Monday, November 15, 2010

Crossing the line

by Jim

I crossed my first picket line yesterday! I had tickets to see the new musical The Scottsboro Boys by the same folks who wrote Cabaret and Chicago. It’s a musical retelling of the story of nine black men who were wrongfully imprisoned for the rape of two white women in Alabama in the 1930s. The framing device is a minstrel show. Blackface is employed. The writers and director are all white. Yikes! Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to enter past dozens of protesters chanting that the show was racist, that turning this tragic story into a minstrel show was akin to using Borscht Belt humor to talk about the Holocaust. For a show that deals with liberal white guilt, getting shouted at for being racist was actually kind of an affective prelude (more on this in a minute).

I’m appreciative of both the protestors and the show’s writers for this: together, they raised a really interesting question about what stories need to be told and who has the right to do the telling. I remember a former coworker (not here) ranting about Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Twenty-Seventh City and his lead character being Indian. She took great offense at his decision to “talk about something he knows nothing about.” At the Romantic Times convention this year in Columbus, I met a group of really wonderful women who wrote gay male erotica, and I won’t lie: that totally confused me. And I think everyone here has read at least one first person narrative where the author writes from the perspective of someone of a different gender and the whole thing feels inauthentic.

Of course, limiting authors to only writing about what they know would prevent things like, say, historical fiction. It would have blocked my client Mindi Scott from beautifully capturing a teen male’s voice in her debut Freefall. It would have reduced Colum McCann’s glorious array of first person narratives across racial, gender and class lines in Let the Great World Spin (have I mentioned lately how brilliant that book is?). But do the rules change when the character’s identity is so integral to the story being told? What about if the story is about the injustice done to a particular group of people?

I’m inclined to say that it’s simply a matter of quality. The Scottsboro Boys was a brilliant show. At once devastating and hopeful, it was about how far we have (and haven’t) come as a nation and our collective history of racial intolerance. I believe that. But I also question my response since I’m, y’know…really white.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this. Are there stories that “belong” to one group of people? Are there perspectives that you just wouldn’t trust? Have you attempted a first person narration from a perspective radically different from your own?


  1. Great post, Jim. I haven't heard of the play and think that using the structure of a minstrel show to tell the story is unexpected, creative and, of course, controversial. (I hope it's not hurtful.) It's fascinating that you also had to walk through the protestors out front--that would be wild if that was part of the actual show.

    You raise many great questions that I have grappled with as a writer. I don't have many answers other than 1) authors must be allowed to tell the stories that come to them and 2) they have a responsibility to be as accurate as they can. Of course, this idea of accuracy and who tells whose story is so complicated.

    I'm a middle-aged (groan) white Midwestern mom of one teen boy who owns a black Lab. Does that mean those are the only characters I can write about? I'm a flaming liberal married to a conservative who supports gay marriage. Does that change things? The fact is, there are lots of "white Midwestern women" and we're all different, each is an individual. So, it's kind of crazy to say I can only write "that" character.

    My main character in my current YA is a white Midwestern female teenager. Her best friend is a black male, and his family also plays a large role in the story. I hope that this family is authentic and have considered asking black friends to read it with an eye toward those details. At the same time, a family in a small Iowa college town won't be the same as a family (black or otherwise) in Oakland or Brooklyn or Atlanta. They won't even be the same as another black family in the small Iowa college there needs to be room for individuality.

    Thank you for making me think!

  2. The very thought of taking a human event or specific event in history or something that happened to a certain race and saying it can only be told by that race is racist. If not racist then it is segregating. We should have reached a point in our humanity were people should just be people and I know that we haven't, but it just isn't right. If it isn't to mock or to wrong but to uplift and teach then what difference does it make as to who is telling the story?

    In writing, if there was no picture of the writer on the inside jacket of the cover, would you even be able to tell?

  3. It is such a difficult and multi-faceted question.

    People create art based on powerful subjects for many reasons. Consumers/Audience of those subjects come to these works with all kinds of opinions and baggage. Who dares say they know the real motivation of the creators? Who can say their own experience of a topic is universal?

    And even if you take away the question of who has the right to tell a story and how, we still have to figure out what criteria we have? What are good goals? Excellence? Being controversial? Addressing a small fraction of the big problem with one possible solution?

    I only know my own reactions. Sometimes they surprise me, other times the confuse me. Occasionally they shame me.

  4. As you say, "the writers and director are all white". With such a controversial topic couldn't they have asked a black colleague to collaborate with them as one of their writers? He or she could have brought a whole other perspective that perhaps they wouldn't have thought about or imagined. As we all know a minstrel show with blackface has become offensive to most Black people, therefore one reason (among others, I'm sure) for the protestors.

    Personally, my wip where the protagonist is a male, and I am definitely a female, is a work of fiction and all of us have that right to create and imagine, but hopefully with a certain amount of sensitivity as to what we're writing about.

  5. I think there are stories that "belong" to a group of people. There is a certain knowledge base that only comes with being raised a certain way. (Try to learn Navajo if you don't believe me.)

