Should Authors Write Characters Outside Their Race?

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What follows is a conversation on writing characters of another race, featuring Bill Cheng, author of Southern Cross the Dog, “an epic literary debut in which the bonds between three childhood friends are upended by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 [and] in its aftermath, one young man must choose between the lure of the future and the claims of the past,” and Christine Lee Zilka, author and Fiction Editor of Kartika Review, moderated by Good Men Project Fiction Editor, Matthew Salesses. The conversation originally appeared at ALIST Magazine.

A note from the editor: Southern Cross the Dog is a voice-driven page-turner that quickly draws the reader into its world. As drawn in as I was, though, I kept wondering why Cheng had turned to a story of African American characters in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era, rather than write Asian American characters. I knew Cheng would be getting this question often in promoting his book, but I also knew that the question would mostly be posed as accusation or curiosity or marketing angle, rather than with the depth and examination deserved. Christine Lee Zilka has written deeply on the subject before, and I wanted to get her and Cheng in the room together. Most of the questions here are Zilka’s. I took the role of moderator. – MS

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Matthew Salesses: Hi Bill and Christine, thanks for agreeing to this conversation. Maybe we could start by clarifying your positions on writing outside of race? Why do it? When do it? Should we do it?

Bill Cheng:  Thanks for having me.

For me, writing outside of race isn’t an end in of itself.  It’s done in service to the larger story or my vision for that larger story.  In my case, I originally conceived of the book as being a tribute to country blues music which is by and large a product of Southern black culture.  To me, it would seem disingenuous to attempt the same book from the point of view of a white character or of an Asian character.

Photo courtesy of Christine Lee Zilka

Christine Zilka: People are afraid to approach a conversation that examines the fine details of writing outside one’s race. And then we end up with a silence that polarizes the discussion into a “should we or shouldn’t we” situation. I’m not sure a should/should not dynamic is healthy for the arts—there’s not much learning going on in that setup.

So for me, I’m searching for answers to the other components of your question–why do so? And when? And furthermore, how? Colum McCann, in LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, wrote about 1970s New York City—and in doing so, wrote characters of another race with success; it’s hard to get away with painting NYC entirely white. But then there’s Adam Johnson’s ORPHAN MASTER’S SON; his “why” and “when” aren’t obvious to me. Kazuo Ishiguro writes characters of another race with spectacular skill in REMAINS OF THE DAY, but his “why” isn’t apparent, either.

It’s a sensitive discussion involving race, appropriation, self-identity, representation, and ethnic loyalty as well as elements of craft and research—things I hope to discuss with Bill.

However, if the world were divided into black and white (no pun intended), and I had to choose between the “should” and “should not” camps—I’d lean towards the camp of “should not.” But it’s complicated, as I’ve stated. And I think the writers who write characters of another race with success are ones who acknowledge the complications. And who realize that research can only take you so far—there has to be some deep empathy and understanding and connection to make it really happen on the page, to nail down voice, character, story, etc.

I’m troubled by those who say that as writers they have a “right” to write outside their race if they want to do so. It’s not a right—it’s a privilege to do so. And with privilege comes responsibility—and yes, responsibility has its place in fiction. Failing to be responsible results in the equivalent of doing Blackface or Yellowface. So there’s that, too.

BC: See, I disagree with you there. I think a writer has every right to create fiction both inside and outside of their own experiences– be it in race, religion, or gender. The idea of this being a privilege denotes that the author is in some way being favored or is asking for permission– that the writer is enjoying a benefit that can be revoked at any moment. I don’t like working that way. It makes for timid writing and doesn’t deepen our understanding of those unlike ourselves.

Whether a writer should or shouldn’t try is a question that comes down to conscience and a deeper investigation of their larger loyalties.

Personally, I don’t believe that writing is a democracy. I don’t think a book’s content should respond to pressures except for the ones that the author exerts himself or herself.  It’s true that there is a responsibility here as there is in all expression.  Like you say, good art broadens our understanding of the world through empathy.  Bad art limits it through stereotype and minstrelism.  We need more of the first and less of the other.  But their places in the world shouldn’t be arbitrated at the word processor.

MS: Why don’t we talk about the responsibilities of research? Bill–can you tell us about the research you did for the book, and where the research stopped and imagination took over? Applying that question to race, how does one fill in the gap between experience and imagination?

BC: About the book overall?  Or just where it pertains to race?

