Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Writing 101: Books and Race

I've avoided writing about this subject in all possible ways, and believe me I could have kept my head buried in sand much longer. But the question cropped up recently during a standard interview, and I've been thinking about it ever since. So today we writers have to ask ourselves a question: where does race belong in books?

This Land is Your Land

Some literary characters are very clearly defined when it comes to race. James Patterson has never made it a secret that Alex Cross, his main protagonist, is a black man. Tony Hillerman writes about Native American heroes. But did any of the Harry Potter books implicitly state that he's a white boy?

Race is often implied in books, more than stated, and that's my personal approach. Through descriptions, it's possible to convey race without stating it outright. A pasty or pale-skinned character can be a presumed Caucasian. The phrase "coffee-colored" appears a lot with African-American characters. Someone whose ethnicity is stated, a Peruvian for example, clearly has a skin tone to match their origins.

But usually, race goes unstated. This allows the reader to envision whatever they want, to think about the characters in a way that's comfortable for them. But it also doesn't do anything to bridge cross-racial relations, or show people of different races that they aren't so dissimilar from each other. By the same token, a book featuring a character whose race is clearly stated may alienate some readers. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where some readers may avoid a book written about an African-American hero.

When it comes to race, there's always a very fine line between acceptance and prejudice -- and that's what makes it so difficult to write. Every author has to find their own way to address race, but remember this: if you can't do it without stereotyping, discriminating or judging, don't address it at all. If you think you can't write objectively about the topic, don't. 

Race is a dicey subject, but it's the writer's job to figure out a way through all those difficult situations. Sometimes, complete avoidance may be the most successful writing technique. But if you feel you're ready to address race in a non-offensive and potentially eye-opening way, go for it. Making people think is part of a writer's job, too.

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  1. I was just talking about this, on a slightly different tangent, in my own blog. I find it unnerving to try to write about someone else's experience which may be vastly different from my own in ways I can't imagine. One could do a great injustice. I'm reminded of early sci-fi writers trying to create strong female characters. Shudder.
    So, many of my characters have more melanin in their skin than I do. I mention it in passing as I describe them, but this is in a hypothetical future society where racial differences don't come with any special baggage.
    Cheating? Or is it imprinting readers with an experience of pigment as irrelevant to character? Oh well, we do the best we can :P.

  2. Great questions, Melissa! Definitely important stuff to think about. I like the sound of your future society.