Writing In Someone Else’s Shoes

Like countless others, I read THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. I listened to the audiobook, actually, because I spend more time in my car than curled up on the couch with a book. I have not seen the movie, yet, but I know that it’s been selling out theaters. At the same time, it’s been getting serious criticism. I’m fine with the critics who want to blast Stockett’s style or how the book or movie failed in their eyes. What’s bothersome to me, though, is when people refuse to read the book or see the movie because Stockett is a white author who created black characters.

Something similar happens on Goodreads and Amazon, where people give one-star reviews and rail against the book, and then somewhere in the review, the writer makes it obvious that he hasn’t actually read the book or did not finish reading the book. The reviewer, then, really has a problem with the author or the subject matter.

We all have personal preferences. My mother hates science fiction and vampires, other than Edward, of course. My dad, on the other hand, loves sci-fi, and hates watching Oscar-nominated drama. So be it. But, when people make decisions based on an author’s race or another identifying factor, I find it harder to accept.

Beyond THE HELP, this issue interests me because writing outside of one’s race, gender, religion, sexuality, etc. has been addressed in several of the blogs I read about writing and YA fiction. The general consensus on these blogs has been, yes, of course you can write outside your own identity with authenticity as long as you do your homework and be respectful. I agree, and there were lots of examples of authors who have done this successfully.

To complement these posts, other blogs have lamented the fact that the characters in YA fiction are overwhelmingly white. One cool blog actually analyzed the covers of books and found that most were graced by beautiful white girls. Again, the comments were that writers should include more characters of color with diverse backgrounds and experiences. At the same time, I have read blogs that call for more writers of color to be published. This could help to increase the number of diverse characters in fiction.

In general, they are all collectively saying: the publishing world needs more diverse characters from all authors.

And yet, there’s the Stockett controversy. From a review by Alynda Wheat: “I have friends who refuse to see The Help (or read Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestseller of the same name)…What galls many of us black folks is that Stockett is white, writing in the voices of black women.” Ms. Wheat, for the record, liked the movie.

So, on the one hand, I’m reading blogs that say, yes, we love diversity, go for it, even if you are not of that group. On the other hand, we have people basically saying, “Don’t you dare.” To make matters more complex, even writers of color have been criticized for portraying stereotypes within their own cultures.

Ultimately, I am curious about these issues because in my work in progress, the main character is a boy, his best friend is a Puerto Rican girl, his spirit guide is Native American, and another character is black. As I’m writing, I’m finding that my teens act and speak similarly, because my experience as a teacher is that most teens act and speak similarly. Some moments will be influenced by their gender, religion, or race, but so far I’m discovering that my writing is not about “being X, Y, or Z.” My characters are people who happen to be those things. Yes, they are defined in certain ways by their races, religions, ethnicities, or sexual identities, but these are not the central issues.

I’m not intentionally shying away from these issues. My WIP just isn’t developing in a way that requires me to go there. Maybe someday I will. Maybe I’ll be driven to write about my family or being Latina. Maybe I’ll dare to write deeply about another group. If anything, the success and criticism that has showered Stockett proves that writing about race, and especially in someone else’s shoes, es muy complicado, even in 2011.

3 comments

  • Kudos on tackling the elephant in the book store. It took an open mind for Stockett to lovingly create these characters, airing out a story that needed to be told. I saw an interview with one of the African American actresses in the movie who was dead set against doing the film because it was based on a story written by a white woman. And then she read the book and realized the story was spot on and long overdue.

  • Cindy, I was led here by your lovely contribution for Latino Heritage Month. I was happy to see that someone like you is in the classroom, and envy you having parents from different Latino cultures (although I’m quite happy about my Irish Am. parents!).

    The discussion surrounding The Help has been fascinating, especially if, like me, you’re a writer who has written stories about characters with other ethnic backgrounds. There was a program on NPR about this and the academic Black woman criticizing the novel was thoroughly outshouted by women of color calling in and declaring their love for the book and the movie, many claiming it was the first time they’d seen their grandmothers’ experiences validated in the popular media.

    Needless to say, I’m with them. I was one of the main editors of two multicultural language arts anthologies (adopted by, among many others, the L.A. County school system) and one thing apparent was that the same writers are used over and over in books like this. I love them all–Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, et al.,–but literature cries out for more writers like them.

    Or even writers like me who have a depth of experience of other cultures and want to write about it. Recently I self-pubbed my novel When I Am Singing to You (the title comes from a beautiful poem by Gabriela Mistral) about a young Mexican farm worker who goes from one bad situation to another, finding new friends and new sources of inner strength in each one. My agent couldn’t sell it in this economy, so I’ve self-pubbed it (I’m getting too old to let it sit on small press slush piles!). As a teenager myself, I worked out in the Iowa farm fields for many years, and I’ve also lived in Mexico and taught ESL to many Latinos. So, I feel like I have a vast amount of lived experience to add to my other motivations for writing this story.

    When you write a book, you are always writing from the mouths and minds of those who are not exactly like you; that’s the nature of art! Imagine writing stories that portray only one gender, one age group, one economic group, etc.. It’s fairly impossible, and who would want to read books like that. Still, anything inauthentic will be sniffed out by the reader, so you proceed with care.

    If you ever have any interest in reading and someday possibly reviewing my book, I’d be honored (it’s available on Amazon and Smashwords). All the best in your own writing!

    Rebecca Burke

    • Hi Rebecca,
      Thanks for reading my post and for the thoughtful comment. I will definitely check out your book. I agree with all of your points…As for the seeing the same writers in anthologies, I have had that problem as a teacher when looking for short stories. I have discovered, however, a long list of Latinos/as writing YA novels. I plan to pull that together and post it soon. Thanks again.
      Cindy

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