Thank god for black women. I mean I know it wasn’t y’alls job to bail us out but you sure as fuck came through. This is kind of how I’ve always imagined Alabama, is a bunch of overprivileged white guys abusing their power and a bunch of black women holding everything together behind the scenes.
I’m writing about Alabama for this novel. Never having spent any time there, or in Australia or in Papua New Guinea or Vietnam or Vancouver or any of a bunch of the other places I’m writing about but haven’t experienced, I do kind of have to go with the pictures I have in my head. I’m expecting to get a lot of criticism for writing this, if it ever gets picked up and published, because not only have I never been to the border town of Laredo, but I’m also not black or Mexican or female, and I’ve tried and failed miserably many times before to write from non-white male perspectives, so what makes me think I can do it any better this time?
Well, both nothing and everything. Maybe this will be another complete failure. Maybe all I’ll end up doing in the end is revealing my biases and prejudices and privileges and I’ll be due to suffer having all of those pointed out to me. It’s kind of a catch-22, since if I only write from the white male perspective I’ll be guilty of a Hollywood-style whitewashing of the world, but if I try to write outside my comfort zone I’m doomed to fuck it up. But I’d rather try and fail than exclusively write white guy stuff but write it accurately.
I’ve thought about this problem for years, perhaps never with more scrutiny than when I had my reading list rejected by the English committee at Miami for lacking diversity. My advisor said throw some more women in there, resubmit it, this happens a lot. I did so, but not without some reservations. It made me think, are we always going to judge the books we read by author first and subject second? If that’s the case, why would I bother trying to be influenced by successful female authors if all I’m ever going to count as is a male author anyway? If I’m reading James Baldwin, should I only be trying to learn from his depiction of black males, since that’s all he counts as himself? Yes I understand that the literary canon is dominated by Caucasian men, and that that kind of monovocal storytelling is going to inevitably, on balance, fail to encompass the broadest possible swath of the human experience, and yes, that broad swath is what I want to write about. But even if I do end up being a successful writer, in the future education of future writers, all I will ever count as on their reading lists is just another white guy.
And I guess that’s all I can hope for, and I suppose that’s fine, but if that’s the case I will feel badly for my female, non-white characters, all of whom I love just as fiercely as my stock white fellas. I’ve worked hardest on them, spent the most time on them. I’ve only got one Vietnamese friend but I always worry what he’s going to think of me if he ever reads my depictions of Sally and Dat Nguyen, and my friend Jason who previously couldn’t tell if I was deliberately fucking with him when I asked him to read a story I’d written about a Mexican-American car dealer, it was so bad, I worry what he’s going to think about Inez and her family, and even my Australian friend, I worry what she’ll make of Vinnie-Frank’s visit to Cairns and PNG and back.
All of this is to say, I’ve got few scenes and characters based in Mobile, and it’s always the black women who end up dominating those scenes. I’m hoping to stop in Mobile on our way back from this Texas wedding, I’m hoping to, well, not actual meet anybody, I don’t like conversations, especially with strangers, but maybe I’ll get the chance to observe a few true-life Mobilians, just to see how they roll.
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