The Line Keeps Moving

 

We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of my top ten novels, always comes to mind when someone asks for a recommendation.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of my top ten novels, always comes to mind when someone asks for a recommendation.

This morning, as every morning, after my yoga I sat in front of the laptop and started cruising the news.  I don’t read any one paper/site cover to cover; I hop around, the HuffPo, The Guardian, New York Times, Politico, and any links popped up overnight on my Facebook feed that catch my eye.  And so I saw the headline for this essay in The Guardian, and got excited.  (As excited as I get at pre sunrise, only on my second cup of coffee.)  I am a huge fan of Lionel Shriver, as evidenced by the photo above.  Over the past few years I’ve gotten rid of the majority of my paper books–surprisingly liberating–but I keep a couple of shelves worth, a selection or two or three showcasing authors I worship or individual volumes that have had a huge impact on me, as a person and/or as someone who writes.

When I read the essay, my first thought was, “oh, fuck.”  It’s about the author’s response to part of a speech given by Lionel Shriver, about identity, cultural appropriation, what is or isn’t ok for an author to explore through their fiction.  When I love an author’s work, I want to be one hundred percent devoted to them in every way.  I want them to be the giants I’ve built them up to become in my mind, I want to have faith as I learn more about them that this is someone I’d enjoy having conversations with over tea, coffee, or a glass of wine.  Silly, isn’t it?  Especially silly when I’m someone who still harbors occasional fantasies of being published (well published!), and yet here I am running this blog:  Mrs Fringe of the colorful language, big mouth, strong opinions, and anything but neutral political leanings.  I have no doubt there are many who would not enjoy having coffee with me, maybe even some of the same who enjoy my words when they’re fiction.  I’m the first to admit not everyone finds my sense of humor charming. General publishing wisdom–common sense, really–dictates that anyone hoping to earn a dollar from strangers shouldn’t do anything to actively offend anyone.

The thing is, I’m a person, first and foremost. That’s what Mrs Fringe is about, being a person who wears many hats, plays many roles; complete with disappointments, laughter, mourning, screw-ups, nonsense, inappropriate thoughts, offensive-to-some language, a desire to be heard and understood, a desire to learn and understand more, a desire to connect with others.  Kinda like, oh, say…fiction.  And the authors of said fiction.  Yes, it’s imaginary characters and made up scenarios, but good fiction, enduring fiction, the kind of fiction Lionel Shriver writes, is uncompromising, unapologetic.  She creates characters who are SO real, doesn’t hesitate to use her characters and scenarios to explore who we are as human beings, as a society, to use the mirror of fiction to examine the beauty, pain, and the ugly bits of what it means to be a whole person.  Sure it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also riveting.  This is the fiction that endures, because people are people–now, fifty years from now, two hundred years ago.

So I’m a person.  So, apparently, is Ms. Shriver.  And I read the essay, thinking about the author of the essay, her offense at Lionel Shriver’s remarks referencing how easily, too easily, people are offended now, the idea of political correctness.  Her offense at the idea that a novelist can accurately and appropriately portray someone whose experience of life is vastly different than their own, i.e.: a white novelist writing a person of color, straight novelist writing LGBTQ characters, etc.  Her interpretation of the novelist’s speech as arrogance–maybe it was, because I only have the author’s paraphrasing before she walked out twenty minutes into it, I don’t have enough information to give an informed opinion.

I want to be offended by her offense.  But I’m not.  The truth is, she has a point.  Could a white male have written Their Eyes were Watching God, given the character of Janie Crawford the same depth, the same enduring honesty created by Zora Neale Hurston?  Nope. Could In the Time of Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, have been written by someone who isn’t Dominican, written in a way that allows the reader to come as close to feeling what it would be like living in the shadow of Trujillo as you feel reading her story of the Mirabel sisters?  Nope.  If a white author writes a black protagonist, I’m going to be skeptical, I’m going to be wondering about the character being written in a way that is not only not realistic, but wondering about the icky squicky line of that protagonist being written in such a way that it’s lecturing (subtle or not) the reader on how a person of color should be feeling in this imaginary scenario.  Will that novelist be able to allow the reader to feel the enduring humanity while preserving the reality of life experiences through they eyes and thoughts of a protagonist who isn’t straight and white?

