…and the Discussion on Race and Class Continues…

A few months ago, partly inspired by Roxane Gay’s excellent post in HTMLGIANT, I wrote about class and race and writing here.

After reading one of my longish comments on that piece about race and the complexities of writing characters of color as a white woman, writer Michael Copperman emailed me and we had a really interesting back-and-forth on writing and race and class and authority.

Mike mentioned that he had been having difficulty finding a home for a collection of stories he’s written about black children living in poverty in the Mississippi Delta. The problem? He wrote the stories in an authentic black Delta dialect, which has made some editors uncomfortable right up front– and then throw into the mix that Mike is not black. He is, as he says, a “multiracial Asian who taught fourth grade in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta.”  But he’s writing from the point of view of black children. Well, so, what if Mike taught for years in these schools and knows these kids better than, say, a wealthy black person living in Park Slope, Brooklyn? Or not? Who bestows authority? Who has it and who doesn’t? What about class? What about race and class? What does it say about who we are that we cannot answer these questions but become so uncomfortable, and sometimes so defensive when we try to?

One of these stories is now published and available to read online at The Copper Nickel, and I highly recommend reading it. It’s fantastic.

And I’d also highly recommend reading this essay that Michael Copperman wrote to accompany the piece, which is fascinating and insightful and a great addition to the ongoing conversation that I’m very glad is being had around the internets. Here’s a brief bit of that essay:

By contrast, stories and essays written from a point of view closer to my own, a multiracial Asian who taught fourth grade in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, elicit a different set of questions: Why does this teacher need such a foreign sounding name? Why doesn’t he talk more about his own culture? Couldn’t I just make the protagonist white? Why isn’t the protagonist’s race a bigger deal–and what exactly am I trying to say about race in America? As a Japanese-Hawaiian Russo-Polish Jew writing a novel about a naïve, idealistic, young, multiethnic overachiever who tries to save black children from severe poverty in the Mississippi Delta, I am original, which is to say, I am an orphan. On the one hand, I am that audacious non-black author who would write about the black South, a place whose people have been reduced to a series of familiar gestures and stereotypes by Hollywood and the white authors who wrote “great Southern books.” At the same time, I am utterly “other,” the multiracial everyman who might represent the melting pot but is of no clear people or region or discrete history, and so is rootless, isolated, without an audience who might be compelled by identity politics to seek their own experience. I am not black. I am not white. I am not Southern. I am impure and unruly, and evidently belong–nowhere.

I’d love to also hear what folks think of these pieces, particularly what Mike discusses in the essay. Go forth and think. Learn. Continue the discussion.

25 thoughts on “…and the Discussion on Race and Class Continues…

  1. There are so many great books and characters in books that are of a different race than the author. Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain comes to mind. William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner. The white characters in Toni Morrison’s books. Susan Straight’s work. I mean, I could go on forever here. I just don’t understand the idea that we can only write- or should, or whatever- characters that look like us. How utterly philistine. Three of the stories in my book were written from the male POV and you know, I live with a man. LIVE with a man. I feel totally comfortable writing from a male POV. I do think that race is trickier than class or gender- it’s just a touchier subject matter, just much more loaded, especially between African Americans and white americans. But if it’s done well and done with integrity- well, than– wonderful. Now, if you do a Margaret P Jones- that’s a different thing. And that’s bad. It really is, like anything, a case by case thing in my mind.

    • I totally agree, Paula. It’s case by case, really, but it’s just so absurd–and limiting–to say that we can’t write characters who don’t look just look us. Especially race, because it is so loaded. I mean, I can write a story about a space alien and nobody goes, oh, you don’t have two heads and a snout, Amber–but I write a black main character and suddenly all kind of attention is being paid and do I have the right? A lot of the race stuff gets tripped up in class, too–like, if Michael had written about middle-class black kids would anybody have cared as much what color his skin was? Not that attention shouldn’t be paid and the piece automatically carries more responsibilities with it, and with race or class you’re probably making a conscious decision to write about a character unlike you, and yes we have to be careful when we do that–especially given black/white race relations in this country. But yeah, the idea that we just shouldn’t do it, period? That it should just be taboo? So lame and such an easy, comfortable stance to take.

  2. Hey Paula,

    It’s funny, I agree… and somehow it gets much more complicated in practice. Look at what happened to William Styron!

    I was talking to a black writer about Susan Straight once, and apparently the word on the street in black literary circles is that she “writes about black people for white people.” Reminds me of the whole Claudia Rankine dustup from AWP, when she quoted Tony Hoagland as saying he ‘writes for white people.’ Don’t we write for… people, period? Isn’t the purpose of literature to try to get at the whole, or at least, a whole– intersection, totality, connection or the failure thereof– these possibilities seem to me to be lost when we insist on certain prerequisites for authorial authority.