I was and still am a huge delta blues fan.  I first started listening when I was 16.  It was like a bug in my ear I couldn’t get out.  I’d try to get my hands on everything I could– not just the songs, but audio recordings, taped conversations, written accounts.  Thanks to the work of ethnomusicologists like Alan Lomax and John Work, a lot of that is archived now in the Library of Congress.  These were in my mind before I even conceived of the novel.  But you use that.  You use other art.  Photos.  Memoirs.  Movies.  Novels.  You use whatever you can to make the world you’re creating feel whole.

It’s hard to say where research ends and imagination begins.  For me, the best time is when you reach the outer edges of your research:  Let’s say, you’re obsessed with tracking some arcane piece of information– something that in the great balance of your book probably will end up meaning very little.  You work at it.  You find nothing.  Then you realize you can just make it up.  When you give credibility to the impossible– that’s a moment of great edification for me as a fiction writer.

But to answer your question:  I don’t know if it’s possible to research race.  Even putting together that sentence has left me feeling a little queasy.  The unwritten assumption here is that X race is different enough from some baseline race experience that it merits research.  The problems of race in America, in of itself, has very little to do with race itself, and everything to do with perceptions of race and the conditions that those perceptions create.  Am I splitting hairs?

I would posit that the fundamental experience of being black or white or Asian or Hispanic or whatever else are the same as any human being.  We have the same sense of pain and love; we have the same sense of fair play; we equally fall victim to our own anger and pride; we are capable of the same insights, want the same things out of our lives.

The conditions that divide the masses– being poor, being marginalized, being hated, being cheated, being condescended to– are all experiences that we recognize.  If we can recognize it, then why can’t we extrapolate upon it?  Why can’t we imagine that being us?

Fiction creates the space where that can happen.  It allows us to experience empathy in experiences that we’ve never lived through.

CZ: 
I do agree with Bill that race is hard to research. In my opinion, the experience of being a person of color (in America) is something that research cannot surmount. No one is going to understand being called a chink every day of your childhood or knowing that if your mom makes a driving error, the driver next to you or in back of you is going to drive up and tell you go to “go back home” and/or say something about “Asian women drivers” unless you’ve grown up with epithets yourself.

How can you imagine racism unless you’ve felt it yourself?

Of course there are other facets to race beyond racism. But it’s sadly a core part of being a person of color in America.

The racism portrayed in SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG is so so true. Bill, do you think you could have written scenes like when Robert is caught washing Hermalie’s dress in the river—and his ensuing terror of being hunted down by the white boys with whom he fought, if you weren’t a writer of color?

Do you feel there’s a difference between a white writer writing outside their race in America, versus a writer of color writing outside their race in America? (I say “in America,” because a white person’s experience in let’s say Korea, would be markedly different). i.e., Is the minority writer better positioned to understand the majority than vice versa?

Cheng author photo_credit Joe OrecchioBC: I sincerely hope not.  It’d be unbearable for me to believe that a minority writer, by virtue of his race, has special access to feelings and experiences that a white writer doesn’t.  That blade cuts both ways.  As a writer, I have to operate on the belief that all human experience can be invoked through language.  If it can’t– if my ethnic and socio-economic background determines everything I know about what it is to be a human being, it’s time to call it quits.

Now of course, I agree with you.  If racism is more present in your life, you’d be more aware of it.  You might even be able to write it better.  You may even be better directed by your conscience to expose it.  But I don’t think the experience of fear, rage, panic, and injustice are outside the range of any feeling human being.

Have you heard the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit?” It’s a heartbreaking song about lynchings in the South.  It was written by Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish high school teacher in New York.  Now, Mr. Meeropol is not exactly a member of the white majority but his life experience, it stands to reason, is different from that of Billie Holiday’s or that of Thomas Shipp or Abram Smith (the two black men who’d been lynched and was the inspiration for the song).

That doesn’t make the song any less powerful.

MS: In an interview Christine did of Don Lee for Guernica, he said, “as much as I admire Ishiguro, and as much as I laud Chang-rae Lee for what he did with Aloft, I feel queasy about the idea of having non-Asians taking center stage in one of my books. I would feel guilty about it, as if I were trying to deny my ethnic heritage, even though this is precisely what I am suggesting we should be free to do.” It doesn’t sound like you did, but did you ever have second thoughts about the choice of these characters to explore subjects and emotions, like you said, that can be experienced by anyone? Did you not feel any pressure or responsibility to write about the minority experience from the perspective of someone within race rather than without? Is there anything you would say to detractors who might claim race-denial/did you feel at all like you were making a point by choosing to write non-Asian characters?