Lionel Shriver, as far as I could tell from the essay, had a point, too. If we are afraid to examine any but our own narrow viewpoint, so afraid of using the wrong words we stay silent, we will never understand a damned thing, and our worlds will shrink with the novels in front of us, rather than expanding.  Female authors have written beautiful, powerful strong male characters and vice versa.  What would seventh graders read if Harper Lee hadn’t written To Kill a Mockingbird?  What are we teaching these future generations (*cue thinkofthechildren wail*) if they stop reading it because it might be triggering, or offensive to examine our society’s racism–past and present?  You know what was amazing to me, about Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin?  Reading about her afterwards, and learning she isn’t a parent.  My mind was blown.  But maybe it shouldn’t have been.  Maybe it’s because she isn’t a parent that she was able to take such a hard look at parenthood without turning the mother into a saint or a caricature of a villain (though not necessarily likable).

Would it be the same thing, a white author writing a protagonist who is Black, or Latino, Asian or Indigenous?  No, but it also shouldn’t mean limiting characters to only those who experience life the same way the writer does.  If it did I’d have to give up even fantasizing about having anything published.  I can see it now, the NY Times Best Seller– Mrs Fringe Buys a Slow Cooker.

img_8827

Cultural appropriation is a real thing, and it’s something we need to be aware of, and sensitive to.  Maybe it’s harder for whites to understand because so much of the tradition of white, Christian culture involves the attempt to force it down the throats of everyone else.  What the line is, exactly, I’m not sure.  At the beginning of this post I referenced yoga.  Is it cultural appropriation for me to practice yoga?  I’m pretty sure I don’t have that Jane Fonda exercise tape anymore.  Or a beta machine to play it on.  Nerd Child tells me the Weeping Buddha statuette I have on my desk is cultural appropriation.  I don’t know, it makes me feel better to touch it in the early morning, pretend that I really am letting go of any sadness and starting the day with a clean slate.

Mother of God with Child--Kuz'ma Petrov-Vodkin

Mother of God with Child–Kuz’ma Petrov-Vodkin

I saw the above painting recently, wished I could have it hanging in my apartment.  I’m far from a religious anything, let alone Russian Orthodox.  It’s art, and what makes great art (visual, written, or other) is the creator’s ability to preserve the specific subject while transcending it, offering the reader/observer/listener a world outside of her own while tapping into the common themes we all share.

People don’t change, the human condition has had us exploring the same questions for hundreds of years.  Society, though.  Society changes.  The words and language we use changes.  What is acceptable changes.  The line of what is or isn’t ok to do and say moves.  Sometimes it moves quickly.  It behooves all of us to remember this, and if we write, or read, or engage with the world in any way, it behooves us to remember this, like everything else that’s important, involves many shades of gray.

*Follow up: This morning I saw the transcript of Shriver’s full speech in The Guardian.  I thought some of my readers might be interested, and as always, invite all to come back and comment here if you read it.

16 comments

    1. Sometimes it can seem that way. But it isn’t. It’s keeping that awareness in mind as we write, using characters to show how the line has moved, no? There are terms that weren’t considered slurs but were acceptable when I was young that I would never use now, I don’t have to think about not using them–unless they were coming from a character stuck in the past. That’s the “job” of literary fiction, through stories and characters, to hold that mirror up and show those truths.

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  1. Another compelling post, mrs. f.

    I read the post in question after reading yours. I see her point. There are people on this earth who don’t have a voice; wide swaths of humanity who still don’t have a voice. But does that mean I, as a writer, dare not write about them? If a writer isn’t born into a certain experience, does that preclude them from writing about it?

