by Will Viharo
Cultural identity, racial politics and ethnic sensitivity are major subjects of contentious discussion in our society today. There’s just no avoiding it unless you stick your head in the ground.
As a writer, it’s smart to tread lightly on this topic, if at all – especially if you choose to creatively represent someone else’s heritage and experience…
Expressing empathy for one’s fellow human beings is an admirable and even necessary quality to possess and cultivate, for the sake of a healthy, symbiotic society.
Artists attempting to comment on the basic human condition often do so by focusing on what defines and unites us as a species foremost, since we all share many of the same hopes, dreams and fears, regardless of what we look like or where we come from.
But what divides us culturally and otherwise is also fair fodder for fiction and non-fiction as well. Trying to see complex situations and ideas through the eyes of a stranger can make for compelling and even revelatory literature.
It’s a Small World, After All
As a writer, you want to expand the experiential scope of your fictional world as much as possible, so you’re not just writing about yourself, even if your artistic vision and perspective of life is being conveyed via that very personalized prism.
Imagining what life must be like for those both less and more fortunate than you is an attractive challenge for a writer, and an intriguing mystery for a reader. In this case, your audience is relying on your responsible reporting, whether it’s based in reality or fantasy, for authentic representation of that culture.
American pop culture is loaded with embarrassing examples of racial misrepresentation, often poorly excused with a “creative license.” Mickey Rooney’s infamous miscasting an as an Asian in Blake Edwards’ otherwise flawless adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) epitomizes this insensitivity.
Historically, pop literature is filled with stereotypical Asian villains. British author Sax Rohmer’s famous Fu Manchu novels may be pulp masterpieces, but you’d have a hard time selling those film adaptations these days without encountering protests. Ohioan author Earl Derr Biggers wrote a series of bestselling mystery novels featuring his popular Chinese-American sleuth Charlie Chan, and while his depiction of the detective was not in any way bigoted or patronizing, Hollywood’s casting of white actors like Sydney Toler to play him in the movies was indeed a questionable choice (though the early adaptations did feature Japanese actors). Peter Lorre a portrayed Japanese secret agent, Peter Marquand’s Mr. Moto, in several successful films as well. He was a great actor, but that would not happen today, and for good reason.
Walk a Mile in My Shoes
Myself, I prefer reading works of authors that actually share the life experiences of their characters. Examples of African American writers whose work really resonates with me as a middle-aged 21st century white dude are Walter Mosley, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and contemporary crime writer Danny Gardner, whose first novel A Negro and an Ofay is one of the most powerful pieces of fiction in any genre I’ve read in years.
Even though the story is set in a time period long before Gardner's birth – the 1950s – it feels very real and true to the material, because the author is simply transplanting his contemporary observations about our society into an earlier era, and since human nature is timelessly flawed, it works perfectly. The only fanciful part is his depiction of the period, since it’s being conveyed to us second hand via films and other mediums, perhaps anecdotes, as opposed to actual memory.
The rest of this socially explosive detective story is told with raw, subjective emotion. It’s a perfect example of how the imagination and real world experience can merge to produce work that is both entertaining and edifying.
However, not every writer needs to have that much in common with his or her characters to make them credible.
Quentin Tarantino is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I tend not to judge an artist for their creative choices, especially the daring ones, as long as they’re informed and honest, and not intentionally offensive. I'm not afraid of taking chances myself, and no writer should beintimidated into self-censorship.
However, Tarantino has come under legitimate fire from many in the white and black communities for freely co-opting some of the more controversial slang of African American cultures, particularly in his liberal use of the “n-word” throughout his filmography as a screenwriter. This is a valid critique, depending on one’s viewpoint. I don't share this opinion, but then I'm as Caucasian as Tarantino. (I also once worked in a video store and share his female foot fetishism, so maybe I'm the wrong guy to defend this judgement call...)
On the flip side of this argument, Tarantino's frequent star Samuel L. Jackson has often praised the filmmaker's portrayal of the black experience, and in fact some of his films like Django Unchained are loaded with statements in support of civil rights. This hasn't been enough to placate some of his critics, though.
You can’t ever please everyone, no matter what you do, so don’t even try. But laziness is never an excuse for ignorance. It’s important to know now exactly what you’re writing, for whom, and why before you share it with the general public.
Pretending you have the “authority” as an artist to invent characters that blatantly denigrate or insult their real world counterparts – even if your story is set in outer space – is not an acceptable defense, either. Not to most readers, anyway.
Don’t fall into that trap. And it’s easier to trip up than you may think.
Whether you’re writing a small, intimate portrait of a racially mixed family or neighborhood, or an epic drama spanning decades and nations, as an author you may be faced with creating authentic characters that have very different backgrounds than you do.
But remember: your audience is ideally composed of a diverse cross-section of humanity, and you don’t want to alienate any of them by inadvertently portraying a fellow member of their race, religion or culture inaccurately or worse, offensively.
Do your research when attempting to vicariously describe the experiences of someone different than yourself, especially if you want to appeal to readers that have more in common with the character you’re creating than with you.
Remember the Golden Rule
This can be accomplished any number of ways, and not just via the Internet. Sometimes the old-fashioned ways – like conversationally engaging actual people of a particular persuasion in your social circles – can be a much more productive and enlightening method of self-education.
Treating other people of all backgrounds as you would like to be treated is another basic guideline, not only when writing, but also when dealing with anyone inhabiting your daily life – especially online, where you often can’t even see their faces.
Awareness of yourself as an individual will also help you to understand your own characters, and their fans, as well.
Bottom line? You should feel comfortable in your own skin before trying on someone else’s.
PHOTO: CHRIS DRUMM