BC: It’s an interesting point of view and not one I’ve come across much.  Maybe I am guilty, on some level, of race denial.  I don’t, for example, conceive of myself first, by my “Chineseness”, whatever that may mean.  I never, to answer your question, write about Asian-American characters.  It isn’t a conscious choice or an overtly political choice.  It just doesn’t cross my mind.

Is that race-denial?

Only I know how I was raised and in what ways I’m vested in my heritage.  But whatever my loyalties or disloyalties may be, anyone who appoints themselves as the arbiters of all things Asian-American are full of shit.

When I was growing up, there was no such thing as an Asian-American identity.  You were either like your parents or else you were like your friends, be they white or black or hispanic or whatever.  You built an amalgam for yourself, negotiating as best you could the boundaries of those two worlds: life at home and life out in the world.  And all you are is what you make for yourself.

My parents, God bless them, are remarkable people.  In contrast to the overbearing Asian parental stereotype, my brother and I were encouraged to beat our own paths in this world.  To become self-determined people.

Should there be more Asian characters in the world?  There’s a conscience to that, certainly, especially in representing a race that has often been viewed by the outside world as cold and unapproachable.  And I certainly don’t look down on those who attempt it.  But that has never been a priority for me.

Am I a race denier?  What I am, I’ll always be, from one book to the next.  And whatever they might call me, I am staunchly unashamed.

CZ: I know that Matt has another question coming up–but I just want to say that there is a part of me that is ecstatic–we’re discussing something we could never have discussed even 20 years ago as Asian American writers and about Asian American literature. I grew up in America in the 70s and 80s–and there was no safe place to discuss writing another race, let alone have the space to generate thoughts on this subject. Even in NYC, I was one of only a few Asians in preschool–and when we moved to Los Angeles, I was the only person of Asian descent in school until junior high. Growing up Asian in America was about pure survival–not to the extent with which my parents had to deal, but even saying you wanted to grow up to be a writer was an act of rebellion, because the prevailing thought was, “Who would read my stories?” And the answer back then was, “No one.” There was no Asian American literature. There wasn’t an Asian American Identity, but there definitely were Asian stereotypes. (Long Duk Dong, Suzy Wong, the list goes on).

When my fiction was published for the first time, my dad was more excited than I was. His reaction was, “I didn’t know that America wanted to read our stories.”

BC:  Well said.  I think more than any time in past history, minority voices are getting traction in the larger world of letters.  I wonder what you, Matt or Christine, think is driving that push and what effect that might have on the larger conversation about American literature, where it’s going, what it stands for?

CZ: I think there are more of us, and more of us reading. And I think we owe the push to our pioneers–to Asian American writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, who pioneered APIA literature with immigrant themes, to Chang-rae Lee who wrote ALOFT and Don Lee, who is very cognizant of his impact towards the future of APIA literature. Each generation of writers breaks new ground for subsequent generations. Their work is why we dare to diversify, and why publishing is beginning to open new gates. Then again, white writers are also appropriating characters of color, too. And the reasons for that are different.

weekend fictionMS: Minorities have more of a voice in many arenas, I would guess, than ever before. But I suppose I’m more interested in the work left to be done. What you said, Bill, about never writing Asian American characters, and what Christine said about white writers appropriating characters of color makes me wonder whether writing about or not about your own race is inherently political, especially–or only?–for minority writers. That is, given a value by or presenting a value to the outside world. Regardless of whether or not the writer considers the political aspect when s/he writes.

Why don’t you ever write Asian American characters, Bill? If you don’t think it’s a conscious choice, why do you think you avoid it? And now that you’ve made the observation, do you think you’ll continue to avoid writing about AAs?

BC:  The stories I’ve been drawn to have never had an Asian or Asian-American imperative to them.  There was nothing by way of setting or theme where it would make sense to have an Asian main character, except only for the sake of having an Asian main character.

As a writer, every choice you make is inherently a political act.  Your use of language.  Your word choices.  What you include.  What you exclude.  What your character eats in the morning.  Language has power and the decisions we make in fiction direct that power– makes tiny shifts in  a reader’s perceptions.  But with that said, I don’t use fiction to espouse a personal activism.