    When an author taps into the wellspring of human experience, and reflects that experience back to us in a way that resonates, we call it great fiction. But even the best fiction has been filtered through the lens of that author’s imagination, biases, beliefs, and personal experiences. The *truth*, as they see it, has been reflected and refracted, distilled, extrapolated, melded and molded in a way that not only relays their message, but suits their story.

    Isn’t that the point?

    I write about others unlike myself, do it all the time. I guess, in a way, there’s some exploitation there–I’m not trying to change the plight of those people. But their experiences are more than fodder for my books. I always try to render my characters as real as I can, to shine a light on them as human beings who live and breathe and laugh and cry as I do, as we all do.

    Still, how successful can I be within the limits of my own experience and expertise? If my characters and their stories don’t ring true, I imagine I’ll know that soon enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see her point, yet wish she had stayed through to the end (and not ignored the many people of color who have written amazing, enduring works), been able to offer more in the way of direct quotes–because I see Shriver’s point, too. We cannot limit ourselves, we cannot be afraid to see what and who is really there–but only insofar as we remember the different ways people experience the world. Most of my stories are set in NY, so it’s natural for there to be a varied “cast,” it feels ludicrous for me to attempt to write stories set here with a homogeneous cast of characters. However, would I write a black male protagonist? Right or wrong, I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.

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  2. A tough new topic to add to our already complex world. Funny that it was never an issue when white males dominated the writing scene. They could create any character of any gender, any skin color, any sexual orientation, any social background and everybody was okay with it.
    A writer, in my humble opinion, should be free to write about anything. This is the privilege of creation. But. When a writer wrongly depicts an unfamilar world not only it shows it also hurts. This is the duty of creativity to do your homework.
    One of my most favorite writers of all times is John Irving. His last novel depicts a Mexican-American man and the novel is set in Mexico, the Philippines and the US. There are women too. The novel is moving and a wonderful piece of creativity and humanity. Even though Irving is white, fairly old and doesn’t speak Spanish. He did his homework.
    Would I write about African-American or Asian- American people? No.
    Do I like it when American writers put a French sentence, here and there, when the grammar or spelling are butchered? No. When it serves the story and is well-done? I applaud.
    So, in my opinion, as long as the writer is skilled, respectful, and has done her or his research, it’s okay to write on any subject, to create fictional characters from any origin and to describe any parts of the world.
    Because when we stop doing that we also put the brake on creativity and freedom of expression. Again, it’s only my opinion and I stress the importance of research and talent.
    Another thought-provoking post that has its place in the current discussion. Thank you, Mrs. Fringe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t an issue–or wasn’t one that people paid attention to. 😉 I completely agree with all you’ve written here (not least of which the brilliance of John Irving, old white male and all, I’ll have to check out his latest!). I absolutely don’t want to suffocate creativity, expression, or exploration. I do think this is an important topic in today’s world, as writers, readers, and human beings, and we need to consider all as we choose our words and shape our imaginary worlds. ❤

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  3. I’ve yet to read the post referenced by the link, but it’s pulled up for later. Therefore, this comment is solely about your post – which was once again spot on.

    Throwing this right into the ring, I happen to hate when people bitch about concepts written from alternative viewpoints: one culture writing, acting or performing another culture. Now, there are exceptions, of course, such as an obvious attempt at a caucasian person to play the role of a native American or black character that is specifically written to be non-caucasian IF there is an equally or comparably talented performer of the previously intended race.

    Run-on sentences aside *ahem*, far too many people bitch, moan, and beat their heads over the fact that this race or that group of people aren’t mentioned or highlighted in works of fiction. Yet, when they are, the bitch turns to “Well, yes, but the writer was the widowed wife of a soldier in Dubai, so what does she really know about the plight of a 1950s-era male fighting for gay rights in New York City?”

    Using your words as reference: “It’s art, and what makes great art (visual, written, or other) is the creator’s ability to preserve the specific subject while transcending it, offering the reader/observer/listener a world outside of her own while tapping into the common themes we all share.”

