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?
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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?
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.
Ask these questions of your favorite YA novel:
“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.”
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:
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.