    I think that a dedicated writer could, possibly, cross that gap between "us" and "them" and tell the story of "them" so that "us" would get it, but most writers aren't that dedicated. (My current hot button issues are Amish, Dineh, and certain groups of Pagans.)

    Tony Hillerman managed to cross that gap, but I can't think of anyone else off hand.

  6. What a loaded question, and one that's likely to be debated forever unless we somehow manage to erase all class/gender/racial lines and forget that we had them in the past. And I can only offer my perspective as a white twenty-something female, with all the privilege that implies.

    There are many instances like this where people are criticized for telling stories "belonging" to another race, culture, etc. Yet I often see criticism thrown against white authors (or screenwriters, or any type of artist) if they only include white characters in their works, characters similar to them. So what should we do? I'm not at all trying to make the white writers look persecuted, because they're not, but there just isn't a way where we can both avoid telling stories "belonging" to another race/culture/etc. and tell stories with fewer white characters. Well, I suppose there is, if we write stories where race, culture, and gender don't matter. But most of these are going to be have to set in some hypothetical future, because I find it hard to imagine that even in the most enlightened areas today, one's race and culture and gender don't affect one's experiences and outlook on life. (I have no issues writing stories in the future, since I write SF, but many people want to write stories set in other time periods!)

    I think what we have to do, then--and by "we", I mean all storytellers, whether they write novels, screenplays, etc., and whether they're white or Asian or black or Latino or extraterrestrial--is make sure we do as much research as we can when telling stories about people whose experiences are not our own, in order to make those stories as authentic as possible and capture the nuances of those experiences. We're all human, and I want to believe we can come to an understanding of the people who are not us because we have that in common. But it takes a lot of work, and writers should be willing to put that work in.

  7. It's just political bull when various individuals/constituencies/or whatever complain that a writer can't write about something because they aren't a card-carrying member of whatever. It irks me to no end when I see these types of protests. To say you have to be such and such or experienced such and such to be allowed/qualified to write about or from a particular perspective is patently ridiculous and I find those who protest along these lines short sighted, small minded, mean-spirited and just plain ignorant. I have nothing but contempt for that kind of thinking.

  8. Writing is about becoming other people for a while, and developing a sympathy for those who aren't exactly like you. I think only good can come from thinking deeply about what others may have experienced. It would be a shame if writers felt they weren't allowed to tell the story of a person they truly relate to, because some uncontrollable factor in their lives supposedly separates them. We are all human, with the same potential to feel, and we share much more than we don't share.

    On the other hand, I understand where the question comes from, and I've asked it of myself often: is it okay for ME to write THIS story? I'm a straight woman, and I wrote a novel about a gay man. I don't care what the straight world thinks of this story(if it's ever published), but the reaction of the LGBT community does matter to me. I do feel like I've stepped into an area that I might not have the right to be in, and told a story that isn't mine to tell.

    But in the end, I have to conclude that I have a right to tell any human story -- and that's what this story is. My protagonist isn't defined by his sexuality; his story is about accepting his own fallability, which everyone goes through. This person going through it just happens to be gay. I'm not, but I still feel a kinship with him that I don't automatically feel for people or characters just because they're superficially similar to me. The things we have in common are deeper and more important than the ones that make us different.

  9. I managed to talk a production company out of doing a biopic of Queen Liliuokalani. Many Hawaiian people are still angry over the loss of their nation and furious over the way Liliuokalani was treated. The last thing they wanted was to hear the non-Hawaiian opinion of what happened. They've heard more than enough.

  10. I'm with the protestors. Blackface in itself harkens back to a shameful period in America's history. So forgive me, but I'm supposed to believe the writers are so brilliant when they can't see the forest for the trees?

    Controversy sells, so perhaps this is what the writers and producers were banking on. And it's easier to look far and away to Germany at the Holocaust, or South African where Apartheid happened instead of looking at the toil segregation played in destroying lives, families and dreams in America.

    American writers and movie producers have a long history of creating black characters who perform with a smile. That seems to be the only way to make US audiences comfortable with the material dealing with black/white relations.

    So yes, I'm sure it made for riveting theater.

  11. It's been said that only a non-American could've written Democracy in America, and Tocqueville was most decidedly French. The point is that an outsider offers a different perspective than an insider. We need both outsiders and insiders.

    As an author I can say that on a personal level the attempt to portray someone I'm not always teaches me something.

  12. I'm putting this out, not to agree or disagree with what's been said, but to add another perspective:

    Not very long ago, I was reading a blog written by an American journalist living in Russia, married to a Russian--and writing comedy articles about Russia. And by her own admission, she's made a lot of Russian people very angry.

    Her response: Shouldn't I have the right to my own viewpoint? Do you mean I can't write about what I see?

    The trouble was that she missed the whole point of the uproar. Somehow, with I don't know how many years of living in Russia, she failed to grasp basic Russian cultural ideas and values. Instead of getting readers on both sides to laugh, she got one side laughing and the other deeply hurt. The gap didn't close. It's wider than ever.