  3. I really like this sentence: “I am impure and unruly, and evidently belong–nowhere.”

    A lot of this discussion tends to revolve around the concept of authenticity. What if we were to reject the concept of authenticity in the first place? If, for the sake of the overall effect or point of the story, realism is important, why not aim for accuracy or factuality instead of authenticity?

    In other words, throw out the category of the “emotionally true” (which anyhow has always seemed to me to be a suspicious rhetorical slight-of-hand). Let things be either true–ie, factual–or not. Let them be emotionally affecting, or not. But this attempt to link the two categories, to say that certain emotions are “truer” than others (and, by extension, that certain things that are not factually true can still be considered true because someone feels strongly about them), seems pretty dubious.

    • Sorry, I meant to connect this more concretely to the above discussion, and it seems I didn’t get around to it.

      The connection was, that dialect does not have to be a question of authority or authenticity. There are people who study dialects (I used to be one of them, briefly). You can, if you have the right information, say with relative objectivity whether or not a dialect is written correctly. Someone from my background, for example, would never use the word “y’all” to address a single person. When I hear someone “doing a Southern accent” and using the word y’all like this, it’s wrong–not because I say so or because I feel a certain way about it, but because, descriptively, that’s not how the word “y’all” is used by people who speak with southern accents.

      In other words, it’s entirely possible to view dialect as a matter of linguistic factuality, rather than “authority.”

      So why not approach such things this way? Then, at least, there’s a yardstick, people can give evidence in favor of or against a given writer’s use of dialect, etc.

      • Well, so I think that’s perhaps not a solution with dialect deployed in a story, though accuracy should be considered. The reason is that written representations of dialect in fiction aim for the semblance of accuracy, not absolute accuracy– you want the voice to be particular, and ‘accurate’ to both the idiom of the place in question (for me, the MS Delta, the alluvial floodplain of the Mississippi River where the legacy of King Cotton is the greatest… today, one of the poorest and blackest areas in the country, as well as one of the most persistently segregated areas) and the structures of AAVE, but at times, you’re pitying the reader. For example, as I created the system I used for the written representation of children speaking Delta AAVE, I tended to favor actual words that sound right but have a different meaning in standard American English for the sake of readability, as often purely phonetic representations can be more difficult, and prevent immersion. That also led to pleasant double-meanings: the title of the novel, “Gone,” is not actually indicating absence, but is my representation of the AAVE construction for ‘going to’, and that idea– in absence, imminence, which is the definition of immanence– is finally what the entire book seeks to get at.

        • That’s really interesting, Michael. As someone born and raise in a state with no accent (or the purest version of no accent possible) I tend to stay far, far away from dialect in my fiction as I’m sure I’ve got a tin ear at best. The speech of white, urban working-class kids is about the closest I get. So it’s really fascinating to see how people arrive at dialect choices, balancing accuracy with immersion, etc. Very cool explanation.

          • I arrived at the principle from rereading Huck Finn a few years ago– Twain opens the book with a disclaimer that he’s being ‘true’ to the five or six variants of speech common to the counties in question, and he wants to note as much so that readers don’t ‘suppose the author was trying to have all the characters speak the same way and failing’. It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that his point is not ‘accuracy’ alone– although of course, in that book there’s so much done with voice and speech that it’s a master text as to how an author can use the colloquial.

        • Your point about how dialogue in fiction is never, or rarely, accurate to the way people actually speak is a good one–the difference between literary dialogue and, say, a transcript is well worth keeping in mind. Dialogue, in that sense, is always a literary construction.

          In that case, I guess the yardstick for realist fiction is, how accurate is the dialect within the conventions/constraints of realist fiction?

          Amber: this is a kind of ridiculous point to insist on, but it’s one of the few things that I find difficult not to be slightly pedantic about–everyone has an accent. “Not having an accent,” in this case, just means having a certain sort of (typically midwestern) accent that is most widely represented in media, etc.

          (I think I tend to insist on this in part because of how often people tell me I don’t have an accent, which is a, untrue, and b, a little insulting, because they usually intend it as a compliment: “You don’t have a rural southern accent! You must be one of the smart ones!”)

          • No, seriously–I’m not just throwing that out there–I realize everyone has an accent, but I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, which at the time was the telemarketing capital of the US because people had the least accented speech there–the least variation from standard American English pronunciation. There actually IS a “neutral” for American English–nobody actually speaks like that or they’d sound like a robot–but where I grew up was about the closest you could get.

            But then I moved to Wisconsin, and lived in Minnesota, and they most definitely have upper Midwest accents–and I acquired a little of that. So I definitely have an accent–but growing up I heard very few accents at all. When I moved to Wisconsin I thought everyone was a hick because of the way they sounded. People don’t sound like that in NE. They don’t have much of what you’d typically think of as that midwestern accent–which to me is most definitely an accent, no worries! Oh, lord, yes. :) When I think accent I’m not thinking the South. I’m usually thinking Minnesota or Wisconsin.