Even in this book.  It’s set in a segregated South and racial injustice plays a heavy role in the characters’ lives but I don’t think of the book as an open critique of Jim Crow.  In this day and age, is that even necessary?

Instead, I’m drawn in by the flame of story.  Drawn to the things that have resonated more deeply with me than my own ethnic identity.

Does that mean I’ll never write an Asian character?  No, I would never limit myself in that way.

For some, fiction is a platform for social activism.  And that’s fine if that’s what you’re into.  But for me, fiction is a space for asking questions.  Can you do this through the lens of an Asian-American character?  Yes, of course, but that lens has to be appropriate to the subject.  It needs to be useful to and purposeful in the world of the fiction.  Otherwise, why do it?  I come from the school of thought that believes that writers need to obliterate themselves from their work.  It’s only when the last hints of solipsism are gone– when you stop imposing beliefs on the work– that something deeper rises to the top.

Asking why I don’t write Asian-American characters is tantamount to asking why I don’t care more about Asian-American issues– and that isn’t the case.  I do care, but like most hyphenated Americans, understanding and negotiating ethnic identity is something that’s deeply personal to me.  But my voting happens in the streets, in my relationships, at the polls and in the marketplace.  Not on the page.

CZ: I think it’s through political activism that you’re able to not be political with your writing (though in my opinion, writing about the Jim Crow South is a political act). I think we are able to write what we want to write, whether to write or not write outside of our own race, because writers of color like Junot Díaz are doing the work of writing consciously about race.

I wonder what has given you the freedom to write what you want to write, Bill? Who are your literary pioneers? What do you hope your work will do for the future of APIA literature, and for other Asian American writers?

BC:  This is probably true.  After all, the more diversely represented writers are in publishing, the more risks publishing houses take on books authored by people of color.  The publication of said books brings more viewpoints into the public eye which then in turn encourages more people of color to write.  And the cycle repeats.

A road has been paved right into the heart of the book publishing world.  Writers of color like Junot Diaz and Amy Tan and Edwidge Danticat and Chang Rae Lee and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have made it easier for non-white writers to publish their books.  Yes.  For sure.  And I am thankful and glad that that taint of prejudice is lifting from the bookselling world.

But publishing isn’t the same as writing.

It’s strange that these two worlds have entailed themselves with one another.  Writing is quiet, personal, introspective.  Publishing is noisy, social, declarative.

My literary taste and voice evolved from everything I’ve ever read– white writers and writers of color both; male and female; gay and straight.  There are amazing writers working today, both Asian and non-Asian and that makes it a very exciting time to be putting words to a blank page.  But when I look at Junot Diaz, when I read his books, I don’t think, Oh, if this Dominican guy can do it, maybe I can too.  I’m sure there are people who do feel that way and I think that’s fantastic.  We should all be liberated in our lives.  But when I read Diaz, when I read Manil Suri, or Arundhati Roy, I think:  Holy shit, look at this writing.  Look at this prose.  Look at these verbs, these nouns.  Look at the scope of this vision.  Look at this language.  These are the things that matter to me as a writer.  As a writer of color (if that’s what I am)?  Same answer.

Those I’d call my pioneers are pioneers in technical prowess, in the depths of their imagination, the strength of their voice.  They push the mechanics of fiction to places I’ve never seen before.  Michael Ondaatje.  Don DeLillo.  Raymond Carver.  Penelope Fitzgerald.  Some are old white men.  Some are not.  It’s what you can do with the words that’s important to me.  Not the details of where you came from.

I recognize I’m speaking from the position of having a published book and enjoying the fruits of that publication, but I also believe that if tomorrow, all the publishing houses shut their doors on me, I’d still be at my desk, writing stories.

I wrote my first short story when I was 7 years old about a boy who was raised by piranhas.  The biggest literary icons in my life then was R.L. Stein and Alvin Schwartz, the guy who wrote Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.  When I was 9, I read J.R.R. Tolkien and started trying to write stories about knights and wizards.

I never asked for permission.  I didn’t look around to see what everybody else was doing.  I just did it.  And I did it because it’s the stories themselves that are empowering.

What do I hope my work will do for APIA literature?  I don’t know.  Nothing, I suppose.

