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.