Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing Black

I write books for teens. I’m finding that my recently-released civil rights era novel sparks conversation about people’s experiences of race, now and in the past. I’m excited by this dialogue. I want it to continue. I’m thrilled to have created a book that resonates with people. Maybe all the nice reviews I’ve gotten are going to my head, but the great reception for my work makes me want to do this again. And again.

The thing is, I know I’ll write other novels. As a matter of fact, I’ve already written some that are in various stages, even approaching publication. But they’re not all historical, not all about race, and they don’t even all star black characters. Is this a problem? I’m starting to be worried that it is.

I feel a responsibility to put forth more books about black children. Historical, contemporary, fantasy, whatever. There aren’t enough out there. As a black author, I must notice and concern myself with filling that void. But this feeling wars with another sense of responsibility – the desire to reflect my experiences through art in ways that may require a wider range of characters to populate my books. For one thing, my life experiences haven’t been solely within the black community – after all, I’m biracial. So, should I aim to write biracial kids? (There are even fewer of those books.)

From an artistic perspective, we’re taught to tell the stories that speak to us, regardless. Self-editing for social reasons is a no-no. Self-editing at all is a worry for later. Well, it’s later. And from a career perspective I believe these things do matter. I don’t mind bucking the mold of “black author,” for my own sake, but I also think that my art stops being just about me when it is on its way to an audience.

That’s enough beating around the bush. Here’s the crux of it: As a black woman writer, do I have an obligation to write stories about black women? Black girls? Black people in general?

I’m curious what other people, readers and writers, think about this issue.


sally said...

I think this is a question that can be easily applied to any creative medium, and for all of it, I think the answer is to create what you're comfortable creating. It's important to have more people of color as the main characters in literature, but putting that goal on your shoulders will ultimately stifle your work.

I think writing whatever develops naturally is what's more important.

Brianna J said...

Absolutely what frau sally benz said.

I would like to add that I think that you can force creativity into a mold under some circumstances. People are people. We aren't completely defined by race, gender, or anything else. So, if there's no particular reason that a character shouldn't be a black woman, she should probably be a black woman. But, if the character would be dishonest as a black woman (or as biracial, or anything else), you certainly shouldn't feel guilty for not writing them that way!

Sami said...

I... wow. That's a tough one.

On the one hand, I don't think that it should be a matter of obligation for anyone to write a particular thing over all others at all, but at the same time, I'm aware of the dearth of good fiction featuring black or biracial characters, and more can only be good; especially more that's written well, rather than clumsy attempts at Writing Diversity that fail.

Perhaps you should aim to write characters as black or biracial unless there's a good reason not to? In which case, write what does fit your purpose. Just invert the defaults from oh-so-standard diversity-lacking fiction.

Louise said...

I'm not a writer, know very little about the theory of writing, nor am I black. However surely the question is not whether you, as a Black woman, have an obligation but whether you, as a person concerned about these issues, have an obligation.

More pertinently, perhaps, if these issues speak to you then I don't actually see any conflict.

Joseph said...

I agree with the other comments. There is no obligation to write black characters, but if the issue of race is important to you, or the presentation of black characters in literature is important to you, then you would be doing an excellent service to your readers to create those characters.

Original Designer Woman said...

Absolutely not!

I am a writer and I intentionally don't write that way because people automatically assume we are supposed to write just for "our people" HOW DARE THEY!?

My current novel An Ugly Me is about an Italian American girl who lives in Boston!

My creative words can go far beyond color. My words come from my life and where I've been and the people I encounter and girls I mentor.

I write what I want and for whom I want...

I suggest you do the same!

Zanade Mann

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