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!


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  1. Christine says:

    What an excellent post and I love that quote from the Financial Times! Funnily enough, I was thinking something similar recently. I’m off to Poland next week and will be visiting Auschwitz. I usually travel with a notebook to jot down ideas for stories and that made me consider if I had the right to even contemplate writing on such a subject, even if I could come up with something. That then led me to question if there were subjects that anyone without direct involvement or knowledge shouldn’t tackle. Like you, I considered different cultures and races, sexuality as well as areas such as domestic violence. The conclusion I reached was that though the subject matter might vary, it is human emotion which lies at the heart of a story. What the writer therefore needs is to have an understanding of how people in a given situation will feel, how they will react and even if you have not been in the same situation that you’re placing your characters in, if you are sensitive to emotion, you should be able to translate that on to the page.
    I recently was fortunate enough to have a short story accepted for an anthology and the editor told me it was the sense of place that most came through the writing. It was set in Denmark which I’ve visited but have no real depth of knowledge of. She said that sometimes we write better about things we’re not familiar with because we have to look at them more closely, plus we’re seeing them with fresh eyes. I think that line of thought could be applied to this debate.

  2. Because I’m a housewife who lives in the south of England I’ve often had the feeling I’ve been looked down on a bit in Ireland for writing about Derry. However – (a) we are all human beings so we all have human responses to things which are probably going to be in a spectrum we know (b) you are, like me, what I insist on calling ‘mixed race’ which infuriates people, you are half Irish. If you have a mixed culture you are going to be way more responsive to others’ backgrounds. Your mum was an immigrant just as the girl in your novel is. (c) Very good points about science fiction writing. (d) we are all outsiders to someone.
    Be fearless in your writing, please. Imagination is what writing is all about, unless it’s writing a diary. My niece went to Ethiopia and mostly talked about the Art Deco buildings when she came back, apparently when travel was allowed there after years the first people in were architecture students. I’m so glad I’m not writing a novel about it, as that’s all I know. But the thing about things you don’t know is that your character may not know them as well, because she’s an outsider in her own way, just like you.

  3. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Christine. I’m glad you share my anxieties about this – what you say is really interesting. I think what you say about human emotion being at the heart of the story is completely right. And I agree that we have to look more closely at things we’re not familiar with. Really good to hear your thoughts on the subject.

  4. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Christine, and thanks for posting a comment. Great to hear your thoughts. Yes, you make a similar point to the previous comment that we’re all human beings, and can relate to the emotion of someone else’s situation. This is so true, and what I’m hoping to do in my novel. The fact of being half Irish is also important here. I am not only half Irish, but half Scottish too. I was born in London within the sound of Bow Bells, so am what traditionally was known as cockney, but because of my heritage, am not a cockney. Because my mother was Irish, I was brought up a Catholic, and thank to Henry VIII, Catholics have long been outsiders in England. The people I went to school with were the daughters of Polish and Italian immigrants – we were all outsiders! I don’t feel I belong anywhere, so I feel as if I have a strong affinity with my character.
    I would love to go to Ethiopia, but can’t see it happening. However, even if I went, it would be very different from when Amara lived there in the early nineties.

  5. polly says:

    The point made by the two Christine’s re human emotion being at the heart of a story has surely to be the truth … I remember UK Horror writer Adam Millard poking fun at the ‘write what you know’ brigade, for fairly obvious reasons (!)
    I think your writing friends are spot on – you must write the story you want to write.

  6. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Polly. I agree with what you say about both human emotion and the write what you know. I am feeling much more positive again, following my conversation yesterday, and people’s encouraging comments on here. Write the novel you want to write has to be right. I appreciate your support.

  7. Robin Heaney says:

    Firstly on Christine’s point, we all know Theodor Adorno’s statement ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. But it was part of a long and very difficult philosophical essay and is too often taken out of context. Primo Levi wrote about it, but he was there so I suppose that is not relevant to the discussion. The problem is how do we approach the task of writing fiction that gives us a better understanding of the people involved in the event, both victims and perpetrators? Big scary job. I believe that Yan Martel did it in his novel Beatrice and Virgil, but I have not read it.
    On Lindsay’s point, I remember that Spike Lee was unhappy about Mississipi Burning saying ‘We can tell our own story’. He felt that Alan Parker had twisted the Civil Rights struggle into a story about White Knights.
    Joan Baez sang ‘Birmingham Sunday’ about a bomb in a baptist church that killed four coloured girls in 1963.
    Phil Ochs sang ‘Too many Martyrs’ (The Ballad of Medger Evers) about a civil rights campaigner who was assassinated the same year.
    Bob Dylan (best of all in my opinion) sang ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ about Medger Evers’ killer.
    And crossing three millenia of cultural chasms didn’t bother the nineteenth century Italian who wrote an opera about ancient Egypt and an Ethiopian princess called Aida.
    Can your Ethiopian sing?