    Writers who go across the culture line are bridge builders, and they take heavy risks. There's always the chance that when you set the last span, it won't land where you hope it will. That's not to say you shouldn't try. Just know that failure can cost you, personally and professionally.

  13. Scrifa--in as far as your fiction is concerned, I am a gay female and I have to say a well-written story is a well-written story.

    In relation to the question--society's walls continue to be reinforced by the very people who are trying to knock them down. If I can't buy into a concept that a straight person can 'understand me', then clearly I must believe that a straight person has never been persecuted, ostracised or felt just plain alone. And such a world view is as narrow as the world view of a racist, for eg.

    What I think is key is that the opening of minds go both ways. For every time there is a gut reaction that someone has blundered in how they have portrayed you, there must be an examination of whether it is a genuine misstep or whether the individual has simply hit on something deeply personal to you. A good example for me is the "It Gets Better" campaign. Logically--I understand it is done only with the best of intentions. Personally--I find it pointless to have a successful straight person tell me that my life will get better because they have never, nor ever will, walk in my shoes. But I've acknowledged that as not a viewpoint of the LGBT community, but as my own. We are have personal triggers--they key is remembering that they are, indeed, just that.

  14. This may seem harsh, but as a black woman, I have no desire to see a musical like the Scottsboro Boys. To me, the fact that it uses the minstrel/blackface format combined with the fact that "the writers and director are all white" is both problematic and disturbing. As another commenter said, they couldn't hire ANY black writers to assist with this piece?

    While I don't believe any stories "belong" to any group of people, I do believe that certain races are, in general, MORE QUALIFIED to tell stories than others. I don't agree with the colorblind mentality that says we are all the same and race does not matter. It does. Without question. There are things I just flat-out know about my race because I have experienced them firsthand.

    The problem with telling stories from a perspective that's not your own is that you run the risk of stifling your characters. Unless you're very careful, you either fall into racist stereotypes unconsciously, or you can create characters that seem too squeaky clean to be real.

    Is it possible to do it and do it well? Of course! As some have said, the alternative would be segregated writing. In my own WiP, the two main characters are Black and Japanese.

    However, I maintain that writing outside of your race/gender/religion requires much more preparation and research than usual to get all the little things right. Simply asking one or two of your friends about their culture doesn't cut it.

    And IMHO, if you're not willing to do the extra work, don't try.

  15. Tanya, thanks for your response to me, and for your great comment. You said what I wanted to say much better than I did, and more. Glad I got to hear your thoughts!

  16. Thanks for the comments, all! I'm inclined to agree with L.C. on this--if you're not willing to do the research, you're doing your characters and readers a disservice.

    Having had more time to reflect on the show, I still find the idea of it really disturbing, but the actuality of it is potent--it's ultimately about the rejection of minstrelsy and all that it stood for. I still have questions about the writers' qualifications for the piece, but I believe the play was thoughtful and powerful.

  17. This discussion reminds me a lot of the one started by Ellen Wittlinger's article in the Horn Book about the Lambda Award submission rule changes.

    Brent Hartinger elaborates here, and on page 2 you will find comments of various opinions.

    Interesting discussion!

  18. I believe it is egotistical for those writers to assume they can write a whole script based on their own limited perspectives.

    We need to be respectful of each other. How can we bridge the gap if white Americans continue to profit on the muse of the African American? In the past we stole their music and inventions without giving credit or royalties, and now we steal the stories too.

    It is disrespectful not have a black writer on board because there has to be a basis for the truth. Otherwise by playing blind angles the benefit is to those white writers alone.

  19. This continues to be a fascinating discussion. And you're right, Yellow Inkling, it does touch on some of the same issues of the changes in the Lambda Award, which was also interesting. It's also really difficult to dig into these issues with all their complexities in a short post...but I think there's value in trying.

    L.C., I like and appreciate your post. I'm not sure if you were referring to me and my post or just talking in general when you said that talking to one or two friends from whatever culture you're writing about won't cut it in terms of research. I agree and hope I didn't give anyone that impression.

    I'm really grappling with what you say about the use of blackface and all that implies. The show is trying to make the point that minstrel shows and their inherent racism is bad, but I can see how you would still not want to see it. It makes me wonder about a project that was degrading toward women...would I want to see it degrade women even though the ultimate point was to say that degrading women is bad? I don't know. I don't know if this makes sense, but I want you to know I appreciate you and everyone here taking the time to post, to share their thoughts and feelings.

    Michelle, I also think you make some good points. But when you say "it's disrespectful not to have a black writer on board because there has to be a basis for the truth," that's assuming that ANY black writer could fit the bill, would be better than a white writer when writing the truth of this historical time, and I just don't believe that's true.

    Do I believe that African-American writers should have been involved in the play and could bring a different--and critically important perspective? Yes, especially if you get the right African-American writers. And the right white writers, of course. What I'm trying to say is that we are not interchangeable cogs. We are distinct individuals with distinct knowledge and characteristics, we are the sum of our parts.

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