    • Tad, I like this idea of dispensing with the idea that work is ’emotionally true’ and therefore ‘authentic’ (or, ‘authentic’ and therefore somehow valid). In realism, I suppose accuracy is important (or at least, the semblance of accuracy), as when people read narrative they often do so wanting to suspend disbelief. Perhaps the distinction that I’m most interested in would be between what is intrinsic to the work, and what is extrinsic– does the work itself have merit on its own terms, does it have integrity and meaning? I’m not saying that art exists in a vacuum, as if a story is not a point of intersection between the writer and the world, the political and personal and social all colliding. But to assess art’s validity in terms of the writer’s authority is problematic.

      • To me, emotional truth has nothing to do with authenticity. Authenticity makes me think “cranky Gen-Xers bitching about people ‘selling out.'” Emotional truth makes me think of my subjective, sublime reaction to Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves,” or to any book I’ve loved, and also of my image of her subjective, I assume emotional experience writing it back then. Two separate feelings of emotional truth, having nothing to do with authenticity or capital-T Truth. Even if you cry while reading something, a bodily reaction, there’s no telling why or if it’s True or Authentic or whatever. But it’s there. All it is is there, and that alone is beautiful to me.

        • Goddamnit I’m one of those cranky Gen-Xers. :) But yes, your points here are great–there is something separate, something identifiable but not definable when you read a certain piece–the kind of piece or book or work of art that you see and say, This is for me, right now.

          Yes. that’s maybe the only or best kind of true.

          • So I agree with you, Stephen, about ’emotional truth’ having nothing to do with authenticity, or ‘truth’ (whatever that is). Are you more or less privileging the objective correlative, then, though? I always liked that way of thinking about it because while it sounds formulaic, the actual craft that enables something to really move me usually doesn’t feel like ‘craft’, but like magic, an inexplicable magic which I can analyze and unpack, but that exceeds the sum of its elements and the order of arrangement.

            • Stephen:

              I guess my question is, why do we need to bring truth into it at all? I’m concerned that “truth,” here, is taking on a rather fuzzy meaning–that is, is “truth” becoming just an all-purpose term for that which we valorize?

              Why, in other words, define your experience by truth at all? Why not by aesthetic effect? Truth, if it’s to have any meaning, deals in the realm of “is or isn’t”: either it’s true that global warming is real (for example), or it isn’t. Aesthetics deal in the “more or less”: a piece can be more beautiful or less, more sublime or less. That seems to be a more accurate term for what you’re describing.

      • Mike,

        I love your essay, btw, for starters, which is eloquent and impassioned and frustrated in ways that are galvanizing. I’m uneasy with the phrase “emotionally true,” more for the “true” part. But I’ll throw this out–aren’t we always implicitly or explicitly assessing the authority of the writer (biographical, implied, etc.)? I don’t think that this is restricted to realism, and speaking for myself, I often gravitate toward counterrealism of one sort or another, but the author establishes authority in any number of ways. That authority might be exhibited in a mastery of language, or in a daring usurpation of language’s conventional uses, or in deviations from reality, but it still has to be pulled off. Authority can be undermined, tripped up in many ways as well (the spam we recognize from a mile away). Your own authority shimmers through your essay in terms of your command of a range of literary figures, a sense of zeitgeists past and present (with references to 9/12ers and wanting to “be like Mike”), as well as your mastery of sentence structure and the imprimatur of COIN, and in countless ephemeral but nonetheless substantial ways. There is a sort of a pointillism of authority, in fact.

        Dialect gets tricky, because it underscores some of the fundamental problems with written language as a form of representation. Whatever problems there are with dialogue on the page are exponentially magnified with dialect because of its attempt to pretend to be capturing music and presence and cultural/regional identity and also individuality on some scale. So there’s the ethnic/cultural thorniness compounding the usual difficulties that attend to trying to write about, say, music. And I think that’s related to what Shepard is getting at. I mean, we need to establish a certain authority even to write about ourselves, the “thems” we should know best, no? Lipsyte does it so well early on in The Ask when he defamiliarizes self by writing, (to paraphrase) “The me’s were ruining everything, taking over, demanding better salads.”

        Anyway, more questions than answers here, but kudos and look forward to more.

