Monday, April 25, 2022

The Protagonist of My Novel Is a Young-ish Working-Class Mother; I’m not. Is that OK?

One of the first questions people may ask about Lucy and Bonbon is this: as a matter of ethical principle, should someone such as me be writing such a book? The leading character, Lucinda Gerson, is a woman; I’m not. Lucy is working class; I’m not. She’s thirty-ish, and I am a very long way from that.

Another significant character, Ashley Rouleau, is a woman in her early twenties, from an economically privileged background. I come from an economically privileged background, though not quite as economically privileged as Ashley’s. But I am even farther away in age from Ashley than I am from Lucy. And one other thing; she’s black, I’m white.

Is it OK to write about people who are in numerous respects so different from the author? Or should writers, as the expression goes, “stay in their lane,” and write about people like them?

In a special category is Lucy and Bonbon’s second title character. Is it Ok for someone such as me to write in the voice of someone who is half human and half of another great ape species? That is of course an absurd question. Imagine the alternatives: it would be as ridiculous to say let’s leave it to the hybrids to tell their own stories as it would be to say Mary Shelley should have left it to the creature to tell his own story. But it’s not absurd to ask such questions where characters such as Lucy and Ashley are concerned. Working-class thirty-ish mothers and young women from economically privileged Toronto backgrounds exist in abundance in real life and are quite able to write their own stories, or stories about people like themselves. They certainly don’t need a sixty-eight-year-old white guy to try to do it for them.

So what’s my justification for writing characters of that sort into Lucy and Bonbon?

To answer that question, it may be helpful to try to disentangle the issue of “staying in one’s lane” from two related issues. One is the issue of representation in publishers’ lists. When I was young, the people whose fiction was published in North America (and in much of the rest of the world too) were overwhelmingly white—and disproportionately male. Thankfully, that has changed dramatically. There is surely still room for further change in some areas.* Overall, though, there can be no question that women, people of color, and people from minority backgrounds of almost every sort are far better represented on publishers’ lists than they were when I was young. Conversely, there are fewer “spots available” on publishers’ lists for people like me. It’s much harder than it used to be for a privileged, straight, white, aging male to get published—and that is a change entirely to be welcomed!

But that’s a separate issue from the question of who it should be considered OK to write about.

So too is the issue of appropriation of story material a separate question. When I was young it was often seen as entirely unproblematic if a white author “borrowed” an Indigenous myth or story as raw material for fiction—and there was rarely or ever any thought given to consulting anyone from the relevant Indigenous group. Thankfully, those days are long gone!

But that sort of appropriation is also a separate issue from the question of whether or not it should be considered OK to write about people other than those in the group(s) to which an author belongs.

So why is it these days widely considered to be a highly dubious practice to write “outside your lane”? I think the explanation is in part tied in with the way in which the issue of representation of authors from different backgrounds on publishers’ lists has been approached. As publishers have signed more and more fiction writers from minority backgrounds, publishers (and readers) have tended to develop expectations that these authors will be “telling their stories”—writing thinly veiled autobiography or, more broadly, telling stories about people from their own communities. And from that has developed a broader expectation that literature itself is fundamentally rooted in humans telling their own stories.

There is of course nothing wrong with people telling their own stories through fiction; many of the finest works of fiction unquestionably fall into that category. But a great many others do not. Most writers of fiction have considered one important function of literature to be imagining the lives of others—trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and trying in doing so to craft characters and plots that will excite the sympathetic imagination of readers. So it is that our literary heritage includes characters such as Shakespeare’s Othello and Austen’s Mr. Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy and Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and Eliot’s Edward Casaubon and Tertius Lydgate and Wharton’s Newland Archer. So it is that the literary descriptions of war that have been most highly praised as realistic include works such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage—both written by novelists who never themselves saw a battlefield. So it is that the most moving fictional depictions of poverty include works such as Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell—who was herself always comfortably middle class. So it is that the character whose thoughts and actions portray the workings of racial prejudice among white people perhaps more persuasively than any other—Dr. Melville in Paul Dunbar’s “The Lynching of Jube Benson”—is the imaginative creation of a black writer. So it is that one of the most moving portrayals of a woman in an abusive heterosexual relationship, Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors, is by a man. So it is that the most memorable fictional representative of the tragic stuffiness of mid-twentieth-century British notions of one’s proper place in society—the butler Stevens, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day—is the creation not of an author raised in the stuffiness of mid-century British class consciousness but of one raised first in Japan and then in a Japanese family in the UK.

