Race, Culture and Character Development
As I've been reading this fascinating and complex look at a place and time that seem simultaneously far removed from my own, and yet still reflects the racial/cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications that exist in our society, I began to think about my writing and how I develop my characters. I admit, up until now, my characters have been (mostly) white.
It's not that I made a conscious choice to make all my characters white. Often my main characters have a slight resemblance to me--or at least the quirky image of myself that I think I might have been once. Of course, my characters aren't all middle class, white, Jewish girls with wild and crazy hair--but they are all slightly outside of the "norm" of their society, whatever that norm may be.
They don't all look like me but they each take on a bit of my personality, my quirks, my thought system, my belief system. I guess, then, that must include taking on my race--but I don't really think in terms of race when I'm writing.
I'm wondering if I should.
I'm very much aware of the need for more diversity in literature. At the same time, I believe in the importance of authentic voices, and characters that are not caricatures of anyone. For me, at least up until this point, I have veered away from male protagonists, because I don't feel that I can write a truly authentic and genuine male character. So, does that mean I also will never be able to write from the voice of someone outside my own race or cultural system? Am I limited to writing characters that somehow only represent my perspective on the world? If that's true, perhaps I shouldn't be writing.
However, my perspective is not defined by any one thing. I am a woman with a strong feminist outlook on life (but that doesn't mean I'm a man-hater). I am a white woman who has, in many ways, benefited from a system where white-privilege still manifests itself. I am also a Jew, who has experienced hatred aimed in my direction simply because of that fact. However, I am a questioning Jew, meaning that while I value many of the beliefs and traditions of the religion, I don't accept or follow everything--which puts me on the outskirts of the Jewish community in many ways. I am married to a Japanese/Korean American man, and have witnessed bizarre moments of racism in his presence including the strange looks cast in our direction just after 9/11 by people who assumed anyone with darker skin must be a terrorist. I am raising a daughter who is not white, and stands out in any class photo as exotic or different. I lived for three years in a culture completely foreign to me (Japan) where I experienced the bizarre disparity between idolizing someone for their culture while simultaneously despising and disparaging that same culture. (By this I mean I would sometimes be treated like a rock star and the next moment someone would assume all American women are easy). I have lived on the line between wealth and poverty, and experienced the unjust division between the two.
I am defined by these things and so many more. While I recognize that I am not completely an outsider in any world, at the same time I have never felt like I belong in any group fully. I am my own person.
But, when it comes to writing, I seem to stay in the safety of "just outside the norm." I have been working intermittently on a manuscript that explores the issue of "us and them" with the intent of showing how division will ultimately destroy us. The groups are divided upon racial lines. Does that mean that I am reinforcing racial stereotypes? Or am I challenging them? This particular project has become a stumbling block for me, and now I think I know why.
If I want to grow and improve as a writer, I need to take the risk of writing characters that challenge me. However, I still think that my focus will always be on creating characters with authentic voices regardless of the color of their skin.
I don't have any answers at the moment, just more questions.
Do you write characters from races/cultures different from your own? How do you ensure they move beyond caricature? How should an author approach diversity in his/her work? Thoughts?