Writing black and white people, men and women, good and bad.
This is a rewrite of post on Marginal Scribbling that contains some complicated ideas that need thrashing out with other writers and readers. I intended to repost this anyway but it seemed more relevant after the launch of my novel The Tin Heart Gold Mine because I was asked by Nick Inman how I, as a white writer, wrote Black or African characters. My original post, written in response to a Thought Leader article in the South African Mail and Guardian, raised some of the issues around that question but the answers aren’t straightforward. It’s true to say that I hesitated at first about writing about black characters out of personal and political sensitivities and experiences. I then decided that even if the plot was about skin colour or racism, I was writing about people first and what they think and feel, so I simply went ahead.
Is White Writing wrong?
The South African writers who inspired me to write questioned racism and white superiority, Alan Paton, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and J M Coetzee, opened doors onto new perceptions and empathies. They continue to illuminate the road to change. They were writers, not white writers.
The world, however, has changed enormously since the end of apartheid. Identity politics concern us and I too have to ask myself who I am and who I am writing about. Writers who write about people different from themselves are questioned as to their motivation and authority. That may be as it should be. We want to hear an authentic voice. Do we also want to prescribe limits to a writer’s imaginative and creative abilities?
Somerset Maugham says
Well, by an ironic coincidence, my latest book club read is The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. Maugham, the novelist, is a character in his own book but says he can’t write American characters because they are foreign to him and therefore known only from observation. “You can only know them if you have lived them . . . if you are them.”1 In his view, even Henry James failed to create an Englishman after living in England 40 years. I have also heard arguments that a man can’t create a realistic woman and vice versa but in today’s world is it possible to leave out one gender completely or write a book in which there are not people of different skin colours?
If writers don’t make their intuitive leaps into other states of being and other worlds then we’ll never understand each other. There will be no future Charles Dickens, no future William Shakespeare, absolutely no future science fiction or fantasy and a future Ursula le Guin will not be able to imagine a world where there is no racism or sexism. Autobiography might be the only acceptable literature or perhaps there would be a cultural apartheid where writers and books only served their own communities.
Western culture and society have legislated for racial and sexual equality but not yet achieved it. There is a vociferous debate about how privilege is maintained and what part literature plays. To avoid offending anyone the safest position to adopt would be not to write and not to speak but to hide one’s thoughts. The result of that stance would be not to learn, not to adapt, not to develop ideas and not to hope to change the world. Writers must write, thinkers think and speakers speak out for their beliefs.
Good books have been written about Africa by writers who were not African. John Le Carré wrote two books set in Africa, The Constant Gardener and The Mission Song. Barbara Kingsolver wrote The Poisonwood Bible. Should a literary version of the Bechdel Test for movies be applied to these books? For example the number of black protagonists who are not servants, the ratio of main black characters to main white characters, even the blackness and cultural authenticity of the characters. Would black writers have to have the same questions asked of their books? The Bechdel Test fails movies where female characters are objectified or reduced to stereotypes. Literature is rated by fully drawn characters, good plots and good writing.
Good writers do not write to a dictated political formula.
Good writing may, however, be political.
These are the questions I have to ask myself:
How am I to write today? What am I to write about? Who am I to write about? What am I? What kind of writer am I?
Writers should write about what they know – that is true – but how do we know what we know?
A note on my painting of The African Garden. It can be read simply as a painting of an African garden. It can be read as a study of the contrast of strong light on black skins and the shadows on white skins. It can be read as a political painting. How do you see it?