Race in Fiction

Questions of Race

Questions of race have been paramount in the news this year, yet “race” is a term which is difficult to define. Nina Joblonski, an anthropologist and palaeobiologist at The State University of Pennsylvania, told Live Science (2/08/2020) that “If you take a group of 1000 people from the recognized ‘races’ of modern people, you would find a lot of variation within each group…the amount of genetic variation within these groups is greater than the average difference between any of the two [racial] groups…there are no genes that are unique to any particular race.” Thus, the term has practically no meaning yet many repercussions. Academically, race is viewed as a social construct meaning essentially a term that a social group has created to refer to a subgroup. Color and skin tone are usually involved in the construction of race. Economics plays a role. A major factor in the construction of race in America is neighborhoods.

Contemporary writers have to master the skills to create characters who ring true yet have different ethnicities, languages, cultures, and skin tones. They can draw on their own experiences, on models used by other writers, and from reading widely. As I have thought about using different races in my own fiction, I have have recalled various significant experiences in my own life.

Experiencing Race

I remember my daughter, who has the same hair color, skin color, and eye color as Elizabeth Taylor, coming home from kindergarten one day crying because she didn’t have blond hair and blue eyes like the other girls. Later she was happy when a little girl who looked like her joined the group. She was even happier when, upon her request, I placed her in a grade school which served the University community. Classrooms were filled with multi-national, multi-lingual, and multi-skin tone students. One day I when I picked her up at the new school, she came across the playground with six other little girls. They had their arms around each other. They all had shoulder-length dark hair. Yet each of their little faces belied different genetic heritages: Asian, Native American, Hispanic, and European. When she got in the car I asked, “How do you like being with other dark-haired girls?” “I love it!” she answered.

My daughter grew up to marry into a French-Malagasy family. They live in Madagascar. Their children have skin tones the color of coffee with cream. When you ask them what nationality they are they respond: American, French, and Malagasy—in three different languages. In school, they are learning to read and write in Malagasy. People who don’t know them often call them “vazaha” which means stranger, implying that they are not Malagasy. The term “vazaha” also means “light-skinned.” Interestingly, when a dark-skinned “vazaha” is encountered, the Malagasy modify the term to “vazaha tsy fotsy” or “not white stranger.”

Once I attended a conference in China. I was surprised to learn that China has more than 50 minority groups. In a group discussion some of the minority women discussed the issues minorities were experiencing there. It was difficult for me to distinguish between them and those who belonged to the majority. I, on the other hand, was definitely a minority in the room. Several times when I was walking alone in a garden our group visited, I had people come up and stare into my eyes, boldly asking if they could take a picture of me. To this day, I chuckle when I envision a photo of me, the strange foreigner with aquamarine blue eyes, posted on someone’s bulletin board in a suburb of Beijing.

Approaches to Race in Fiction

Well-known authors have been speaking out about racial issues for many years in the USA. To help myself conceptualize how to write about race in my own novels, I have been reading many good books that integrate issues of race and culture in starkly different ways. Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, who started the Dorothy Parker Society in 1992, collected Parker’s columns on the theatre in New York City in Dorothy Parker: Complete Broadway, 1918–1925. In the acknowledgment section of the book, Fitzpatrick thanks the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People “for its care and attention to” Parker’s estate. Parker, who was White, supported the Black theatres of the time. She was outspoken in her critique of White actors performing as Blacks, especially when they wore “Black Face.”

Toni Morrison pointed out in an interview with The Guardian that race and racism are both social constructs. She emphasized that “Black” and “White” are also social constructs. She made it clear that the only race is the human race. In her work, she approaches race in a theatrical, almost Biblical, voice. Her characters are portraits of extraordinarily idiosyncratic individuals who leap off the page and live in your memory forever.

In Lost and Wanted (2019), Nell Freudenberger portrays two women who studied together at college. One of the friends is alive and the other is dead. The living White woman is a professor of physics. Her friend, who has recently died, was an upper-class Black woman who was a writer in Hollywood. Freudenberger barely highlights her blackness. It is simply one of her characteristics, her lupus and her early death being of more importance. Neither does she go into detail about the White woman’s appearance, rather her passion for physics is her defining characteristic. Freudenberger does touch on some of the tricky shoals that the pair had to navigate in their academic life that were rooted in racism and sexism.

Angie Thomas wrote The Hate U Give (2017) in response to the deaths of Black American children at the hands of the police. In a video interview at Politics and Prose, Thomas said that her novel was designed to elicit empathy not sympathy. Thomas is effective at breaking down stereotypes of inner-city Black Americans and unmasking the invidious racism of White Americans, even those in high school. Her main character, Starr, reflects on how she has to shift her language and behaviors when her parents enroll her in a predominantly White high school across town. When she finds her own voice, she becomes a social activist. Thomas portrays the Black community through the lens of Black musicians, slang, the stress of poverty, and the freedom of a well-paid job. It is an excellent portrayal of contemporary American neighborhoods and the impact they have on individuals’ lives.

