Last week I swore that this week I would blog about race in fiction. I absolutely intend to adhere to my resolutions, but I will need help in the coming days. Today I am going to blog about representing race in fiction, what I’d like to see, what I think (and hope) works, etc. However, after that, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to blog about. So please, suggest things to me! Ask questions!
Anyway, before I get into the “heavy” stuff, two things of note! The first is Psychic Roommate and I completed our first 5K race this past Sunday! She ran hers in 30 minutes flat, I clocked in at 31:05. Needless to say, we’re quite proud of ourselves.
The second is I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland dressed like this:
Of the movie? Eh. But I’ve always been a huge Alice fan and to date I’ve never come across an adaptation I’ve liked. (Excepting the Disney version, which I apparently watched so often it destroyed the VHS tape. YES, VHS. I’M THAT OLD, OH MY GOD.) As per usual with Tim Burton films, I enjoyed the visuals, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter. As per usual (of his recent films), I wasn’t impressed with the rest. It hurts to be a fangirl, sometimes.
Anyway, back to the point: representing race in fiction. I will be upfront in saying that a lot of my impressions come from a YA-bias as that’s mostly what I read outside work, and I was in the age group to grow up with the genre.
We Are All Human
Here’s a question I’d like to pose for everyone: can you identify with a protagonist who is not in any significant way “like you”? I’m fairly certain the answer is “yes” for most people. I mean, I’m not a redheaded orphan from Nova Scotia living on Prince Edward Island. And Anne Shirley? Boy, did I get you. I even had imaginary friends with improbably romantic names. You and I, Anne, were “kindred spirits”. And if you didn’t marry Gilbert Blythe, I would have thrown your books across the room. But you pulled through in the end, Anne. Thank goodness.
Here is the reason why I think the answer is “yes” for most people: in all of human experience, there are only a few stories that appear over and over again. Fish out of water, unrequited love, a murder gets solved, etc. I think that by nature, human beings gravitate towards and actively seek out situations and characteristics they can relate to. I’d like to stress situations and characteristics rather than racial/ethnic “issues”. Because I would like to offer myself as an example here.
I can find a lot in common with Lyra Belaqua: her passionate loyalty, her lying, her “queen bee of Jordan College” status. I can find a lot in common with Anne Shirley: her distracted romanticism, her flights of fancy, her wide-eyed idealism. In the end, what I can relate to in these girls transcends notions of race or even gender.
Is it too hard to ask “white readers” to do the same with characters of different ethnicity? I do it all the time–I’m not “white” (interestingly, “non-white” always seems to trump “white” in biracial people, e.g. myself and Barack Obama) and I see a lot of myself in so many different “white” protagonists. And you know what? I could probably see myself in a lot of black protagonists, Hispanic protagonists, or Asian protagonists; that is, if there were more out there who were represented as people first, tropes second.
We All Have An Ethnicity
When portraying a “character of color” (to be completely honest, I hate the phrase “[thing] of color”), I believe that the first thing to do is disregard his/her ethnicity/race. (My opinions, remember? So go easy on the flames!) When asked to come up with three adjectives describing myself, I don’t include “Asian” as one of them. And I highly doubt your characters do either. I mean, you wouldn’t think to include “white” as one of the three adjectives when describing someone like Elizabeth Bennet, would you?
Being of Korean descent informs who I am, absolutely, just as I’m sure being English was something Elizabeth Bennet took pride in. (Especially when compared to the French!) There is a difference between having race inform your character and having it define them. My Korean heritage informs the following about me: I am a poor drinker, I have a subconsciously expressed view of “seniority” and authority based on Confucian ideals, and I gesture a lot when I talk. Mum says that Koreans are like the Italians of Asia–it’s true we are a passionate people: passionate in love and hate and passionate about food. Except I’m not passionate about food. Must be the English/Welsh in me.
Here’s another thing: within the “Caucasian race”, there are a multitude of ethnic groups. Within my group of friends, we all have a “culture” with which we can identify. Psychic Roommate is half Irish, half Italian and she’s pretty much as Italian as you find ‘em. Wicked Cool Riley is also half Irish, half Italian and has the hair (and drinking prowess!) of the Irish. Our very good friend Alex is 100% German (from Bavaria by way of Long Island). The Inimitable Bex is descended from the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Not all Irish are drunks and poets. Not all Italians come from mob families. Unless it was a historical novel, these days most people wouldn’t think to write about the Italian-American experience as only about trying to balance life between business and “family”. Or the “Irish need not apply” policy. That might inform the novel and the character, but wouldn’t you ultimately find a book like to be a little shallow and/or narrow? Can you imagine the way us “non-white” people feel when we see our lives reduced to the “ethnic-American experience” of thirty years ago?
Culture, Not Race
There is a difference between “culture” and “race”. As far as “culture” goes, I’m fairly solid upper middle class American from southern California. I went to prep school, was forced to play tennis and golf at the country club (for the record, I hate both sports), played soccer, body surfed and boogie-boarded during summer breaks, wore flip-flops 8 months out the year, and I maintained a perpetual slight tan. (Alas, no more!) I also apparently talk like a Californian. I’m not sure what that sounds like. Can you hear the sunshine and palm trees in my voice?
During my stint at university, I lived abroad in London. The experience of living in a different country (same language–barely, totally different culture!) affected me in many ways, not the least of which was finding firm footing in my identity as an American. I drifted toward other American kids, who understood me implicitly when I complained about British table service and their washing machines (DEAR GOD, THEIR WASHING MACHINES). British people heard my accent and identified me first as an American, not as an “Asian-American”. (I had a lot of romantic hopefuls hit on me by asking if I were Canadian. No, so sorry.) This had nothing to do with my race–which is Asian–and everything to do with my culture.
Culture is not a bad thing. Exploring different types of cultures is what I believe makes excellent fiction. Don’t be afraid to go there. As long as portrayals are nuanced, I am willing to believe a lot of things. If we eliminated what makes us different from each other, then we’d have no more stories. It would be a dystopian society like you’d find in Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD or Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER. It’d be boring.
Once again, I’ve written a short paper instead of a blog post. But race and its representation is a weighty topic to discuss. Tomorrow I think I will tackle how to describe a character of a different race. But until then, what are your thoughts? Am I crazy? Wrong? Let me know in the comments!