White Author Black Character
I’ve been puzzling over an aspect of my work-in-progress novel for some time now. It’s not stopping me from writing it, but there are aspects that make me feel anxious.
The cause?I’m a white writer and one of my main characters is a young Ethiopian woman who was brought to England from Ethiopia when she was seven. She was brought up by a white middle-class family and has never been back to her homeland. Ethiopia is a far-off country with a culture, history and society that is wildly different from my own.
Do I have the right to create a story involving a fictional character whose identity is so different from mine? The writing cliché says write about what you know, but what can I possibly know about her experiences? Can anyone write across the races? Especially someone who in this instance is a member of the white majority. Is there a moral or ethical line that I’m crossing here?
By coincidence, there’s an article in the current edition of the writing magazine Mslexia about this topic. It highlights a criticism from the Financial Times of the writer, Shelley Harris, for choosing a British Asian protagonist for her novel. The paper accuses her of ‘cultural ventriloquism’ and an attempt to ‘muscle in on someone else’s patch’. I fret about whether this is what I’m doing.
But I’ve never bought into the ‘write what you know’ school of thought. The limitations of that seem obvious to me. What work can the imagination do when it’s limited to what you know? In fact, I think writing what you know can be a hindrance. As a creative writing tutor, I often see people’s potential stories hijacked by reality. They won’t move away from what actually happened, and as a result shackle their writing.
Also, if we should only write about what we know, where does that leave historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction? Where does that leave any writer who takes a giant leap of the imagination to write about unknown worlds. To take one famous example, what would have happened to Harry Potter if JK Rowling had only written about what she knew?
True – but then Rowling wasn’t going to offend anyone with her ideas, whereas my fiction might do just that.
Why? Is there a special taboo involved in writing across races? Another one of my main characters is a man, and I’m female, but I’m not agonising in the same way about that. I worry that I might not get the male voice ‘right’, but I don’t feel I’m ‘muscling in on someone else’s patch’. Then again, I might if I’d chosen a gay character. Is there a specialness around racial and sexual ‘patches’ that excludes outsiders?
Why then – given all the difficulties and pitfalls – have a chosen an Ethiopian protagonist? I have been fascinated by Ethiopia for a long time. Nowadays we often think of it as a war-torn country, suffering endless famines. But it is an ancient civilisation, sometimes described as the cradle of humanity. Some say it was founded by the great-grandson of Noah. Christianity reached it early, and Mohammed’s daughter and successor are believed to have introduced Islam to Ethiopia. It has an amazing landscape, majestic and harsh – especially in the north. Its people tend to be beautiful. And they can run fast – as their success in marathons shows.
Since I decided to make my main character Ethiopian, I’ve been reading a lot about the country, its history, geography, culture, food, as well as novels. I’ve been to an Ethiopian restaurant, loved the food. and want now to try different restaurants. I’ve already included injera – a staple of the Ethiopian diet and a bit like a pancake – in my novel, but have now eaten it and understand its significance so much more. There is a lovely description in the Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia which says ‘Just like your first kiss, your first taste of injera is an experience you’ll never forget.’
However, Donald Rumsfeld, an American politician, once famously said there are known knowns; known unknowns, but unknown unknowns. It’s this last one that bothers me. I have built up a certain stock of knowledge; I recognise certain areas where I need to do more research, but what about all the things I’m ignorant of? I worry that I won’t know what I don’t know!
But gradually I’m getting to know the country better. I feel more comfortable – no more than that – I really love my character Amara. I’m bonding with her, and I hope she feels the same about me. If so, we might, together, overcome the problems! And as some writing friends said to me yesterday – write the story you want to write!