Friday, February 14, 2014

Crossing demographic lines in fiction

Recently I was reading the 1988 novel Pearl by Tabitha King, which is written by a white woman but features a biracial protagonist. (Read my post about that book for some observations about how race is treated in that particular novel.) After putting it down, I kept thinking about the idea of writing a character of another race and how politically loaded that can be. Just after finishing Pearl I read this post from Insatiable Booksluts which touches on the same issue, and then found this Slate article in which Michael Chabon discusses his inclusion of black characters in Telegraph Avenue.

Although I am not a writer I've heard "write what you know" many many times, and I've also heard it argued against in the interest of being creative and writing books that aren't all the same story about the same characters. There is nothing wrong living in the suburbs and setting all your books there (see: Tom Perrotta) or having all your main characters be women, or gay men, or horse wranglers. Some writers are able to keep to a theme this way and still turn out a startling variety of books.

But it's not a rule. The only rule (if you want to call it that) in writing fiction is to be creative, and for some writers that means doing a lot of things different from book to book or writing outside of their potentially narrow plane of existence. Think about science fiction for a minute: if it's ok to write about someone from an entirely different planet, why isn't it ok to write about someone who is different from you in a much smaller way? Sure, aliens don't exist (that we know of) but neither does the particular character you are making up.

And yet. It's still somehow discomfiting, this very idea of a white author writing a black character. Race is such a loaded issue here in the U.S. that many white people won't even talk about it, much less presume to create black characters in their novels. But maybe we need to move past this and let go of the idea that race is uniquely sacred and fold it in with all the other ways of being demographically diverse.

Many other lines are crossed by writers all the time. Authors regularly create characters of different genders, nationalities, sexual orientations, or classes than themselves, often with great success. Look at the female characters of Chris Bohjalian, the intersex character in Annabel by Kathleen Winter, or the angry teenaged boy who stars in A.S. King's Reality Boy. Maybe that's not every angry teenage boy's experience, but sure it's not unbelievable as some boy's experience. The character only has to be believable as someone who could exist, not necessarily mirror someone that you actually know, right?

I'm a librarian and it is somewhat inherent in my nature to fall on the side of intellectual freedom. As far as I'm concerned everyone has the right to write about whatever they want, using whatever words they want, to convey any idea they want. I like controversy, and taboo subjects, and politically-incorrect language. Yes, those things make people uncomfortable, but that isn't always a bad thing. Uncomfortable makes you ask questions and challenge your assumptions and start a conversation.

What do you think? Have you read any books in which author crossed these lines, and how do you feel about it?

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