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.”

What It Means to Stay Awake

What It Means to Stay Awake

As a white girl riding on a whole lot of privilege, I sometimes come late to the party of awareness. I get some curiosity, learn something, then try to join the mission. One that might not be mine and may have been a Movement long before I decided to head to Washington last Saturday.

#StayWoke has been around a while but I just happened to notice it last year. #StayWoke wasn’t my hashtag in 2008 when Erykah Badu said it first. It wasn’t mine when Black Lives Matter spread it in 2013. Nor is it part of my sarcastic repartee with others when some people use it now for mundane moments. Check out Charles’ Pulliam’s history of the term.

So I don’t think I can start using it today in 2017 and somehow be hip, be with it, join the crowd I think might find me a little bit more of a member for knowing it.

Seen at the Women’s March. Photo by Lyn Fairchild Hawks.

This is not political correctness but just basic respect. Who said it first? Why’d they say it? How’s it said now? Know the history.

Years ago I spent a week of my teacher summer in Jackson, Mississippi, learning about The Movement and how to teach civil rights history. I learned so much. And one of the first messages was “Um, the Movement was a round a long time before Rosa sat down and Martin stood up.”

Ask. Learn. My new habit of mind for 2017 is Fill my daily life with questions. About people’s interests, actions, days. About the issues and events around me. Read and ask. Then read some more.

 Tell me more about that thing you love.

Tell me how you came to believe that.

What is the source? How do you know?

What are several other sources saying?

How can I help?

How was your day?

The other habits of mind will flow from this behavior. If you ask, and then you know, you might just act. With some wisdom about which actions might actually get results.

Just because I heard it/saw it/now you know it doesn’t mean it’s mine. Step carefully. Listen. To what others have to say. And instead of chattering, act on the sentiment. I can let the heart speak through the action.

Actions like these.

It’s not lost on me that “stay woke” sounds so much better than stay awake. Rhythm and cadence; speech that punches and stays. It’s why America adores black culture. Then borrows, co-opts, appropriates, plagiarizes, steals so much of it with an airy blitheness, blindness, and greed that can’t be denied.

Even up to the work of the First Lady. I’m waiting for the new one to steal “When they go low, we go high” for her anti-bullying campaign.

The time is gone for saying “Obama’s got this” and ignoring the hate and harm that Republicans like Mitch McConnell have perpetrated on this country with their blockades, their denials, their destruction. All the while Obama fought, I stayed quiet and restful, sleeping my days away. McConnell and Ryan and their compatriots, the You Lie Boys of Joe Wilson ilk, they’ve now been given all the keys to the kingdom, and it is white privilege at its worst.

Curiosity, research, awareness. New daily practice. For everyone I encounter. This goes for Trump supporters, too, by the way. They aren’t monolithic. Even as some of them—not all of them—but some of them treat others as subhuman, we must remember this. Because they, some of who claim to follow Christ, are not representing Christ well. Jesus listened. Jesus hung with everybody. Jesus said, Love everyone. #notalternativefacts

The new America I must awaken to help build has space for everyone, someone. Unless you belong to what Aziz Ansari calls “the lower case kkk.” That will be not be tolerated.

The walk of empathy is part of the decision to wake up white every morning to my privilege. To wake up middle class. To wake up healthy and physically able, with health care. To wake up educated. To wake up supported by a network of family and friends.

Rest when you can for the next four years. But stay awake, Lyn. Stay awake.

 

Why I Am Sad. Angry. Afraid.

Because my friend’s daughter just asked, “Will boys and men think it’s okay now to assault me?”

Because one of my husband’s friends was assaulted yesterday by a man on the streets of Raleigh, who did exactly what our President Elect said he can do with impunity.

Because my gay friend wept this week, wondering if she and those she loves will be safe.

Because my colleague just said, “I’m getting myself ready to be referred to as one of ‘The Blacks’ for four years.”nerve-pitmad-straight

Because her friend in Asheville was just followed by a man at the Wal-Mart demanding to know who she voted for, and when she said, “Not Trump,” he followed her to her car.

Because I am finally understanding with my own fears a small part of the fear and trepidation that one of my black friends describes as daily life for her and her son profiled by the police. Now I get a police state in a whole new way.

Because of my former students who are black and brown and Asian and gay and Muslim and beautiful; because of all the girls and women and boys and men I know who are survivors of sexual assault. Because of two students who I just learned committed suicide because they were not welcome in this world.

Because I just finished a YA novel about a girl afraid to come out, whose friend gets assaulted at a party and then slut shamed by the school community, and who wonders if as a teen journalist she should go the TMZ or NYT route.

Because I’m working on a new novel about extreme narcissism and how its reach is wide and lethal.

Because. Because. Because.

How Much Reality Can I Take?

Note: Some of this post is adapted from “How Much Reality Can I Take,” posted originally on April 16, 2011.

“Time for another sweeping generalization: YA novels will end with more connections (new ones or healed ones) than disconnections. And most certainly, the book’s major relationships will not be left disconnected.….that teen reader is delivered to an emotionally safe landing place. The assurance that there will be such a landing place represents the line between YA and adult literary fiction.”

– Marsha Qualey, “Real or Imagined: The Line between Young Adult, Crossover, and Adult Fiction”

By page 24 of the YA novel Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters, we learn that the protagonist, Johanna, has lost her mother, has been abandoned by her sister, has been assaulted by a mentally disabled boy at school, and has a crush on a decidedly violent girl named Reeve. Oh, and did I mention that Johanna works for hospice?

On page 24, I had to put the book down. And ask myself: In my fiction, how much reality can I take?HWRDSTDAON 300x200

When I pick up novels, I need a coherent story woven to produce meaning. I don’t turn to narrative for a “here’s what’s happening” reflection of reality, the fact that life is terrible sometimes or all the time. There is plenty of hell on earth to go around–disconnection, as Qualey calls it, abandonment, and abuse. Johanna of Rage connects with no one, really, in these first pages and is pretty much abandoned or ignored by everyone. She also shows no signs of conscience or love. Her actions are based on either fear and lust.

This doesn’t mean Johanna won’t find parts of her best self beyond page 24. I just wasn’t willing to wait around for a sign.

By page 24 of my YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, we’ve seen Wendy at age 15 ripped from her home to a new state, furious with her narcissistic mother, and bullied by a Mean Girl. Enough bad things happen that a writing partner told me at one point during the drafting process, “I just want to see Wendy happy.”

I understood what she meant. I answered this concern by showing Wendy passionate about something, which led to new chapter where Wendy struts down a school hallway with her life soundtrack blaring, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Wendy’s not doing cartwheels of delight, but she’s empowered and she’s inspired, enough to take on the Mean Girl.  I also revised to introduce two other teens, Tanay and Andrew, who reach out to Wendy and show an interest. It’s not happy-happy-joy-joy portrayal of life, but, there’s some hope for real relationship.

Is that enough light to balance the darkness? I like to think so.

I’m a huge fan of The Wire, The Killing, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and House of Cards. I willingly follow gruesome mafia killings, sociopathic politicians, and desperate drug deals. I do avert my eyes, I do gasp in horror, and I do think about these situations long after the credits roll. Why? In each of these stories, someone has hope, faith, or ambition to change something. The characters grow, they face consequences of their actions, and they struggle to find meaning. Even the sociopaths get their due; no one escapes unscathed. 

Officer McNulty of The Wire strives to be “natural police,” and Bunk and other cops rise to the occasion alongside him. In Episode 4 of Season 1, McNulty and Bunk return to an old murder scene, and while cussing colorfully with gruesome images of the murder victim splayed out on kitchen linoleum, garner enough evidence that sloppy police work didn’t recover before. They go back to do a job right, and amidst the graphic horror of things, there is renewal and hope.

Weeds, on the other hand, I had to stop watching. Tell me if you love it and found a moment of redemption; I couldn’t stick around with the careless, flippant, and nihilist lifestyles.

I write about sexual abuse and recovery. I write about racism and adultery and envy and isolation. There are sociopaths, and there are pedophiles. But as I present shades of various hells on earth, I need to know there is love and redemption somewhere in this mess. I need my Wendys to find a reason to keep dancing. 

Nihilism supposes that no one’s looking out for us. No one cares now or later. If the world you write about has no journey towards Good or Right, just photographic rendering of actions, habits, and tendencies, then those readers like me who believe there’s a purpose to our lives may not stay for the rest of the show.

At the end of the movie Immortal Beloved, the young Beethoven races away from home in the middle of the night, having been beaten horribly by his father–so badly, he will one day lose his hearing. The movie imagines young Ludwig diving into a pond and floating, a smile lighting his face as he suddenly sees the glorious array of stars in the pitch-black night. The soundtrack swells with Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, often called “Ode to Joy.” In the midst of great sorrow is respite and healing peace. While his ears ring with pain, the boy still hears the strains of a melody in his head, beauty he will one day create.

We all seek joy, that “bright spark of divinity” Schiller wrote of in his poem “Ode to Joy” and Beethoven set to music. Literature can give us that safe landing space where happiness thrives. Stories can let us trust for at least a moment, perhaps only in our heads, that all is well. 

 How much reality is too much reality in a young adult novel? Let me know your thoughts. 

  • Do you recall reading a book or seeing a film at a young age that marked you for life? (For me it was the amputations in Gone With the Wind; at age seven I was haunted for days by the scene of a solider screaming, “Don’t cut! Don’t cut!”)
  • If you read my Wendy novel, is it “young adult” or better described as “young adult for adults”? At what age would you introduce it to someone, and why? 
  • What young adult books have you read that ride or cross the line? Which ones are “just right”?

Writing Prompts:

Ask these questions of your favorite YA novel:

  • Is there realism?
  • Do characters act “in character” and follow a code of consistency?
  • Is there an arc, or journey, that transforms a character?
  • Do things “fit” together? Is there coherence among plot, character, setting, image, etc?
  • Is there emotional connection between characters?
  • Is there redemption and hope?
  • Does the story accurately portray young adulthood while allowing an “emotionally safe landing space”?
  • Is there enough resolution balanced with realistic limbo and possibility?

 

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

 

 

 

 

Take a Chance on Some Writing

Today is a free download day for my collection of short stories, The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future.

This collection offers tales of obsessive teachers and distraught parents, technology run amok and technology to the rescue, and clashes between conservatives and liberals. Race, sex, religion are also fair game. My stories have received recognition in Relief Journal, from the AROHO Foundation, and from contests such as NCSU, Glimmer Train, and the Writers’ Group of the Triad. 

It is viewable on Kindle and with a free Kindle app on iPad, iPhone, PC, Mac, Blackberry, and Android phones.

Perhaps someone you know, a person not so sure who this Fairchild Hawks character is, will take a chance on my writing.

Perhaps you will.

Check out the reviews and sample here.

I hope art spreads and people keep reading, reading, reading as much as they can.

My Grandma is a Racist?

I’ve just released a book of short stories, and “My Grandma is a Racist” is one that means a lot to me.

It’s not personal in the sense of family history–though I did have a grandmother who didn’t like blacks, Jews, or Catholics–and another who didn’t like hippies. These very complex, loving, interesting women harbored many prejudices as many of us do today. But this is not their story.

The setting is the Bush/Kerry election of 2004, when America was taking sides on the Iraq War and Swift Boat Veterans. It’s the story of a little girl, Wendy Redbird Dancing, trying to make sense of her mother and grandmother’s daily battle over politics. And it’s also the story of what happens when no one is looking after this particular child.

Racism in the story is overt in some moments and covert in others. It’s conscious and subconscious, as much as every moment in American history is laced with hyper-awareness of whether you are black, white, brown, yellow, or some mix thereof.

Don’t think it’s so? Please do a family history and place it against a timeline of civil rights landmarks for the last 150 years. You’ll see members of your family living through some strange and terrible times, whether it touched your family directly in traumatic ways or not. Someone may have an opinion, if not fought, like my ancestor, on one side of the Civil War. If you don’t wake up aware of your particular skin tone, chances are you walk the world with some amount of racial privilege. Even in this post-racial society, we can’t deny that walking into some places as the only white, black, or minority of the particular context, that there are different permissions given. Just the other day I was told that I as a tall white woman will be treated differently in India when I travel there this February. In other words, my risk of assault is lowered for a number of reasons. One of them is the colonial history of British oppression, white on brown.

Today, as President Barack Hussein Obama is inaugurated into his second Presidency, we know that America has done something historic in voting him in once and then again. We know it is a particularly special day that his inauguration occurs on the Dr. King holiday, because no matter what your politics, Obama has that content of character that gets certain things done. There will be historic legislation and events for historians to evaluate; it’s not a do-nothing presidency. We can judge him for those actions and not for his blackness. Dr. King may not applaud today’s gun violence nor the recent wars or massive uptick in poverty, but I do believe he would applaud the fact we can judge Barack the man with a different bar than many would have back in 1968.

And back to timelines–’68, the year King was shot, was the year I was born.

“Midrift” is another story in the collection, written from the perspective of a black woman, by yours truly, a white woman. I was told back in 2004 while workshopping this story that “You can’t write this.” I did anyway, and no doubt I will offend both white and black and perhaps others, too, in taking this risk.

Good writing starts a conversation. I hope I’ve done this. And I invite you to take a chance on my characters who like to stir things up and out of the complacent daily grind. Art for life’s sake.

Today, this holiday, I will take inventory of my service to others, as King would have us do. I’ll take inventory of my prejudices and the breadth of my mind, treating this as a New Year’s Day to be a better person this 2013. I have a hand in this historical timeline, and I hope to leave a mark that helps our progress as a human race–one people, under God, and indivisible, no matter how hard we try to tear ourselves apart.

What is your mark, and what do you want it to be?

The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future is available through the Kindle select program, viewable on Kindle and with the Kindle app on iPad, iPhone, PC, Mac, Blackberry, and Android phones.

How The Help Helps

“I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, and so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature.”


— Author Kathryn Stockett on writing THE HELP


It was 2004 and I was teaching 10th graders. One white male, 15 years of age, informed me in no uncertain terms that racism was over, kaput, and certainly not worthy of discussion.


The next day I came in and drew a timeline on the board: a civil rights timeline.


It featured the highs and lows of the Movement’s struggles from 1900 through 2004. Among many other events, it included the scary fact lynchings continued unabated throughout the first half of the 20th century, and the happy fact that our armed forces, our lunch counters, and our schools desegregated in the second half.


Then I asked students: when were you born? When were your parents born? Your grandparents? We filled out the timeline with these happy events. I also included my and my family’s births.


Then I gave students a recap. “So, (insert name of student who thinks racism is nonexistent), when your parents were in grade school, our schools were desegregating. So, when I was born, Dr. King was shot…” And on, and on, and on.


The argumentative student suddenly had very little to say when he saw his life and ancestry coinciding with the indisputable events of history. That he and his family were not so far removed from relatively recent events that shook our nation’s segregated society to its core.


It’s for this reason I can’t help but like The Help. It reminds us we have a complicated, painful history, and that past doesn’t go away simply because of someone’s opinion it no longer matters.


I also appreciate how well author Kathryn Stockett walks in someone else’s shoes. She crafts the characters of black Aibileen and Minny as deftly as she does white Skeeter and Hilly. Every character is complex, flawed, and full of possibility and surprise.


Yet she has obviously spent sleepless nights full of guilt for making this choice.


I’ve meditated on this topic in a former post, A Right to Write? I’ve been challenged by others when I wrote from the perspective of an African-American woman. As one wise friend put it to me,

“(It’s) something about the audacity/privilege of a white woman to imagine she could speak for a black woman when the white woman couldn’t (by definition) have experienced some of the episodes the black mother did. . . I do have concern about the perspective, however, as presumably, it is projection. I sit here asking myself if this story challenges white supremacist norms and consciousness by taking the reader inside this situation – or if it perpetuates white supremacist norms and consciousness in a subtle, complex way.” 

I am a white woman saying I find Aibileen and Minny complex. Is that because my lens only allows certain options for black women, and Stockett’s characters happened to fit just so into my view?


No doubt will I be challenged again when (I say when, not if) my novel HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT is published. In my novel a white girl and a black girl befriend one another in 2010. I’d like to think that’s not such a rare event, but in Chapel Hill, NC, I wouldn’t call it “common.” Let’s try “possible,”which is better than “unlikely” but not as good as “common.”


I’ll admit that THE HELP frustrated me sometimes. I don’t know if the writing felt weak in places due to structural flaws or more because of issues with character development, but I did want to ask if Skeeter really was that clueless about the danger she embraced. Maybe I should chalk her obliviousness up to youthful idealism and the absolutely distinct worlds blacks and whites lived in back then, that she would rush so headlong into an expose of abuse of black domestics that was rampant in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi society.


Then I remember what I used to be like, embarking on my first years of teaching, assuming as a young white woman in a diverse school that all my students were similar and that together, we could easily learn and grow. That I could treat all students exactly the same (my same, remember) and expect the same results. I also remember the boy I began this post with, the one who couldn’t see that our society still has any true inequality whatsoever, and that if any does exist, it’s merely because of some lack the will, drive, and sweat. Like it or not, we who are white walk in a world where we are the background, the default, the mainstream. As author Marcia Mount Shoop writes in her post, “Waking Up White,” those of us who are Caucasians aren’t truly ready to deal with our race:

We don’t have time to think about and talk about whiteness.  We’ve got better things to do; and perhaps, less disruptive things to do.  It is more comfortable to reach out to the people who are less fortunate to us than for white middle/upper class people to name how we are complicit in the systems of racism. 

Indeed, whiteness is an intimidating thing to think about in this country.  If we think about whiteness, that means we have to think about blackness, too. More to the point, if we think about whiteness then we have to think about how we benefit from the racism that whiteness helped to create.”

In my story, a black girl named Tanay talks about how white people always need to be “the entree.” If you’re always the star of the show, and that’s your norm, and as that celebrity you are relatively safe and secure in your societal status, why would you meditate on the race that brought you that privilege?


Class must inevitably be part of this discussion, too. The boy who questioned racism in today’s society was sitting in the classroom of an upper middle-class, suburban school, and I, his teacher, am the product of a similar background. Just like Skeeter.


Stockett writes an apology and an explanation at the close of THE HELP. She titles it, “Too Little, Too Late.” I disagree. Every story is something, an effort to tell our truths and bring struggles to the light. You tried, Stockett, and you succeeded in reminding us of past anguish and horror. Skeeter would be 70 today, and last time I checked, that’s still within the realm of white women’s life expectancy. That past is not yet dead.


Aibileen and Minny with worse odds against them–the stress of potential violence, the humiliation from employers, unchecked racism, and poverty, would not be so likely to make it to 70. They might not still be alive, but their children would be. Their past is not yet dead.


Stockett seems well aware she rode into this publishing fray on the same horse of benefits I can claim, too: enough food and safety to grow up confident, enough love to grow up happy, and enough belief in self, that one’s words should be heard and can indeed help. How about time to write?


Of course there’s an amazing family in my back story and so many other heroes who light my way; I don’t discount these facts. Yet I will not ignore that particular intersection of race and class helping Stockett and me get here, or wherever we believe we deserve to go. We had lots of help along the way.


