When I was in college, I began the first book of my sci-fi fantasy series; at the same time, one of my professors was in the middle of writing her own novel. With her background in cross-cultural studies, though, her characters represented a very different demographic than mine, and it worried me. I wasn’t trying to avoid any kind of ethnic minorities: I had characters with the fantasy equivalent of French, Indian, and Spanish backgrounds, but none of them were black.
I have nothing against people of any skin color. Growing up, I had friends and acquaintances who were black, and it was no different than having friends who were blond or red-heads. I didn’t think racially, and I still don’t. In fact, I recently walked into the middle of the movie 42, at the part where they are playing baseball in the south…but I didn’t know it. I knew the film would deal with racial segregation, but because I was jumping in the middle of it, I wasn’t thinking that way, so when Jackie Robinson somewhat collided with the catcher, and a colonel told him to get out of the game, I assumed that the colonel was on his side and that he wanted Robinson to get out of the game before the umpire kicked him out for his exuberance. I figured it must have been illegal to contact the catcher as much as he had and that he was more competitive than was permissible. When the colonel said he wanted Robinson out because of his skin color, I was appalled. Here was one of the great players of the sports being slighted for nothing more than how he looked. I knew it had happened, mentally, but seeing it was quite a different thing.
And I realized why there is no such a thing as an Equal Opportunity Novelist. Unless we have researched another culture or subculture, we just don’t know enough about them to do them justice. If we have close friends or do our homework, then perhaps we can write about them, but without insight into their culture—the way they think, what they like to wear, how they feel—we cannot accurately represent them.
This isn’t any different than writing historical fiction or fantasy. If you don’t spend enough time getting to know the world you are writing in, your story will be fake. People who know that world will see through all its flaws, and people who try to enter the world will face hurdles. It’s the same way for those in an ethnic minority in writing about people like me: White, Anglo-Saxon, Americans for generations (on one side, at least). They won’t naturally think like me, just as I won’t naturally think like them. It isn’t that one way of thinking is better than another; it’s just that they are different.
At this point in time, I cannot write a black character as a main character with accuracy because I don’t know them well enough. I’ve never had any close black friends; I don’t know how you think, what you like or dislike (I’m not even sure if you all prefer the term “black” or “African-American” or something else entirely.) I’ve had friends from a variety of minorities, and I’m very interested in how people think, in what makes us different and what traits we share, but my natural bent in reading and writing is towards English literature and characters with a European backgrounds. That’s who I am, and those are the stories I write.
And I don’t think it’s a bad thing anymore. I used to worry about it, because it meant the fantasy stories I created would fail to represent a good portion of their world population. They surely have blacks; I just don’t write about them much. But there is nothing wrong with that. I have to write the world as I know it, and I don’t know their world. Black authors who feel inspired to do so, as my professor in college was, will write their stories, with characters of their ethnicity, far better than I ever could.
All I have to do is write my stories. I don’t know what it’s like to walk around in their skin, but they can tell me. The greatest distance in the world is from seeing through my eyes to seeing through someone else’s, and that is what novelists do. And they do this best when they write what they know.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren