Remember Black History Month back in February? Yeah, I didn’t either. Sadly, my observance of the month has faded along with Kwanzaa, which my family never really celebrated anyway (in fact, it never even entered our heads to celebrate it). I do have fond memories of all the stuff we had to learn during Black History Month, and I’m a little sad that Daniel won’t have that same experience, not unless we send him to an all black school (and to be honest, I want him to be exposed to many different cultures, not just white and black).
That all said, this past March has been interesting. It feels like I’ve spent the entire month not just discussing multi-ethnic matters, but reconciling on how that applies to me as a black writer.
In the past, I really struggled on what made me a black person other than just color. I didn’t act like a "typical" black person; in fact, as a kid, I caught a lot of flack from other black people because I "acted white". I spoke proper. Always had my head in a book. Wasn’t very interested in singing or dance groups. In high school and college, I got to hear all the fun names that goes along struggling with black identity—like oreo or zebra. Fun, fun times. See, this is why I don’t like thinking about high school days.
It got to the point where I felt more "black" among my white friends than I did with other blacks. So I hung out with whites more. It was where I felt the most comfortable. The way I figured it,
Now, fast forward to this past March. I’m attending our Wiscon Book Club, Beer and Marmalade, and one of the things we decide to talk about was a racism discussion that’s been happening on LiveJournal appropriately called "RaceFail 2009". I’m not going to spell out the whole history of that; clicking on the link would give you an idea, although you can get a more detailed history of the whole mess at Ann Somerville’s LiveJournal. But anyway—I didn’t really want to do it, as any discussion about race makes me highly uncomfortable. But I dutifully read some of the essays out there, and I came across this post "We worry about it Too".
That essay hit a strong nerve with me.
You see, when I started writing, I had prided myself on being a ‘black’ writer of speculative fantasy. I figured it would make me stand out more, especially since I was writing a fantasy novel that contained black characters in it. Heck, it had a black woman who was a main character. But when I first wrote Willow, she wasn’t the main protagonist. The young man she protects, the white male, he was the protagonist. Most of the book was written from his point of view, as well as several others who were white.
I once took a draft of Willow’s Synopsis to an agent at the Midwest Writer’s Conference a while back. One of the things she said was, "It looks like the female character is stronger than the male. Why isn’t this in her point of view?" And I just stared at her, because 1) it didn’t really occur to me to write in the black female’s point of view, and 2) deep down, it scared me. Who was I, a black woman, mind you, to know what an actual black woman felt like?
(And yes, I know most of my short stories have black characters as the main protagonist—but it’s different when you write sci/fi or plain speculative, because it’s easier to picture black people in the future. But in fantasy? Most are set within Eurocentric settings; any black people would be relegated to an African tribal status.)
My sister, who has a LiveJournal of her own, puts it down the best way when it comes to her writing fanfiction: "I write about white characters because that’s what I read when I grew up." I’m the exact same way. I’ve grown so used to seeing white males in fantasy that when I started writing a fantasy novel, it was easy to fall into that same line of thinking.
My realization about my main characters came before I read that essay by Nojojojo, of course. But the timing couldn’t have been better. Because I read it just when I started my second rewrite of Willow’s prologue. And it made me seriously think. Am I writing from this character’s POV because it’s what I’m used to, or should I write from this other character to give him/her more of a voice in the book?
It’s a hard thing to juggle, but I’ve rewritten the prologue and chapter 1 of Willow, and I think that so far, both have come out a lot stronger. I’m eager to see this novel through Coren’s eyes. It’s risky, but it’s also very exciting.
That’s how I feel about this whole RaceFail thing. Sure, a lot of people on both sides have vented and/or said very stupid things (I almost don’t read comments anymore), but some very insightful and deep discussion has come because of this. And there are attempts to further the conversation. Wiscon will be holding its first Cultural Appropriation Class (I mentioned this in my last post), and luckily, I’ll be able to attend that. There’s also been a great promotion to read more fantasy and sci/fi by people of color, which I highly, highly recommend (and I’ve started doing myself). There’s also a new small press in the works called Verb Noire who caters specifically to people of color in the scifi/fantasy community. Worth checking out.
This is probably the best time to be a black speculative fiction writer. We’re forging into new territory here. It’s scary, risky and it’s never really been done before. But it’s long overdue. And I think this whole experience is helping to strengthen my own identity as a black writer. For the first time, I can own up to that and really feel like I mean it, instead of feeling like some imposter.
Of course, my hubby would suggest that’s because inside of me there’s a Japanese girl perpetually stuck at age thirteen, but that’s not true. She’s sixteen. That’s a world of difference.