Blog

Why Caleb, Now?

I just posted the first episodes of a new novel, CALEB IN MINOR KEY, at Radish Fiction, a place where writers post new works for free as well as for a small fee.

I’m excited. But I’m also nervous. Caleb is biracial.

Here’s the book blurb:

All Caleb wants to do is rule the world with music, but he’s torn between warring parents. Should he stay with chaotic Dad, fight it out in a racist small town, and come up hard like his idols? Or is it time to move in with controlling Mom and try a rich college town where there’s a chance at fame?

There were other titles for this blog post, such as “What White People Must Do/Must Not Do” and “I Wake Up White Sometimes, But Rarely.” Or, “What Do I Get to Write, and Why?”

Why write a biracial male character when I’m a white female whose ancestors are Italian, German Swiss, and Scottish?

  • Because I heard Caleb’s voice and saw him with his dad. And that meant in my world, the story had to start. The white redneck father in a small town, the black lawyer mom in suburbia, two different locations and racism in both, struggle in all for Caleb. And through at all, a young man’s search for identity through his music. (Some argue that some white authors are trying diverse characters to be trendy. I’m writing a unique individual who’s occupied my head. I’ve written diverse characters in my books since the early ’90s–not as types, not to fill a space or requirement, but because they live and breathe just like my white ones. They exist, they are, they demand to be heard. A feverish and demanding place, the writer’s imagination!)

    Caleb in Minor Key

  • Because I refuse to write an Anywhere, USA, default-white landscape. I’ve read a number of YA books where one has to assume a character is “white unless otherwise specified.” I hate that. Not sure who lives in that world, but it’s not me. We need diverse books written by everyone. White people do not get to sit back and write only white characters and assume that’s the best or safest route.
  • Because racial injustice makes us all sick, and it needs to be openly dealt with via art, conversation, and honest dialogue. Everyone has a role in making our society well.
  • Because Radish is a serial fiction platform where fans of my other work or new readers can access Caleb’s story for free. (Some argue that if I publish this book in traditional or indie channels, I’ll take someone else’s place at the table in a historically white industry. Radish is application-based but doesn’t offer a severely limited number of seats like traditional American publishing. And if the last ten years of indie publications have shown us anything, it’s that many have chosen not to attempt the narrow pipeline, which can sometimes squeeze out meritorious books, while putting harsh rules on talented folk of all backgrounds.)
  • Because I need to grow. Radish is a place where readers can experience Caleb and tell me what’s working and what’s not. If they feel like it. Or not. Either way, I’ve hired a sensitivity reader, and I remain open to helpful feedback if people have the time and interest. (Some argue that certain whites demand that people of color “fix” their writing for them, which is so strange to me. I don’t expect anyone who’s not expressly hired in this capacity to step up and assist me just because they represent a certain demographic. I welcome helpful critique, but I don’t require or expect it, from anyone.)
  • Because what we call white or black or any other color denies the multi-faceted, colorful rainbow of personality.  Each person I write aims to surprise. If all my characters, whatever demographic they might represent, are so individual that they can rise above their labels, then I’ve succeeded. Does my queer teen girl obsessed with Christiane Amanpour, does my German-Russian immigrant grandmother, does my South Carolina-born-and-bred bluegrass redneck talent leap from the page, just like Caleb? Then let Caleb be his own strange and wonderful self among these white folk.
  • Because I’m the only one who knows exactly what I’ve lived, who I’ve known, and what I know now. Or how I came to know it. Some may look at my picture and think they know exactly how my life has gone. Thanks for playing, but you don’t know. And if I do this novel well, those ready to judge need to trust that I got my information from living some interesting life and knowing a whole range of people who make my life rich.
  • Because my story is an entire work, not one line on a page. If someone says to me, “But you can’t write that,” then I sincerely hope they’ll follow up with at least one suggestion of what I should write instead. If someone chooses to step out in judgement, then I invite them to see how the person, place, or thing I’m portraying doesn’t exist somehow, somewhere. If my white privilege is showing, I hope they tell me with specifics. I hope they take the story as a whole, because you never know how my Chapter 7 might just balance what you deem a troubling illustration in Chapter 2. Have you seen the entire landscape of people and how my characters evolve? Is there empathy, realism, honesty, and respect for each character? Give the whole book a try before you make a declaration.
  • Because I keep putting myself in places beyond my comfort zone. I read, I hang with people different than me, I travel. Living in California and North Carolina, teaching in several different secondary schools, and traveling a lot of places has taught me that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. It’s a good place to start when writing.
  • Because I’m an artist who walks in others’ shoes. I can’t stop, and I never want to. 

Join me at Radish (download the free app) and then join me at my Facebook page and leave me a comment.

For more meditations on this subject, check out Mary Anne Morhanraj’s post on this subject, or Justine Larbalestier’s post, “How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White.”

Racism Is Over…Right?