    By the way Grandad Heaney came from Cork. Married a Scotswoman in Newcastle.

  8. Lindsay says:

    Some really interesting examples there, Robin, of crossing the racial divide. But it is problematic. That quote you mention ‘We can tell our own story’ is partly what worries me. But the Alan Parker example is based on true events, whereas apart from the historical background, I’m making mine up.
    Scots and Irish – the dream ticket!

  9. Christine says:

    I’ve been mulling this over today and actually, have begun to feel a bit annoyed! It seems to me to be a bit arrogant to accuse a writer of cultural ventriloquism (I love that phrase!) and not to condemn others for, say, sexual orientation ventriloquism or gender ventriloquism. Is the FT writer saying some experiences should only be tackled by those with direct involvement? And if so, who’s going to draw up the list of off-limit topics/characters,situations? To be honest, it smacks a bit of racism to me- hands off white author, this is our territory!

  10. Lindsay says:

    Sorry to make you annoyed, Christine! I think the problem does also apply to sexual orientation. In the Mslexia article I mentioned, the writer Naomi Alderman says of her novel with a Nigerian protagonist ‘I think my fear is in itself a kind of inbuilt racsim that says for example “white people are ordinary; black people are exotic”. Mm!

  11. I did a workshop with Emma Darwin in 2010, who said…. Don’t write what you know, write what you don’t know and convince me you know about it. I’ve kept that in mind ever since 🙂

    Great post honey x

  12. Christine says:

    It wasn’t you, Lindsay, it was the FT reviewer! But, hey, I’m just an ordinary white person, what do I know!

  13. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Vikki – glad you enjoyed it. Great advice from Emma Darwin too. I love her blog This Itch of Writing – you’re lucky to have done a course with her. My only worry now is convincing people I do know!

  14. Lindsay says:

    No, I guessed it was! It’s all thought-provoking though, isn’t it? I wonder what we’d think if we turned the question around and a black person (or someone from a very different culture) wrote about some aspect of life that we know very well. Would we think they’d appropriated our story?!

  15. Derek Taylor says:

    I can understand the sensitivity of your concern. Is it a literary vision of blacking-up for a minstrel show? I think not. Why would it be any different from a 21st century author creating Victorian characters? Or a female writer and a male protagonist? No less wide cultural gaps than in cross race writing. And the difference between a novel and the black-and-white minstrels is that the novel aims to broaden understanding, not to usurp and stereoptype.

  16. Lindsay says:

    It’s an interesting one, though, isn’t it, Derek? As I wrote in the post, I have also got a male protagonist (and there’s one on Piano Player’s Son) but I don’t have the same concerns. I think your final phrase about not aiming to usurp and sterotype is very important. Thanks for commenting.

  17. Maureen Hall says:

    The main thing is – you know your character, and you know her well. I don’t think it matters at all that a character’s culture and experience is different from the writer’s, provided that the writer has taken the time and effort to try and understand it. Human nature is the same, no matter the race, religion, sexual orientation or time period of the character. People are still stubborn, selfish, loving, kind etc. etc., and that is something everybody understands – no barriers there. So why should you be muscling in on somebody else’s patch? Nobody else has the right to pontificate about what you write or what characters you create. Stop fretting about it Lindsay – just enjoy your journey with (I think) your best character yet!

  18. Lindsay says:

    Thanks for the encouraging words, Mo. So Pleased to hear you think Amara is best character yet! I think I’ve got some way to go to realise her fully, but she’s getting there! I think the human nature bit you mention – which others have picked up on – is true. However, I think there might be an issue with appropriation, but if I am sensitive and try to explore her world and reality rather than impose my own, I might be okay.

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