Or maybe not nothing, but nothing specific to APIA literature.  As a whole, I want writing to be better.  I want it to be important and outward looking.  I want literature to plumb not just the easy truths, but the hard ones.  I want American writers to recognize that their work exists on a world stage.  I want us to challenge ourselves, to grow.

And as for other Asian-American writers?  My father once told me that words like chink and gook and chinaman are only hurtful if you give credence to those words.  If you let it define you.  If you believe in some way that you are a chink or a gook.  Your days of letting people tell you what you are and what you aren’t are over.  Write what you want and don’t apologize for it.

MS: I guess my question is: why is the default not Asian American? For SCTD, there was more reason than “for the sake of it” to make the characters African American, but for a story where there is only “for the sake of it,” why not Asian American characters? Why is the “default” a non-Asian American character–in this case, do you write white characters, Bill? I used to write white characters by default/without even thinking about it.

Maybe we can all agree on “write what you want,” but any more to say about why “write what you want” isn’t Asian American characters?

BC: I’m probably guilty of the same thing– defaulting to white characters.  Why’d you do it?  My reason I suspect are probably the same as yours.  We live in a broader national culture where we’re used to seeing white leads.  There’s a long tradition of white protagonists: Caufield was white.  Gatsby was white.  Hamlet was white.  I sit down to the page; I tell myself I need a character with these x specific conditions; and if none of those conditions are race-related, the brain reaches for the closest thing on the shelf.

It’s not fair but it is the way race and perception work in this country.

But then again, thinking about my older stories, I’d be curious to know how many of them rely on racial cues in their telling.  I wouldn’t guess many.  Here and there, I might slip up and say a character has blue eyes or red hair or that someone blushed, but overall, I usually balk at lines that deal directly with skin color.  Like one’s “alabaster skin” or “ivory skin” or “olive-colored skin.”

Specificity in your imagery is important, but for me, a character’s physicality is best used as a means of characterization– of revealing something about the inner-life of either the character in question, or the character observing the character in question.  Racial features don’t really do that well.

Do you imagine my character is white because I say they’re white or is it because you’re used to reading about white characters?

Toni Morrison has this fantastic short story, “Recitatif,” about two girls.  It’s clear the girls are of different races but you’re never sure which.  It plays with these racial cues and our own prejudices in a way that’s extremely fascinating and insightful both as a writer and as a reader.

When a character’s race is highlighted in fiction, some part of me always wonders why that choice was made.  What cue am I, as a reader, supposed to get from that?  This can either be distracting or purposeful depending on context and the nature of the work.

To me, truly great characters are not defined by their race.  Humphrey Bogart and Danny Glover have been Philip Marlowe.  Lucy Liu (for better or worse) and Martin Freeman is John Watson.

Now let’s take it further.  What cues do we receive if we read that an Asian man walks into a room?  What are our prejudices there as Americans?  What cues do we receive if we read that the character is instead, an Asian woman?

I was having a discussion with colleagues a few weeks ago and someone observed that you’ll find plenty of Asian women on book covers but no Asian men.  Why?

Because we are suspicious of Asian men.  They aren’t, as a whole, very emotive.  The smallness of the eyes signal distrust.  Maybe even haughtiness.  Add to that, that Asians as a whole have been viewed as exotic, strange, foreign.  Asian women on the other hand are exotic but in a way that is desirous, maybe even erotic.  They exude passivity and are sometimes infantilized.

It’s highly racist and highly sexist but these are the portrayals that are either openly or tacitly reinforced in our culture.  I’d love it if we, as a nation, would come to our goddamn senses about this but as a writer, you run the risk of letting some of that poison onto the page.

The flip-side, however, is that the more Asian characters you represent in a way that is full and humanizing, the more you’re pushing against those portrayals.  But then, how do you get a reader to get over their initial prejudices in the first place?

I don’t have the answer.  It’s a good fight and it’s a hard fight but it’s not the only fight out there, and not the only one I care about.

In my mind, I don’t write for Asian-Americans.  My work doesn’t have the direct political objective of bringing parity to Asian-Americans.  If it did, then it wouldn’t be art.  It would be agenda.  I’m not saying art is politically neutral but let me put it to you like this:

In what ways should an Asian-American writer promote his race?  And to who?  To white people?  To other Asians?  And what about the other disenfranchised of this world?  The other ethnic groups?  The religious groups?  The gay?  The transgendered?  If your talents are such that can help them–your fellow beings of this Earth–don’t you have an obligation to serve as their conduit?  Or are you only obligated to help those that are exactly like you?