 P.S. I’m headed to see the movie this weekend and even more intrigued to see another way of telling this story after some very interesting reviews by Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman–“Is The Help a condescending movie for white liberals?” and Professor Melissa Harris-Perry’s assessment (MSNBC interview and tweets while watching the movie).


Writing and Discussion Prompts:


— Does THE HELP help? Why or why not?
— Does Stockett walk well in others’ shoes? Where does she succeed? Where does she miss the mark?
— When you have used the word “racism” in a sentence recently, how did you use it? Record that sentence, then define racism.
— What events in American history to you illustrate the story of racism in the United States?
— In his interview of Professor Harris-Perry, Lawrence O’Donnell asks about artistic judgment. As a work of art, does THE HELP offer us redemption, realism, and art? What criteria do you use when judging literary works?
— Are some points of view off limits for certain groups? Or should we all write from any point of view?
— What points of view do you need to understand better? Which points of view do you not want to understand better? Which ones will you trying walking in?

A Right to Write?


“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus Finch to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 268,822. My goal was to cut 825; I cut 491. 334 shy of my goal.

Rationalization: Sometimes you gotta move things around before you finally cut them. I’m saying my last goodbyes to some passages.

Page Count for the Novel: 1002

What do writers have the right to write?

Free speech says, “Anything save “Fire!” in a crowded theater.” But to paraphrase St. Paul – “almost anything” may be possible, but it ain’t all permissible.

Again, to invoke my husband’s bluegrass mantra: Just because you can, that don’t mean you should.

I’ve potentially trespassed, according to some — a former writing group and from a friend and mentor, all of whose opinions I respect greatly.

The short story appearing in Relief Journal’s Volume 2.3 comes from a perspective some would not consider right for a white girl. I chose to write from the point of view of someone of a different race.

I’d rather you support Relief Journal than give away the story (by the way: no payment in it for me if you purchase). For now, I do want to meditate on two reactions I received at earlier drafts of this story.

Said someone in my writer’s group: “I’m not sure you have the right to write this story.” I can’t interpret her meaning with 100% accuracy, but I can imagine that perhaps the issue wasn’t about my attempt to walk in the shoes of this character. Rather, one translation might be, “Follow the flights of imagination, especially in order to walk in someone else’s moccasins, but don’t try publishing this.” In other words, exercises promoting empathy and cross-cultural understanding are good, but putting a story out for public consumption smacks of, “Look at me, I know what I’m talking about.” And the follow-up question would be, “How on earth could you truly know?” A point well worth raising.

Said my friend and mentor in an e-mail to me, “(It’s) something about the audacity/privilege of a white woman to imagine she could speak for a black woman when the white woman couldn’t (by definition) have experienced some of the episodes the black mother did. . . I do have concern about the perspective, however, as presumably, it is projection. I sit here asking myself if this story challenges white supremacist norms and consciousness by taking the reader inside this situation – or if it perpetuates white supremacist norms and consciousness in a subtle, complex way.”

These are valuable questions. To me, they are just the kind of questions literature should inspire for thoughtful readers such as my friend. She also added at one point, “Yet I liked the story and thought it was important to read.”

I like my friend’s use of the word “projection.” There is no way I can’t project both myself into a character of another race as well as project my assumptions, stereotypes, and norms into this character. I can’t escape it as a white person, and if I were black, or a man, or any other human permutation, I would be in the same boat. I will read another’s life as a book filled with my own bias.

Again, I can’t speak with 100% accuracy here either, but my friend’s comment gets at the problem of power – that whites still speak from paradigms and positions of dominance – and therefore whites, when writing any sort of fiction, risk yet another trespass in keeping with slavery, Jim Crow, blackface, Elvis stealing blues, and other ways whites have either oppressed or adopted what they conceive to be “blackness.”