        • Tim, you make a point that resonates with me– we are all claiming authority all the time in essays and in fiction, and I think that when I suggested that we ought to ‘earn authority’, I mean that the ways we establish it and question it are often not constructive. It’s quite true that I am attempting to establish authority and context through experience, evidence, and voice; I also make an explicit claim to authority concerning children there, although I don’t wish that claim about knowing the lives/voices of children I taught to substitute for what must be earned. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t attempt to establish authorial authority– we inevitably do, even if that involves admitting our own lack of authority and the instability/impossibility of substantiating such claims. But the difficulties that come up when race, representation, and the author’s own background/history are the primary line of inquiry leads me, largely, to a dead end. I think those considerations– of biography, ethnicity, the experience of the author– ought finally to be distinct from the authority established by, say, ‘accuracy’ (or the semblance of accuracy, as we noted earlier), voice, and craft. Art establishes itself on its own terms. The made object doesn’t exist in a vacuum and cannot ever be considered separate from the cultural forces and history and intention that inform it and surround it, but I don’t think a piece of fiction should be considered ‘valid’ or ‘invalid’ based on those ancillary (if inextricably linked) considerations. Rather, I think good writing should reckon with that tension. I know that’s not an adequate answer (though it was an excellent question), but then, I don’t think resolution is possible here. I do think there must be a distinction between authority being conferred or not conferred on the basis of phenotype, and authority being earned in the work.

    • I could not agree more. I hate the term “emotionally true.” It feels false and furthermore, puts some emotions above others if true = x and x= better. Fiction is all a pack of lies, anyway–we’re all professional liars, yeah? So who cares about making something authentic rather than, as you say, accurate?

  4. I think what’s being missed here is the true complexity of the problem and the effect it has for Black people, people of colour the world over, and people who aren’t of colour but have a genuine interest in the world and all its cultures . The fact of the matter is that in literary terms, (and elsewhere of course) White is seen as the yardstick by which all other races are judged – it’s cultural norm, and anything else is abnormal. The problem isn’t just that people are not allowed to write for other races, the problem is that even for black people who actually speak in ‘dialect’, writing in dialect is taboo. When negotiating sales with publishers that is. So, because the yardstick is European Literary Tradition, and writing in slang is seen as bad writing and lo-brow, many authors of colour don’t want to be associated with it for fear of being ghettoized and writers who are not of colour who attempt to portray the world they see around them are maligned for doing so. Which doesn’t do much for our literary universe; anyone notice how increasingly monochrome and repetitive it’s become as a result? The sad fact is that there are people of all races who think that literature should be written a certain way, and that’s it. I sincerely hope this will change, and when it does it will come from the writers and readers, not the industry.

    I have a manifesto on my site which tries to tackle my artistic response to this problem. Please feel free to check it out at http://www.courttianewland.com.

    Peace and words,

    Courttia Newland

    • Courttia, I think you’re quite right about the market and the way ‘dialect’ material is regarded (or any work that considers the experience of writers of color, including and especially work that considers the experience of poor blacks). And you’re quite right that it’s a problem. The perils of being ‘ghetto-ized’ as a black writer, and so dismissed, is not something I addressed explicitly, but I certainly think that things are especially difficult for black writers in terms of the demands that are placed on them, and the way their work is often regarded and assessed.

  5. Thanks, Amber, for continuing to engage us in this rewarding & significant project. The one thing I’d add is that you & others here would profit from a look at Ishmael Reed’s antholgy MULTI-AMERICA, with a typically sharp-witted & iconoclastic introduction from Reed himself.

  6. @ Mike – thanks for your reply. This does have on knock on effect in terms of class too – I remember having a conversation with Robert Elms about the representation of working class Black writers and he said, ‘That’s all true but I don’t even see a representation of White working class people anymore,’ and I had to agree with that too. Outside of the usual mockney fare, a real assessment in literary terms is hard to come by. There was a writer called Michael Corkhill that I tried to review, but there was real opposition to that, even though it was a good book. I suppose what we have now is bland, inoffensive, un-challenging works that barely scratch the surface of what’s really happening in our country. Good or ill, like it or not. I find myself looking towards European film more and more for real articulation of the challenges we face as people that live in globalised world. I would read the novels, but translation being what it is we only get a fraction of what’s being produced, which also a shame.

    • That’s my sort of soapbox issue, Courttia. I think race is a big part of it, but regardless of race working class people are not so present in American literature. Especially urban and even more so suburban working class people. There are some wonderful writers trying (including a lot of the writers who post here and at HTMLGiant), but by and large the establishment rejects such depictions, as Roxane points out in her essay about the BASS anthologies. The Europeans are definitely better at it–more realistic about–which leads me to wonder if it’s a product of our sense of American exceptionalism–kind of like what’s going on right now in Wisconsin and across the country. For our privileged classes to acknowlege such things, they would have to acknowledge the shame of our country in its complicity in allowing the income gap to grow and grow, and their own relative privilege, which they have resisted doing so they can still pretend America is this perfect land of opportunity. And us (referring to myself) middle class Americans are all too willing to go along with the illusion, because studies show we think we’ll be rich someday, too. So we enjoy reading stories about people who live quaint, wealthy lives, and squirm and feel uncomfortable about and finally bury the narratives of the working poor.

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