. I finally got one publisher to review to my novel fairly recently; I cannot afford to self-publish, unless I missing some shortcuts.
People write what sells to appease a market that pigeonholes them in a society that miseducates them; someone tells them that "this is the kind of Black story we wanna publish", you cheapen yourself to get with the program or self-publish and self-promote (that's if you have the money and other resources to go that route). I'm not excusing it the stereotyping, I'm just saying there's a bigger issue at work here than people just trying to get on your nerves or cause you, or me for that matter, to be frustrated and tired with this typical stuff. To change the issue you're talking about means educating, deconstructing, and raising people's awareness, getting more writers out into the open for all to see.
I look at it from a sociological prospective obviously: The same market that's making you tired by pumping out books about those certain experiences is the same market that makes it hard for more talent to be recognized. It's a system and a cycle, it's tied up in how things are marketed and it's tied up what gets published and what doesn't, what can have a label slapped on it and resold over and over again. Okay. I'm tired. I'm going to bed. I just finished reading a horrid romance novel -_-
Miss Queenly, I am concerned about your statement that you cannot afford to self-publish. Yes, you're definitely missing something. It is possible to publish a Kindle version of your manuscript without spending a cent, and believe it or not, Kindle e-books can bring in thousands of dollars in royalties. I have a book just out about self-publishing that can walk you through the steps, but as a shortcut, you can read about 9 options on an old blog post of mine at http://www.katzenhausbooks.com/blog/2011/07/09/Publishing-Options.aspx. If you're really interested in self-publishing, drop me a private note at email@example.com and I'll send you a ARC copy of my book so you can read it for free.
"I definitely don't think you, as a white woman, should be writing about people of African descent."
Hmm, that's kind of a strong statement coming from a writer. I am intrigued with the Renaissance period; maybe someday I will write about it; maybe I will have a black character, maybe not. I wouldn't want anyone telling me I shouldn't be writing about early century Europeans because I am black. A writer's passion is from the heart.
I agree. A writer's passion is from the heart. That's very interesting, Dera, about your Renaissance idea.
Here's a book you might want to consider as a resource:
BTW, I didn't know that Scotland had such a deep connection with slavery and the slave trade. The area where I live is full of grand houses and a librarian told me that many of these grand estates were funded by the profits of slave trade and plantation trade back before slavery was abolished in the UK.
I was glad for the information because it got me thinking about writing something from the POV of a black character in Scotland during the 19th c.
Thanks for the link Zetta. I have a list of topics I want to explore but that one is way down on the list. LOL. Many of the tobacco plantations in the Carolinas were owned by the Scots. The Hairstons come to mind. The black Hairstons and white Hairstons have family reunions together. The whites pronounce it Har-ston while the black say Hair-ston. A black Scot is something you should explore; might as well take advantage of the history and culture whil you are there.
I have a similar dilemma; maybe you can answer both at once. I'm writing a novel based on the story of Laura M. Towne and her founding of the Penn School (later, Penn Center) on St. Helena Island. While the bulk of the book is written from the deep third-person POV of Laura, the white abolitionist, there is also a former slave woman, who in real llife became one of Laura's closest friends. Occasionally Rina steps in to comment on "de foolishness of dese white folk."
I've been trying to keep her Gullah language as true to the grammar and vocabulary as I can, but an editor recently demanded I change all dialogue with the former slaves. She says that they must be presented as speaking "simple, but correct English" because any attempt at what she calls dialect will be offensive to black readers.
What do you think? I'm hoping black readers will be drawn to the book because of this year's 150th anniversary of the Penn Center