Friday, April 20, 2012

Writing in Another Body

That's a provocative title, but what I really mean is, is it acceptable for me, a middle-class white guy, to write a book narrated by a black man?
Making the question more complex, this is not a contemporary black person, even, but an ex-slave living in the latter quarter of the 19th century.
Obviously, I've never experienced slavery or Jim Crow. I've lived in places (Antigua, Jamaica) where I was a member of a racial minority -- but a privileged racial minority, one that was confident and even had a certain sense of entitlement.
On the one hand, the answer seems readily apparent -- yes.  Why not? In fact, race and status play little part in the narrative; it's just a convenient device to use to tell the story. The novel has little to do with race or slavery except as they relate to loyalty, in this case that of the narrator to his friend and former nominal master.
The answer might be different if race and the experience of oppression were central to the story, but even then, would it be wrong of me to write in that persona or merely ill-advised? After all, if I can write only about characters I understand from personal experience, I'm going to be limited to white guys, and a pretty narrow circle of white guys at that.
I've known a lot of women in my life and lived with a few of them, so does that make it OK to write a book with female protagonist? Even though I don't think I know what makes women tick? For some random reason, most of my best and better friends in life have been Jews (of the not terribly religious kind) and Catholics (of the failed kind), even though I am neither. So am I OK to write in the voice of a Reform Jew but not an Orthodox one? Of a Catholic who hasn't been to confession in 20 years but not one who goes to mass every week?
My answer is that I should be able to write in any of these voices, as long as I'm confident that I can pull it off fairly, with diligence, research and respect. But I can see the other side of the argument: that you can't write about it seriously if you haven't lived it.
What do you think?


Paul Satingala said...

That's a tough call. What is the point to do it in first person narration if it is not you? Have you thought about writing in third person? If it comes off as believable to the reader, than that's all that matters. Huck Finn was written through the eyes of a young boy but written by a mid 50's author at the time. Good luck. I just finished my first novel and am about to start looking for an agent, which I really do not want to do. Agents bring contracts and want to slave over you for the rest of your life, thus killing all creativity. Not sure what avenue to pursue for selling my book.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

Thanks for stopping by, Paul. Good luck on searching for an agent. If you want to know about my own angsst-ridden experience with that, see my older (incognito) blog, The Big Litowski.

Searching for the Story said...

"I should be able to write in any of these voices, as long as I'm confident that I can pull it off fairly, with diligence, research and respect."

I think you answered your own question. This sort of hyper-consciousness of race can, in my opinion, exacerbate racial tension. Maybe part of it is generational (I just turned 24) but to my friends and me race isn't that big of a thing.

Your manuscript sounds interesting, by the way. I'm searching for a May 2012 Author of the Month, so maybe you could send it my way. Thanks as well for commenting on my interview with Yvonne Osborne. I was happy to see the level of attention that got.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

Will do, thanks.

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