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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.

 

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?