In Parable of the Sower (1993), Octavia Butler takes a slightly different approach to race. She rarely points it out. Once in a while she refers directly to skin color. Butler deliberately integrates human beings—Black, Hispanic, Asian, and White—into the Parable sequence, often in multiracial marriages. Her main character, Lauren Olamina, has a mixed name. Butler chose the name “Lauren” because it can be masculine or feminine, allowing the young woman character to pass as a young man at one point in the novel. Butler used the fact that some Black Americans in the 1960’s adopted African surnames to replace the names of former slave owners. “Olamina” is a Yoruba name that means “this is my wealth” and also refers to spiritual leaders, which Olamina becomes in the sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998).

Thinking About the Depiction of Race

At this point only one of my draft novels has characters of different races built into the story from the outset. My depiction parallels individuals I have known personally, although none of my characters represents a specific person I have known. Fortunately, university environments in my lifetime have included individuals of all skin tones and many nationalities. I’m glad I have this direct experience to guide me as I place my characters into scenes.

Additionally, I have attended several workshops with the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conferences on depicting race in fiction. In her 2019 workshop, Making Minority Characters Seem Real Rather Than Stereotypic Caricatures, Brenda M. Hardwick, a Black author from Denver, said, “Don’t use stereotypes. Write about people as they are.” I think this is good advice. The works of many great writers demonstrate that readers can slip under the skin of any character.

My Personal Republic of the Imagination

To recall my last blog, my republic of the imagination is one where authenticity reigns. My personal reading list displays a long history of reading novels written by writers of different backgrounds. When I read Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I ached for the love of a young lover just as Janie did.  Han Suyin’s Crippled Tree made me cry. Reading Maryse Condé’s Segu, I suffered the horror of the voyage on the slave ship from Africa as painfully as the young African prince in chains. When I read Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, I recognized that the indignities suffered by women 1000 years ago are just as real today. How the Garcia Sisters Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez, made me recall issues with my own sisters. When I read, Julie and the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, I learned from the brave Inuit girl in the story how to survive alone in the cold. I understood the issues faced by homosexual men better when I read Less by Andrew Sean Greer. My life is richer because of the diversity of authors I read. My empathy for characters and the human beings around me arises from who they are rather than from the shade of their skin tone, the color of their eyes, or the neighborhood they inhabit.

Race in My Own Fiction

One of my novels portrays a broad diversity of characters because it takes place in a university town. The specific time in US history provides the opportunity to include aspects of racial issues. I began the other two novels originally with only White characters, partially because of where they take place, but also because I was focused on the story and didn’t consider how I might write in characters of color. Both take place in Colorado in eras that I used to think had few Blacks, but a recent book, Remembering Lucile, by a friend of mine, Polly E. Bugros McLean, clearly demonstrates how strong the Black community in Colorado has always been. Since my second novel is still in draft stage, I plan to add secondary characters to broaden the verisimilitude of the story. My third novel takes place in a mining town in Colorado, so I will be able to add secondary characters. After all, a diversity of individuals flooded to mining towns in search of prosperity.

Heartfelt stories are the ones that keep me reading. My goal is to write novels that will tug at the heart and soul of readers regardless of their birth status. In my mind, fiction has the ability to unite readers and protagonists just as effectively as modern-day virtual reality headsets designed to help the wearer experience the world kinesthetically.

Writing Goals for 2020

Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

This month for my first novel, I researched more specific details about the main character’s chosen path.

For my second novel, I researched more about the time period.

Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020, by participating in the RMFW Novelrama:

For my third novel, which I drafted during the NovelRamas this year, I added a subtext of spirituality, created a new character, and compared my characters to a list of seven causes for all human reactions. It was an interesting comparison because each one matched a different item on the list. These additions benefited from the research I was doing on my other two novels.

Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is November 7, 2020, I am posting my eleventh blog of 2020. This month I have felt very scattered. Writing my blog calms me down. The news of Biden’s election today made me happy. Friends from around the world messaged me with photos of celebrations in their countries. Bells were ringing in Paris and London. In Ireland a famous tower was illuminated by a green spotlight. In Chile, friends were hoping for a similar change in government. In Madagascar, friends and family were dancing.

Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

As Vice President of Boulder Writers Alliance this past month, I participated in a Steering Committee meeting, drafted an Excel spreadsheet of tasks for the Steering Committee members, and wrote the minutes.

In Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group, we discussed Weather (2020) by Jenny Offill. Written in first person, it details the narrator’s response to environmental changes. Sadly, one of our long-time members died this week from COVID-19. May Stephanie’s memory be a blessing.

As a member of the Denver Women’s Press Club, I zoomed into a Sunday Salon. Kathryn Wynograd presented a superb workshop on Creating the Braided Essay.

This week, I looked up Brenda M. Hardwick (a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers) on the internet. I was pleased to see that Janine Bolon had interviewed Brenda on The Writers Hour: Creative Conversations. Brenda discussed her latest book, Allowing the Magic, Allowing the Miracles.

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