A few years ago, I had a story I wanted to tell about women and children surviving a war on their soil. The trouble was, I was thinking of a particular war, and all the characters in that story were Chinese. I’m a white American.
Why that story? Ever since my husband and I started dating, he’d been telling me little anecdotes about his childhood in China during the World War II. By the time he died, that time and place and those people had come alive in my imagination.
I thought about writing from an American viewpoint, as reminiscence maybe. I couldn’t get anything to work, though. Finally I just bit the bullet and wrote the novel from the point of view of a Chinese woman.
Although an author ought to be able to get inside the skins of all kinds of people, let’s face it. For most of us, our understanding and empathy only stretches so far. Occasionally I’ve read a female character written by a man, and I think, this man doesn’t understand women—which make me wonder: Can I write convincingly from a male viewpoint? I think so. But there are some men that I just don’t understand. Until I do, they will have to be minor characters in my stories.
Writing across the racial divide is similar. The author has to be able to step comfortably and convincingly into the other person’s skin. I can’t see myself doing that in most cases. But I could with An Lee, the protagonist in Tiger Tail Soup. Even then, I had to do a lot of research.
There’s one more big consideration for a writer deciding whether or not to write across the racial divide: Will she be criticized for telling a story that’s not hers to tell? I think it depends on the point of history we’re in and the current attitudes of the people about whom she’s writing.
I recently looked up reviews and critiques of Pearl Buck’s 1931 best-selling novel, The Good Earth. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and soon after, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which, paradoxically, set her up for a lot of criticism: Someone else should have won; her plots were preposterous; the literary qualities were less than impressive. She was also criticized by different factions for her politics. I didn’t see any criticism of her for writing from the Chinese viewpoint, though.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a more contemporary example. Stockett and her protagonist are both white, but the subjects of her novel are black servants in Mississippi in the 1960s. The book and the movie made from it were wildly popular, but they were criticized by some people for an inaccurate depiction of the lives of servants in that era.
Writing across the racial divide can be done, but the author ought to be prepared for blowback. It takes skill, hard work, and also courage to be a writer.http://nickichenwrites.com/wordpress
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