And at what point are you serving others and not yourself?

CZ: I don’t consciously decide to write Asian American characters–that’s just who is in my head–probably for the same reasons you write white characters. Asian American characters are a default in my head because, as you say, of the broader culture in which we mainly see white protagonists. Growing up a part of such a minority made me very conscious of representation–my mother told me that I was representing all Koreans, for instance, whenever I was out in the world (at the time, she meant the suburban town in which I spent most of my childhood). She sent me off each time to my white friends’ homes by saying those very words, “Represent yourself and us and all Koreans well.” I don’t remember her not ever saying it. So I was very aware that my behavior spoke for an entire people; I’m sure that has impacted why I write what I write.

Now I know that I spent my early childhood in a different time than you, Bill–when Asians were far fewer in the U.S.–certainly different than Queens, where I was born. Though at the same time–do you not remember Long Duk Dong? And there’s debate around whether or not Lucy Liu (and the characters she plays-i.e., Ling Woo) is a heroine or a curse for Asian American women. I think there’s more work to do. You’re doing a job by expanding boundaries and I’m doing a job, too. I honestly think my writing audience, whether I want it to be or not, is Asian America and other readers of color. Even if I wanted one, I’m not getting a white readership. There is universality in the particular, and I like to imagine that if someone not-Asian or not-Korean is reading my writing, they are eavesdropping on an exclusive dialogue. I’m writing with the hope that people will gladly eavesdrop just as I do when I read, for example, James Baldwin.

And I don’t describe my Asian characters with racial features–I describe their inner life with the craft of writing in mind. I think it’s unfortunate that people think political writing isn’t well crafted story. But all you have to do is look at the writing of Toni Morrison or Junot Díaz or James Baldwin or Li-Young Lee or Cristina Garcia or Salman Rushdie to see otherwise. There is no substitute for craft; you can have the best of intentions, but if you don’t write well it’s all moot, because you’ll end up with a story, political or not, that no one wants to read. And I hope that in writing a well crafted story, my readers, regardless of race, will relate.

I also think if a reader has prejudices against Asians and Asian Americans, they’re simply not going to pick up my book–that job falls outside a writer’s realm. Though I guess my surname “Zilka” could be misleading, and I might get a few surprised readers. But I’ll be glad my work is there for those who care to venture.

I like that you brought up the point about Asian stereotypes and the impact they have on book covers, etc. My reaction is the opposite; it was to write an Asian American male protagonist in my novel. It’s not poison to do so. I’m angry, and I funnel my anger and sadness into my writing–my anger is not a poison, it’s my reaction to wanting a better world and not having one. If I don’t speak up, who will?

That said, the NY Times recently lauded a white writer whose book on another culture and country was just released—the tone of their review was very matter of fact; the author overcame obstacles—by doing research and using his imagination, going so far as to say that the book is purely a work of research and invention, and not based on personal experience.

Additionally, Michiko Kakutani’s review of Adam Johnson’s ORPHAN MASTER’S SON writes, “In doing research, Mr. Johnson read firsthand testimony from defectors and traveled to North Korea himself; he then used his sharp sense of the absurd and adrenalin-laced language — the same gifts on display in “Emporium,”his 2002 collection of short stories — to transform that research into an operatic if somewhat long-winded tale that is at once satiric and melancholy, blackly comic and sadly elegiac.”

It’s problematic that for white writers, research can surmount the experience of race.

In contrast, the NY Times’s review of SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG by Julie Bosman smacked of surprise at how you could venture outside your race and geography, having never traveled to Mississippi prior to finishing your novel. It completely glosses over the fact that there are experiences that people of color have in common that may not require research. How is it that they aren’t questioned for writing another race and place whereas you are? What do you think is the reason for the difference in tone, and thus the reception of your work and person as a writer? Why is it that your work has to be validated by notable literati, particularly those of the South, like Edward P. Jones?

BC: Well, to start let’s clarify that the piece you’re referencing isn’t a review, it’s a profile and doesn’t deal with the substance of the book but the newsworthiness of the book’s author and its publication.  The novel would later be reviewed by Dwight Garner for the Times.  And so both have different objectives.  As to Bosman’s, Gardner’s, Kakutani’s individual intentions, you’ll have to ask them.