What bothered me a bit with the world building was I just felt like the school Wendy attended was racism central. I know that racism is a huge problem is some places, but it just felt a bit over the top in the beginning of the book. Luckily, about a third of the book in, the over the top racism thing stops, and the world building becomes more believable.

— from a review of my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought.

How well did my novel capture race relations in a North Carolina high school? An author can fail at making a setting real or at making readers care about a character’s situation. The reviewer didn’t buy my portrayal of a world where white girls at Wendy’s school would say:

“This place has gone goth, ghetto, and Mexican.”

“I don’t see race. I think the people who always talk about it are the racists.”

Also unbelievable to the reviewer is an English class that would debate whether the n-word should be censored from a Huck Finn text—or debate whether the school itself is racist.DSCF1143

Perhaps the issue is characters talking about race too much. Maybe the reviewer’s point is that racism can be seen and heard but not necessarily discussed with the frankness or detail my novel uses.

Perhaps the issue is subtlety. The argument this reviewer makes against my fictional school, “racism central,” is that I should have captured the more subtle ways racism plays out.

But is it subtle if it’s your race that feels the discrimination? I’ve had few experiences with prejudice, and 99% of the time, it’s not been because I’m white.

Read Chapter 2 of my novel and see what you think.

Then ask yourself: What was the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of honors classes at your high school? What happened in your class when you talked about any literature where race relations were depicted? Which authors did you read in English class?

Who got suspended at your high school? Was it a mix of genders, races, and economic classes, or did it tend to be certain groups?

I wonder where this reviewer grew up and the demographics of the community. I wonder if there are any schools in the area that are desegregated but not integrated, where “separate but equal” lives on in its 2014 manifestation. Many schools are no longer Little Rock’s Central High School of the 1950s, but listen to today’s Central High students speak on the lack of integration:

Nearly Six Decades Later, Integration Remains a Work in Progress

A black side and white side of the cafeteria. If we aren’t truly integrated yet, what is the work left to be done?

When I read a book that touches on race, I might find my critique saying, Dear Author, Racism is still a real issue. Please render it more believably. I’m less likely to say, Racism is over. Please let’s talk about something else.

I see racism every day. Any racism is “over the top” to me. And as easily as we want to wish away a book’s portrayal of social injustice, I also wish it could stop so easily in real life.

Obama’s election didn’t solve racial hatred or resentment. It didn’t stop the fact that your grandparents survived Jim Crow or your grandparents helped keep it alive. It doesn’t change the fact that some institutions, run by certain cultures and genders, keep certain myths and prejudices alive. I’ve seen racism in my workplaces—white people confusing black people with one another, faces I can’t imagine could ever be confused. I’ve heard patronizing statements or questions asked about the education and competency of people of color, despite an excellent track record of performance. I’ve seen people make decisions–I’ve helped make decisions–that are ignorant of certain constituencies needs because I assume every grew up and thought like middle-class, white me.

Even last night’s playoff footage–the interview between black Richard Sherman and white Erin Andrews–can’t be seen without the racial lens all Americans bring. Why else would Twitter go wild with such racially-laden language that Erin Andrews had to step up and tone things down? Perhaps we could talk about football and sportsmanship only…but we can’t, because this is America, and we have a racial history in all things. I like how blogger Tommy Tomlinson takes a wider, athletic view of the landscape as he discusses the behavior–and context–of Richard Sherman, my fellow Stanford grad.

These small stresses every day—what is the long-term impact of these judgments and barriers on people reminded daily they wake up black or brown or yellow, not white? Does it become “over the top” after years of facing different treatment? I can look at the rate of heart disease in some communities and wonder how those trends happen. Is it purely genetics? 

The point is to ask.

Acknowledging white privilege is not about browbeating whites or white people’s self-flagellation. It’s not about lumping all whites into one box. As a grandchild of immigrants who struggled hard to survive in the United States, who escaped war and privation to reinvent themselves here, I have some opportunity for sympathy, to better understand stories of those families who had fewer choices or life-and-death choices. (You can read about Katherine Schlegel Fuoco, my grandmother, here.) I don’t empathize with enslavement, but I can try to imagine. Acknowledging both the points of commonality and the points of difference is where I can begin. I can face facts of my ancestral privilege and wonder why.

A white person’s job isn’t to sound the gong of how horrible whites are. My job is to resist prejudicial habits and grow sensitivity and empathy. It’s my job to examine the tape of judgment playing in my head when I recoil at something, feel superior to anyone with what King called “the drum major instinct,” or want to separate people into categories. Ask why, right away, and wonder if my judgments are sound. Ask if I would treat someone of a different gender or race or sexual orientation differently in this same case. Ask. Think. That’s a start.

Racism is over, right?

Racism is over? Right on. Thank you, Dr. King, for articulating so well that dream we pray one day shall come to be, this dream that needs time, love, and labor still.

See my other posts on the topic of race relations in America.

Thoughts on Seeing Dr. King’s Memorial

My Grandma is a Racist?

How The Help Helps