    As a ghostwriter, I’ve written over 1,200 articles that have been published online, in newsletters, magazines, and even as book bios. One of my favorite request themes dealt with the bios of 1920-1960 LGBT erotica authors. I’m a non-homophobic straight woman/writer/future author who dove into this with a heavy mind and open heart. And what I found is that many of those authors were hiding in the closet while others were happily married to men, single, or even happened to be men who hid their gender to write freely in the genre. I found the latter especially interesting considering women had written as men for centuries simply to be able to get their work published.

    As long as people continue enjoying the art, they’ll continue reading. And as long as people continue reading, it won’t matter what alternate opinions arise. In fact, many times, those alternate opinions provide more momentum to the free art movement as opposed to slow or hinder it.

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    1. Yes!!! I have to say, at this point, I don’t believe there is any reason for a white person to be onstage/in front of a camera, playing a role intended for a person of color, but this is one spot where writing, can, potentially, maybe, be different. Maybe, depending on exactly the character and story, but yes, artists should feel free to create the stories and characters that move them, as readers are free to embrace or reject those stories as they can/cannot identify with and/or learn from them. Thank you for weighing in, and I’d love to see your article re 1920-1960 LGBT authors. *pbbt, run-ons are comfort food* 😉 As always, thank you ❤

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      1. Now, after reading the article, my original opinion lightens in one area and darkens in others. I understand the concern over stereotype, and if Shriver did, in fact, turn Mexican residents into sombrero-wearing political targets, I see the frustration. That’s where it ends. The rest of her ramble was ridiculous and petty.

        Certainly, no human, let alone author, should deliver a speech poisoned with arrogance and condescension — without twisting it mid-stream to make an obvious point of his or her inverted behavior. However, many humans just don’t give a shit. Authors can be some of the most conceited assholes on the block.

        Fiction is not completely fake. Most fiction is laced with facts… past events, present experiences, future hopes – from the *author’s* perspective. Fiction is personal opinion, plain and simple. Thus far, most books have done amazingly well to avoid being completely buried by PC poisoning and backlash.

        My personal opinion is that by storming out of a conference like that, instead of waiting and discussing concerns openly with the writer, the woman made more of an issue about it than what existed in the first place. This is a woman who apparently writes for The Guardian. Wouldn’t it make more sense to interview the author directly to provide a comprehensive argument on both sides of the scale?

        *sarcasm* But why go to such trouble when we can all just continue getting our panties in a bunch and then complain to complete strangers online about it as opposed to anyone who could actually do anything to correct or amend the situation?

        Over it.

        Note: I will be happy to share those with you whenever you’d like. I wrote an entire series, so I won’t do it here… but I’m sure we could figure something out. 😉

        As always, you’re welcome. ❤

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        1. I vaguely remember the sombrero party/brouhaha, but not enough to remember my opinion of it. I agree, by walking out, the author of the essay missed an opportunity. <<I had to think about that for a bit, before I wrote my post, because it isn't every POC's responsibility to explain every aspect of walking through life with brown skin to white people. But ultimately, if she was taking the time to respond, I wish she would have taken the time to stay for the whole speech, if not begin a dialog right there and then (it may/may not have been appropriate for the venue).
          Email me!
          ❤ ❤

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          1. I just meant as a writer, she should have held her ground and gotten a scoop. I understand and agree that pigmented individuals shouldn’t have to explain their plight to others. I have friends, family, and potentially a future daughter-in-law who remind me of this in some way on a regular basis. White people are privileged. However, as a writer, if she was going to publish that for her viewership it makes sense to let them see both sides – or at least let the author dig a further hole.

            I’ll email you soon. 🙂

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          2. I should note that as I read her article, I kept thinking, “Talk to the Author, respond, mention it, interview her! Don’t hide away. Wait… where are you going? No! Oh, hell, no!” So that’s why my earlier response was a bit brusque. But it’s easy to feel that way while reading the issue. It can be much harder to act on it in person.

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