Thursday, August 11, 2011

The rant about race

Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help on cover selection:


I've been thinking about race a lot lately anyhow, but reading and finishing The Help has me ruminating on the topic, so just bear with me for the epic length of this post. A lot of this--most of it--is because of my book, which is not nearly as finished or polished or as complex, as of yet, as The Help. And of course, since The Help is set in the American South in the early 1960s, when Jim Crow was still the order of the day, it's a familiar setting to American readers because we all had to learn about it in school. It's part of American history, one that is still definitely very much felt till this day. 

Remember in 2008, when President Obama was running to become President Obama? Remember the outright racism on the part of some pundits, the inappropriate remarks, the dissecting of exactly which race he belongs to more? (since, after all, President Obama's mother was white). Is he black enough? Is he too black? 

Being biracial myself, I'm not one of those Americans who can't speak about race. I'm very comfortable discussing the topic, I think. Whether this is due to my upbringing or the way I personally identify myself (I am white and Asian; not one or the other, but both) or the fact that I grew up in the most diverse county in the United States...who knows? 

I've seen the looks directed towards me sometimes. "Is she Asian? White? What the hell is she?" I've been told that I am Chinese or Korean, when I am neither. I've been told that my eyes are "really small." I once wore a t-shirt that identifies me as Irish and heard a passing stranger say, "Irish. Yeah, right." Asian girls in high school told me that I wasn't Asian, that I was white. Then there's the wince-inducing question, "Where you from?" 

"Queens."

"No, no, no. Where you from?" 

"Flushing."

Now, don't mistake me. I'm not a Yankee Doodle Dandy, flag-waving American by any means. I'm not the kind to just instantly come out with "American," including the cheesy Crest smile. But if you don't know the word "ethnicity," then maybe you shouldn't be asking about my ethnic and racial background. So I've started answering all those sorts of questions with a very blunt: "Queens."

Because yes, that is where I'm from. 

When I was younger--and people didn't know the word "ethnicity"-- they used the word "nationality." Which, I guess, in a place like Queens County, can be fair enough; we have a large immigrant population. But really, there are only so many times you can hear the question, "What nationality are you?" And then, once explained, the instant slight giggle and the "Oh! How did that happen?" 

As if people from different countries haven't been having babies together for centuries. I had an acquaintance in high school who told me, "Maybe you should just tell them you're Japanese. You look more Asian anyway." 

I remember attempting to write a few essays on my personal...not issues, but opinions, experiences, on race...in college. I wrote one essay for a Creative Non-Fiction class about going to Japanese Saturday school from the age of four til the age of eighteen, where I was usually the only half white kid in a class full of Japanese kids who all intended to go back to Japan in the not-too-distant future. I wrote another memoir essay about my two best friends growing up, one black, one white. In the interests of this particular subject, I will quote the line that, if I recall, got the most reaction from my class of white writing students. Some of them were definitely uncomfortable:

"You know," S said on more than once occasion. "You two are going to get in trouble one day for following black people around."

Granted, this was said in jest when first uttered and was intended to be...flavor, I guess...within the essay. None of those other students were from New York. Only one other was biracial, white and Hispanic. And I wanted to write about my experiences, which just so happens to include a lot of interaction with many, many different types of people. 

My current project takes place in 1800, in England. If you only read historical romance that is set in that era--inspired by Jane Austen--then one comes away with the impression that England only had white people, with the occasional servant from India; that everyone either had a title, money, or was going to marry a title, and that most people are fair-minded, egalitarian types who fight for the poor and support Home Rule for Ireland but are appalled by the actions of the mob. 

Yeah, not so much. I know that historical romance is basically a costume drama in book form. You have a lord, who has all the leisure time in the world (because real gentlemen didn't work. Watching Downton Abbey with friends a few nights ago, they went, 'I know he runs the estate. But what does he do?') You have his wife or future wife. A fortune. Or a nice house. Or both. You kind of don't mention that that nice lord probably owns property in Ireland, where his Catholic tenants can't hold Parliament seats or practice their religion or speak Gaelic. Or that that lady's family may have interests in a Caribbean plantation, which may own hundreds of African slaves. Or that they may all be raging anti-Semites. 

My main characters are a merchant sailor, who married a black woman on the island of Barbados and ran a plantation for a few years, before becoming absolutely disgusted with himself over it. His wife dies and he decides that the only place he can take his two daughters, one illegitimate and white, the other the child he had with his late wife, is his native England. 

In trying to write the girls becoming acclimated to England and in writing their father's certainty that he must do his best to mix with their new local society for his girls' future, I am researching and attempting to imagine what it must have been like to be of mixed race in 1800 Britain, when you live close to a port city that was made on the slave trade. When everyone around you is lily-white. When slavery in Britain is effectively dead, but the colonies are still buzzing with the trade. Britain did not have the Jim Crow laws. They never had laws against marrying someone of a different race. There is evidence in old parish church records that blacks married whites. 

But law and culture are different things. And as my main character is well-connected and wealthy, he and his daughters' social circle is at the lower end of that historical romancelandia society where everyone knows everyone, gossips about everyone, and there are titles and high stakes and a very narrow slice of upper class people. These are the people who often were absentee landowners of a plantation on the other side of the world, one that needed slaves in order for it to run, or the ones that sat in Parliament and voted against abolishing the slave trade again and again. 

Truth is, last night, when I finished The Help, I had a down moment. I wondered what the hell I was doing, noodling around with a story that takes place 200 years ago, for God's sake. It's too lightly written. There's no social  consciousness in this book. I should be writing about something important, something I know. 

And yet, there is this constant thing about race in it. And yeah, I'm drawing very slightly from my own experiences and observations. But let's be real, I have it easy. I'm Irish-fair-skinned. I am of the tribe of the Unidentifiable Race. 
I don't know what it's like to be the only black girl in a white neighborhood. I'm not a huge fan of a lot racially-centered writing. It's been done to death mostly and I don't find someone's race and grappling with their racial identity to be compelling reading. But in this instance, with this story? It's rare to find a Georgian England-set book with mixed race characters at the fore. Often a bit of fantasy can tell us a lot about the world we currently live in, more so than contemporary-era novels. 

So I'm going to keep going with my work. As Kathryn Stockett said about writing about black maids, "I didn't get it all right." I definitely won't get it right--I can't interview anybody, they're all dead! But let's see what comes out of this story, once it's finished, revised, revised again and polished, shall we? 

Rant over. 

2 comments:

  1. Came here via AW. I know I'm like . . . a year late, but I just wanted to let you know that I love this post, and I would read the heck out of your book. Cheers!

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    1. Thank you so much SL! I really appreciate it. I'm in research and third draft mode at the moment. I have my moments with the project, but I think it has its important elements. Plus the really interesting history. I like to think of it as a twist on "write what you know."

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