What would then mitigate such as act as mine that’s carried out in this historical and racial context? I would say, Redeeming answers to the following questions:

Does the story reveal something true of humanity rather than sketch a stereotype? Is the character a unique individual with a special story to tell?
Does the story more closely connect readers across racial and cultural lines?
Does the story use its conflict to explore redemption? Who or what is redeemed, and why?
Does the reader learn something?
Do I, the writer, learn something?

If you read the story, tell me what you think. Or tell me your thoughts on this issue of point of view and whether or not the author’s race is crucial to a story’s authority, authenticity, and truthfulness.

I will say this: I think publishing this story in 2008, rather than 1998, 1988, 1978, or 1968 (the year of my birth and Dr. King’s assassination) is much more permissible than it ever was. Your thoughts on that subject would be appreciated, too!

Robert Olen Butler once commented in an interview (and this is my paraphrase, since I searched unsuccessfully for that interview online) that as a Midwestern, middle-aged white male who grew up with two parents happily married he has more in common with a Vietnamese woman living with her happily-married parents – as opposed to his trying to write the story of a Midwestern, middle-aged white male whose family suffers from divorce. It’s a fascinating thought, and to me a hopeful, life-affirming one, that as writers we can bridge these seemingly vast canyons with our words and imaginations. I treasure stories from Eudora Welty and Doris Betts who walk beautifully and sensitively in the shoes of black women, just as I treasure a man’s walk in the shoes of three women, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

Then again, the road to hell is paved with all kinds of good, patronizing, and self-satisfied intentions.

In no way am I done with this topic. Will return to it soon.

Today’s Writing Goal: I didn’t meet my last writing goal by 334 words. I’ll shoot down the middle and try to cut 500 words by the next tally, and I will edit the hard copy (8 pages) awaiting me on my desk. (I printed out all 1040-some and have been hard-copy-editing, which leads to these word count goals. After I entered changes through page 500, I stopped and printed again and am now cutting more.)

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: What color are you?

Colors express all kinds of feelings, and we use language to help describe how we feel. Some people say, “I am blue,” when they are sad, and “I’m seeing red,” when they are angry. Can you think of any other ways we use colors to describe feelings? Try yellow and green and see what you might have heard.

Describe how you have felt today, yesterday, and the day before. Think of times when you felt sadness, anger, joy, peace, jealousy, and fear. Draw a picture of your heart and divide it up like a pizza or a patchwork quilt. Then use any color to color in parts of your heart that have those feelings. Match a color to each feeling

Now write about one of those feelings. Begin with this sentence, “When I feel ___________(name the emotion), I am ______________ (name the color).” Now tell a story about that time. Use lots of detail: what did you see, hear, smell, taste, and/or touch that day you had this feeling?”

Secondary and Adult:

We know that people discriminate based on skin color. But we also know the famous phrase and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King that asks us to judge people not by race but by the “content of their character.” In fact, race is not well-defined by anthropologists and sociologists. So why shouldn’t we “color” ourselves? When we think of this societal convention identifying people by race and juxtapose it against the color wheel we know from art class, suddenly skin color can lose its significance. Which is not to say that race and racism don’t matter, but rather, that if we can step away from the world and all its judgments for a moment, we can ask, How do I color myself?

Name all the colors you know, from primary to secondary to every shade of color that is important to you. Then pick one of the following two prompts.

Color Me Red, Color Me Blue: Pick the colors that best suit your personality, your interests, and your life experience. Write a self-description that begins, “Color me _____ (pick the color) because…”

Inventing Idioms: You may have heard, “I’m blue” when someone is sad or other colors used to describe emotions. Name some other colors and how they are used in common expressions (also known as idioms).

Now invent some new expressions.

You can use metaphor, such as “I’m blue,” where you give an emotion a color.

You can use an action with an implied metaphor, such as “I’m seeing red,” where red represents the emotion of anger and the action of seeing is part of that metaphor’s vehicle.

Start a story or a personal essay where this new idiom begins the description of your emotional experience.