Those are all classics of previous centuries. It’s in the twenty-first century that the “stay in your lane” ethos has truly taken root in literary communities in the Western world, but even in this century some of the most impressive works have been by authors who have been following whatever path their imagination blazed rather than staying in their lane and writing about people such as themselves. I can’t think of two finer twenty-first century novels than Jo Baker’s Longbourn and Andre Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs. Baker—a university-educated woman who grew up in comfortable circumstances in the late twentieth century—has given us an extraordinarily persuasive fictional depiction of nineteenth-century servant life. Alexis—a black novelist whose family immigrated to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago when he was four—has given us an extraordinarily persuasive fictional depiction of non-human animals and their relationship to humans of any color (which along the way manages to provide wonderfully illuminating non-canine perspectives on life, love, and death). Authors such as these are emphatically not telling their own stories and “staying in their lane”; they are, above all, imagining the lives of others.**

Among twenty-first century dramatists, I can’t think of any writer more accomplished than Lynn Nottage; a black woman raised in comfortable middle-class circumstances, she has vividly brought to life the lives of working-class people—white as well as black, male at least as often as female.

In citing these examples, I don’t for a moment want to suggest that imagining worlds different from those one knows best is innately superior to bringing imaginative life to the world one does know best. A great deal of outstanding twenty-first century fiction writing is unquestionably by writers who have given imaginative life to characters from backgrounds similar to their own. (Examples that come immediately to mind include NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, David Chariandy’s Soucouyant and Brother, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.) In no way do I want to disparage great writing of that sort; my aim is merely to point out that a great deal of fine writing has also come from writers who have not “stayed in their lane.” In the end, authors should surely be judged not on whether or not they have “stayed in their lane” and written about people like themselves, but on whether or not they have succeeded in creating an imaginative world (whether a realistic imaginative world or a fanciful one)—an imaginative world in which the characters feel believable, an imaginative world that engages readers’ attention, an imaginative world that leads readers to think, and to feel. Often that will be a world very like the one the author inhabits, but often it will be quite different.

I should make clear that, in writing Lucy and Bonbon, I did not set out to write a piece of fiction about a working-class mother and a privileged young black woman. I set out to write a novel about a child who is half human and half of another great ape species—and to explore what the life of such a person might say about how humans relate to other animals. My imagination then took me to a place where the characters Lucy and Ashley took shape. Looking back on it now, it seems natural that I would have been led, in writing about the prejudice Bonbon is subjected to on the basis of his biological background, to create characters who are subjected to other sorts of prejudice (whether it be on the grounds of class or race or gender). I hope that my imagination has been able to bring Lucy and Ashley to life successfully, just as I hope my imagination has been able to bring Bonbon successfully to life. And I think there’s a good chance that may indeed be the case—as I know it would certainly not have been the case had I tried to do the same when I was young, and had far less experience than I do now of a wide range of people and their circumstances. But that’s just me. Some authors are able even when young to write brilliantly and persuasively across gaps of gender and age and class and race and culture. Some are comfortable at any age only in writing about people like themselves, and do that brilliantly—whereas I can only imagine what a hash of it I would make if I tried to write an autobiographical novel. We’re all different, in short—and that’s a good thing.

Let me give the last word to Henry Louis Gates, whose fine short essay on this topic (based on an address he gave at a PEN America gathering) appeared last October in The New York Times Magazine: “Whenever we treat an identity as something to be fenced off from those of another identity, we sell short the human imagination. … Social identities can connect us in multiple and overlapping ways; they are not protected but betrayed when we turn them into silos with sentries.”

*This seems to me to be particularly the case when it comes to representing working class points of view. There are precious few working-class fiction writers being published—indeed, there may be fewer being published today than there were in the mid-twentieth century, when issues of class were on more editors’ radar screens than were issues of race or gender or sexual orientation.)
**It is so often expected that novels by black authors will focus largely on race that I feel I should perhaps provide a gloss here; in asserting that Fifteen Dogs is not an example of an author telling his own story, I do not mean to suggest that there is nothing in the book to do with race. Interestingly, race is not a significant issue with the human characters in the novel; we are never even told the skin color of Nira, Miguel, or other humans. (Worth mentioning, however, are asides such as the interesting reference to skin color in this description of a bathroom, as observed by Benjy, one of the dogs:
And then there was the room where the humans bathed and applied chemicals to themselves. The bathroom was fascinating, it being astonishing to watch the already pale beings applying creams to make themselves paler still. Was there something about white that bought status? If so, what was the point of drawing black circles around their eyes or red ones around their mouths?)
It is with the dogs themselves that serious issues of color briefly arise in the story, as Alpha dog Atticus declares that “the black dog” is “not one of us,” and his ally Max opines that, in that case, “it would be better to kill him.”

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