WRITING RACE by Laurel S. Peterson
First of all, thanks, Debra, for having me on It’s Not Always a Mystery. I’m delighted to be here and to share some thoughts today on writing race. My mystery novel series, Shadow Notes and The Fallen (Woodhall Press), features a white amateur detective protagonist, Clara, who falls in love with her town’s black police chief, Kyle. As I tell my creative writing students, every choice is deliberate, and as a white writer, including a prominent black character was important to me.
We’ve all heard that we should write what we know. I know virtually nothing about what it means to be black in this country, other than what I hear, read, or observe. The first time I was confronted with my whiteness was when I gave a workshop at an all-black bank in Harlem. I was the only white woman in the room, and I realized how ignorant I was. What would it be like to step into that world? For me, writing a black character is about the need to understand.
Clara lives in Fairfield County, Connecticut, one of the wealthiest in the nation. Her inherited wealth has insulated her from racial issues. As well, she spent the last fifteen years in Europe, and only came home because she had a psychic dream predicting her mother was in danger. Kyle is about the only black person in her town, so she doesn’t have to confront his difference because whiteness functions as the norm. However, others demand that she face it: her best friend Bailey, who suggests that Kyle’s culture might be different from hers; and then, Kyle’s family in New Orleans, who is shocked that she’s white. While they are welcoming, she must prove her worth by helping to catch the killer who threatens Kyle.
So why take this challenge on? When I mentioned what I was doing to a group of students at the community college where I teach, one girl asked, “What makes you think you know [about the black experience]?” I said I didn’t know but wanted to find out and to understand. Writing was my way of doing that.
Observation and listening help—especially listening to students of color and people in my community, but also to writers who are tackling race issues, including Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Just Us, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and Danez Smith’s Homie. I’ve long read poets, including Audre Lorde, Tracy K. Smith, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton. These provocative voices force their readers to rethink the space they take in the world.
The profoundly imaginative work of writing gives me the opportunity to explore those challenges on the page and hopefully opens me to experiences that make me more sensitive to the challenges of others. How about you? What’s your take on writing characters of other cultures and races? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Find me at https://laurelpeterson.com/; on Twitter and Instagram: @laurelwriter49 and on Facebook: @LaurelPetersonwriter. Thanks so much for dropping by.
My books are available on Amazon: Shadow Notes (book #1) and The Fallen (book #2).
5 thoughts on “WRITING RACE”
Excellent article. Observation, listening, and sensitivity are so important.
Teresa, thanks for stopping by today. Those things are important … as are getting it right and not offending.
I write mostly non-fiction on the U.S. civil rights movement. I am sometimes surprised to find out that my subjects are a different race than I originally assumed. To be historically accurate and relevant, I should include as many different backgrounds as possible, to allow readers access to as rich a an account as possible. Clifford Geertz used the phrase “thick description.” Fiction must be a little different, but perhaps not too much.
Thanks, I agree. And it’s not always easy to do. There is so much tension around these issues that it can be hard to hear. Thanks so much for stopping by!
Hey there! thanks for coming by. I think that’s an interesting distinction. Fiction writers have gotten in substantial trouble in recent years for cultural appropriation. At least the term has been thrown around a lot. See the controversy surrounding Lionel Shriver: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/books/lionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html. For a political historian, I would imagine that its inclusivity that matters, but in fiction it’s a kind of truth-telling. And how can a white writer tell the truth of a black experience? That’s the challenge.