It made me think about an excellent panel I attended at the AWP Conference in Seattle in March: How Far, Imagination: Writing Characters of Another Race in Fiction. Five writers, including one of our MFA faculty, Susan Ito, discussed the cultural and political implications of writing characters of a race or ethnicity not the writer's own. It is "allowed" for a white male, for example, to write from the point of view of a black female, or even simply about her? If he does, is it tantamount to cultural theft?
Robinson's piece stretched beyond race into questions of background and experience, raising the question of whether a person who has never been in combat can write about war. But the dilemma is the same. How can any writer claim to represent a culture she doesn't know from the inside?
I think this is a legitimate question. Yes, writers are artists, and should have the freedom to write about anything their imagination can conjure. If this weren't true, we'd never have Mrs. Dalloway, which memorably features the breakdown of a traumatized WWI veteran. Virginia Woolf knew a great deal about the inner workings of a breakdown, but she had never been in a war zone, never dodged bullets, never witnessed people being blown to pieces. And yet Septimus, who has, is one of the most vivid and sympathetic characters in 20th century literature.
But what if she had failed? What if Septimus had become a caricature, an offense? Would Woolf then stand accused of "stealing" the veterans' story? When Faulkner created Joe Christmas, a black man passing as white in Light in August, did he have the right?
As a white person living in a mixed-race family (my husband is African-American, our daughter mixed-race), these issues are very real to me, and not only as a writer. I've seen over and over again the way it hurts my daughter when young black women are consistently depicted as "sassy" or "trash-talking" - if they manage to appear at all. The way it disgusts my husband to encounter a sea of white characters in literature and film, with the only people of color showing up as bus drivers, janitors, addicts, colorful thugs. Or occasionally, as mystic saviors who exist solely to advise (usually with a warm twinkle), the white people around them. (See the excellent essay by the reliably witty, wildly gifted Roxane Gay on this persistent trope.)
So how do writers negotiate this landmine? The world around us is diverse. Not to write about it can be a kind of cultural blotting out, but writing about it is tricky. How can we do justice to a culture we don't know from the inside? (This question applies equally to issues of gender, class, ability, and sexual orientation as well as race.) The comments made by the writers on the AWP panel in response to the issue were illuminating and thoughtful. It was a lively and occasionally tense discussion, but it boiled down to a few key points:
1) Give your characters a nuanced inner life (which you want to do anyway, right?). Allow them complexities, contradictions, and depth. Don't let stereotypical behavior or attitudes stand in for the hard work of creating a human being.
2) Think about why you want to write about this particular person. Are you adding "flavor" or do you really have something to say? Don't write about cultural difference as a way of "juicing up" a narrative.
3) Never assume you are "speaking for" a group of people. You are creating individuals embedded in a cultural reality.
4) Do your research. If you want to write about people different from you, it helps to know them. Know them well. It helps to have substantive conversations, as Robinson did when writing about Marines. Ask questions. A lot of questions. Find out as much as you can. Travel, if you're able, study, read books and articles. Inform yourself. Do your homework.
There are some who argue that it's never permitted for writers from the dominant culture to tell the stories of those who are not. Some go even further, insisting that we speak only from our own experience, no one's else's. I think it's more complicated than that. But to avoid the complexity is to skirt the responsibility we have as writers. And that, I think, is to do justice not only to our characters, but to the art of writing.