There’s a terrific discussion about multicultural and mixed race characters going on in the comment thread to one of Jane’s must-read BEA/BookBloggerCon posts. A number of authors talk frankly about writing non-white characters and what the financial implications are of doing so. The back and forth between authors and readers, and the reality that there are disparate and often contradictory audiences for these books, makes it hard to see a resolution that can satisfy every constituency.
I’m on the record both as being hard on authors who get history and characterization wrong, and as supporting authors who write outside their cultural knowledge base and comfort zones. I realize that these two positions may seem mutually contradictory, but they’re not. I loathe it when authors write about exotic India and reinforce every annoying and destructive stereotype out there. But my all-time favorite set of historical novels about late colonial India is Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet.
During the AJ Llewellyn blowup and consequent meldown in the m/m community, I posted on why I used male pronouns to refer to Llewellyn. I was then asked on Twitter if I’d be as forgiving if someone had pretended to be an Indian and written a book about India and then been revealed to be a fraud. I replied that I had thought about that and started to write about the comparison but the post was already too damn long and threatening to diverge in too many directions. I started the post and never finished it, but it occurred to me that some of the issues are the same as when we talk about authors writing about foreign (to them, to readers, etc.) cultures.
First, I’ve never run into precisely the same circumstance as what happened in the AJL case, although I’m sure there have been instances where Europeans posed as Indian writers. I have, however, run across any number of non-Indian people who have explained Hinduism, Indian history, and various other cultural aspects of Indian life to me. I’ve also been told many times that “I don’t look Indian” and that I must be mistaken, I’m “really American.” These are usually said in a helpful, puzzled, or even humorous tone. I’m not the only person who experiences this; these kinds of questions are so common that there is a helpful bingo card.
So yeah, I’m not ignorant of how people can seize the mantle of information and privilege. When I was new to the US it made me unhappy and confused, then as I grew older and more confident it made me angry, and now that I’m just old, it makes me go “eh, whatever.”
Many of the people who said stuff like this to me loved India, though, and I finally realized that their comments weren’t necessarily about lecturing me so much as proving their own authority to themselves, via me. When you study a country you’re from, you meet a lot of foreigners who fall in love with the place and wish they were part of it. I’ve had people who’ve spent some time there tell me that “inside, they really feel Indian.” They’re sincere, too.
So am I supposed to call them frauds? They certainly seemed delusional to me at times, and when they trivialized or negated my background and heritage in order to build up their own, it wasn’t pretty. But a lot of them were (a) sincere; and (b) had no idea how they came across. And some of them knew a lot about some aspects of India.
Now, cluelessness is no excuse for crappy behavior. But it is an explanation. And honestly, I’ve been known to wave my Ph.D. and my scholarly research at people in arguments in lieu of, you know, actual arguments. So I’m not exactly pure here. But one of the things I love about the internet is that you really are what you say.
I think that’s why the elevation of gay male authors to a special category in m/m bothers me, as well as the skepticism toward authors writing about cultures they aren’t part of, ultimately disturbs me. We read and love the books. We presumably value the writers most as authors since we relate to them as readers, so why make such a big deal about their backgrounds?
Because the book feel more authentic, the reading experience richer, if it’s written by someone with innate authority. And when we’re talking about authors and voices which have historically been repressed or silenced, hearing those voices is even more important. But when did we get to the point that it towers over, even negates, other interpretations, other imaginations, so that portraits from other imaginations are seen not just as inauthentic but illegitimate? And when did ascribed ethnicity trump lived, achieved experience as a marker of authenticity in every instance?
Paul Scott did not grow up in India. He was posted there during World War II and served less than four years in South Asia. The Raj Quartet is about the British in India more than the Indians, but the experiences of both are depicted in the tetralogy.
This is a period about which I know a great deal. My grandparents and some of my aunts and uncles were deeply involved with the independence movement. One of my cousins is a Midnight’s Child, and my aunt recounted a wonderful story about missing the Independence Day celebrations because her water broke and she had to go to the hospital. My dissertation and first book required me to spend many, many hours in the Indian and British archives reading documents from that period. If anyone is going to hammer the author for weaknesses, it’s going to be someone like me. OK, yeah, it’s going to be me.
But guess what? They’re great novels. I’m sure Scott got some things wrong. I’m sure there are a few wince-inducing passages in the thousands of pages. But I’ve read the series at least three times over a couple of decades, and it’s still awesome.
I say we continue to hold authors’ feet to the fire and call them on their weakness and that we continue to be vigilant about championing and promoting authors from marginalized and neglected groups who choose to write about their cultures and experiences. But please, let us also honor authors whose imaginations lead them to write stories about people that they can only know through their minds and hearts and experiences, not the traits they were born with.