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Friday, October 26, 2007


In an online context, I was "eavesdropping" recently on a conversation about how, not to say whether, writers should write about characters different from themselves.

Hard to believe, isn't it? After all, fiction, by definition, is a made-up story. Characters, by definition, are made-up people. Even if a character is based on someone you know, it's still your version of that person. Heaven knows, we can never really know what's going in inside another person's head. That's what fiction is for.

Nonetheless, some readers (and non-readers) don't like it when they see writers "appropriating the voice" of a character different from themselves. One example given was some women--no doubt on university campuses, whence I've been absent too long--who disapproved of Michael Cunningham's The Hours, written in the voices of women including a real writer, Virginia Woolf. I wonder if these women want to claim Woolf for themselves, or only parts of her? The anti-Semitic parts, for instance?

Michael Cunningham, an incredibly gifted writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, doesn't need me defending him. But he is a white, U.S.-based man, and that's a pretty privileged group to belong to, isn't it? At least he's gay.

So, incidentally, is Camilla Gibb, who took a little flak for her Giller Prize-nominated novel, Sweetness in the Belly. Gibb is also white, a British-born Canadian, and an atheist. Nonetheless, after years of research living in Ethiopia, she dared to set her book there, and to write it in the voice of another white woman--a devoutly Muslim Ethiopian. Through the richness of her imagination, Gibb portrayed a character's religiosity and the conflicts surrounding it with a sensitivity I rarely see in fiction. Good thing she didn't let her inner censors disqualify her from trying!

One of the first adult novels (as opposed to children's books) I ever read was Clyde Egerton's Raney, and it's still a favorite of mine. Raney is a country girl in 1970s North Carolina who marries a more liberal guy from Atlanta. The story of their marriage is told in the strong, opinionated, and sometimes ignorant voice of Raney, and it is hilarious. Egerton said he wrote in the voice of the wife because in his family, stories were always told by women, and it just felt natural. I'm glad he didn't talk himself out of it by worrying about whether some readers might dislike it. No story can work for everybody.

I enjoy seeing myself in fictional characters, especially when we don't share surface, demographic criteria. Some of the books I've found most memorable have taken me deep into the mind of a character I could never possibly be. And I have read about many fictional characters who share my sexual orientation or race or religion, yet are nothing like me in personality.

As a white, U.S.-born, lesbian reader, I've observed that most white American characters never notice that they are white Americans or acknowledge the effect of those prejudices on other people's lives. Kind of like straight characters who almost never acknowledge their heterosexuality; it's just the default setting.

I think an extremely useful and diversifying thing for writers to do, next time [they] [we] are creating a cast of all or almost all white characters set in the USA--for example--is to have at least some of those characters aware of their nationality at least some of the time. No appropriation required.

Another of my favorite writers since youth, Jill McCorkle, wrote a novel called Carolina Moon (not to be confused with Nora Roberts's novel of the same title). All of the important characters in McCorkle's Carolina Moon are straight, and sexual orientation isn't a theme of the novel. But at a couple of subtle points, one of her characters, a woman named Denny, gives a nod to the fact that she has a sexual preference, and that it is hetero. That little nod of recognition--that there are other kinds of people in the world, and the character has thought about this--can deepen a story and make it more effective.

As always, a sense of humor helps too.

© J. E. Knowles

Friday, October 12, 2007


M. Y. T.

hello cerb my old dark friend
your three heads roaring at the gates of hell
the last outpost of living at the door of death
death eternal stretching behind you
black bleak river styx and ferryman before you
i come to you before i die
i have paid tribute to the gods on the mountain
i have wandered searching all over the earth
i have come under the earth to hades's house
i have crossed the styx and paid the ferryman
and now i want to know,
what makes it grey? because the sky is grey
most of the time, and even when it's black or white
it's grey, grey-blue, grey-red, but always grey
and the earth is grey, and even when it's brown
or morning-green or colour-feasting fall

still at dawn it's grey and dusk is grey
it's grey underground and the river is grey
and the old mean ferryman is shrivelled grey
and you, yes even you black dog, are grey
what makes it grey? is that why people bleed
and scream and breathe and sleep
is that why it rains and tears and there are
wars and fears and footsteps and people hear
why not black and white and easy and hard
and serious and fun and heaven and hell
and war and peace and safe and dangerous and
life and death and gods and men?
why grey? and for goodness' bloody sake
why pain and fire and frightened children?
and why do ragged voices cry desperation
and why does mister hell play chess with men
and why can i barely speak from the ripping
tearing bleeding burning pain of love
why do i need and hurt that something as deep
and calling as a restless soul is empty,
empty as my arms and a thousand thousand
miles from a night of sleep
why is it so dark? and why is there light in the
dark? and why did the love break when mama's
maid swept it off the dresser? it broke, you know
why did it break and destroy? i didn't want it
to destroy anybody, i never meant to fail

what, oh what now has torn up everything
and made the separation of the little storms
i was only misguided, only misguided
and it is cold and there is only a very slight chance
that truth will win out in the end
and there are very few rivers in the desert
and i don't have time to wait for then, i want
then now because otherwise i will be dead
tomorrow i could be gone and i don't have time
to wait before i wonder why and what makes it grey
in the same way that if you jump from the sears
tower to a patch of grass it is harder than
jumping from a chair to concrete
although concrete is harder than grass
and chairs and concrete and the sears tower are all
greyer than grass
i knelt in the stained-glass filtered air
of the chapel and i prayed that the gods would
live and that earth would be blessed
i have only now to live
and i have found that life is a crucifixion
in which each one of us must sacrifice one hand
to the nails
we must reach as far as we can before the
un-nailed hand crumbles to dust

because life like time is only a brief history
in the midst of infinity
and the gods after all are only life
and one day even time will be old
well if this is my life i accept it
i love it
and i will live it to the best of my ability
even if that means that which it may not
i shall go back to earth now
thank you
but cerb, first tell me in a whispered sound
what makes it grey