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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


June said...

In a nonfiction context, I recently read a book (Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement) where the author called out the race of all the protagonists she described. I must admit that at first I was a little thrown by reading about "a white woman with ..." because usually, unless the book is primarily set in a non-white community, only non-caucasian race references are made. But the author, Marcia Gallo, was right on.

J. E. Knowles said...

Thanks, June. I agree. That book is on my ever-growing reading list.