Monday, January 22, 2007

The Color of Fiction

First of all, did you know there are still performers making a living doing "Black Face" theatre? And one such performer is coming to Los Angeles -- West Hollywood to be specific -- in Feburary, just in time for Black History Month. Read more about the story at Jasmyne Cannick's site.

Which brings me to today's writing topic: Race/Ethnicity and Fiction.

What role, if any, do these subjects play in your characters' lives? Is race/ethnicity too sensitive a topic to be addressed in fiction? Do you prefer your characters to be color blind, or conscious of the issues and experiences around race/ethnicity that have shaped their lives? What about as a reader?

So much to ponder. But very good to think about.

In my first novel, Down For Whatever, one of the characters, Keith Hemmings, does diversity training work and tends to think a lot about race/racism in the gay community. It annoys some of his friends in the book. It also annoyed some readers of the novel, who said that Keith's parts of the book came across as preachy. Others said "Amen" to Keith's speech/preach on the "racial hierarchy of gay L.A." and that it meant a lot to see their feelings reflected by a character in a book. (BTW, the character Keith is a son of a preacher, so he's used to having his say, and used to seeing his way as right, so he's meant to be preachy.)

The cool part about writing fiction is that you get to create characters and worlds that are like no other. You also get to reflect your reality, or the reality of those around you, in your work. If that reality is being color-blind, then that might reflect the work and characters you create. If that reality is being conscious of race and ethnicity issues and experiences, then that might be reflected in your work and characters.

There are probably many factors to think about, both creatively and commercially, when creating your characters. Additionally, on the business side, the race/ethnicity of authors (and fictional characters) can play a role in the placement of the product in bookstore, how the product is marketed, or how much attention the product receives by media outlets.

How does race/ethnicity influence what you create in your fiction?


Anonymous said...

I don't comment much on blogs, but was inspired by your question. I'm taking a class now where we have been speaking a lot about the master narrative. It seems to me that when work doesn't follow the master narrative it's coined as African American fiction, gay fiction or even chic lit. As an apriring writer who has friends from various ethnic backgrounds I would love to create color blind characters and often find myself doing as such, but it can be difficult. I just want to create fiction. I don't want to be coined as a writer of gay fiction or black gay fiction. I just want to produce fiction. Labels can sometimes be narrow minded.

Joseph said...

Hi Fred, great post.

Race/ethnicity is a huge component in the characters I create and, I think, not just for me but for every writer in general. Naturally then, socioeconomic status, educational background, urban or suburbanite, religious believe and gender comes into play as a result. As much as I would like my characters and their situations to be color-blind, the reality is that life isn’t so, and to create a character in such light would seem like a complete lie (even in fiction).

At the end of the day it boils down to this: the experience of an African American will never ever be the same as that of a White American or a Latino American, and characters should reflect that. In turn everything changes then; the nuances, the actions/reactions of the character, the expressions, the storyline, etc. Yes, I know, things are changing and we are intermingling enough were lines are being blurred, especially with my generation (Gen Y), but race is much much bigger than black guys saying ‘dude’ and white boys getting their hair braided. At the end of the day the job of a writer is to tell stories that mimic reality.

I actually loved your Keith character precisely because of his boldness and assertion of the L.A ethic hierarchy. It was expected in a story that was about the trials and tribulations in love and dating for a group of L.A man. Had the story taken place in, say, Wyoming then it would have been a different thing because places like this are homogeneous. Yet cosmopolitan cities like L.A and NYC aren’t, and race is an everyday issue.

Sometimes I wonder: what if our greatest novelist weren’t telling stories that were race specific? Would there be a Toni Morrison? Garcia-Marquez?