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.