But here are some thoughts:

I don’t know what the editorial process is like at the New York Times.  I don’t know its structure or if there’s an overall editorial vision for their Books department.  My expectation is that there isn’t, that reviewers discuss books in a way that is both personally edifying and satisfies their professional obligations.  The Bosman piece was largely positive.  The Garner piece was not.  Each writer brings their own perspectives to bear.  Who’s to say if Johnson’s treatment wouldn’t be different if it were handled by Bosman or Gardner; if mine wouldn’t be different if it were handled by Michiko Kakutani?

Editorial isn’t reality.  It is a lens through which we can order the chaos of reality.  The lens of the NYT piece was that here is a surprising work that has intruded into that region of American literature  that has long been held sacrosanct by its practitioners.  Why is it surprising?  Well because 1.) I’m from New York City, 2.) because I’m ethnically Chinese, a people that is not as widely represented in the South as they are in some of the coastal cities and 3.) because I have no familial or experiential ties with the region I’m writing about.

These are all true, and in the context of the story, possibly newsworthy.  The unspoken assumption here is the expectation that only those of the South can write of the South.  And I’ve run my mouth long enough here for you to know that I disagree.  Johnson, on the other hand, didn’t write about a region in which there is a pre-existing literary claim– he wrote about a region that in the American imagination is a blank.  Both require acts of empathy and imagination, but the coverage is different because the subject matter is different.

Maybe I have blinders on, but I see the criticism my novel draws as an address of regionalism more than it is of race identity.  And there are layers of bullshit to that as well.  I’m immensely happy and gratified that Edward P. Jones likes my book.  Not because he’s black or lives in D.C. but because he is a goliath of a writer.  The nod of his head doesn’t admit my name into the inner-sanctum of Southern literature or black literature where William Faulkner’s ghost awaits me with a snifter of whiskey.  It just means that the guy liked it.

If you read his approval and the approval of other Southern or black voices as proof that Southern Cross the Dog passes some kind of sniff test then you’ve been tricked!  The only sniff-test there is is to read the book, and when you’re done, consult your conscience.

As for The Orphan Master’s Son, I haven’t read Johnson’s book yet.  I hope to soon.  Based on the press surrounding it, I have very high hopes for it.  But I did get a chance to read Catherine Chung’s (Forgotten Country) thoughtful response to it on the Rumpus.  She argues that Johnson’s book, as good as it is, shouldn’t be celebrated for rendering an innately “North Korean” point of view.  What the book does instead is project a Western consciousness onto its characters, a practice which falls in line with an unfortunate history of Americans refusing to see and understand Asians on their own terms.

Now, I’m not going to criticize a book I haven’t read but I think Chung is right in that we ought to be wary of this kind of white-washing.  With that said though I don’t think it’s outside the grasp of any human being, white or otherwise, to render another human being’s perspective in a way that is meaningful and genuinely felt.  So yes yes yes absolutely a white person can convincingly write a non-white person’s experience.

How do you even begin to describe one’s ethnic or cultural identity?  I don’t know what an innately Western identity is.  Nor do I know what an innately Asian or North Korean identity is.  But the way I see it, one of three things must be true.  Either:

A.) ethnic identity cannot be conveyed through language (in which case, it cannot be represented either rightly or wrongly in literature)

B.) ethnic identity only exists as a philosophical construct and is not a felt experience.

C.) all experiences are available to all people so long as they’re willing to work for it.

I think you know my answer by now.

But let me put it to you like this: if it is problematic for Adam Johnson, a white writer, to write from a North Korean character’s point of view, why isn’t it equally problematic for me, an Asian-American writer to write from a black person’s point of view?  An Asian-American who, by all accounts, you know virtually nothing about in terms of the level of his privilege, his views on race, the environment in which he was raised, the kind and quality of his home, his friends, his peers.

I grew up in Queens in the 80′s.  Asians were beginning to gain a foothold into the more affluent neighborhoods of New York City and were pushing east, out into Long Island.  The neighborhood I grew up in had a significant Asian population, but at the time, had not displaced the earlier Jewish or Italian or generic American white residents of Bayside.

In some ways my experience was probably easier growing up.  Not idyllic, but also not suffocated byrace hate.  Does that make me less qualified to write non-Asian or non-white characters?

The term writers of color, at its heart, means nothing to me.  There is no singular experience or perception of reality that is exclusively and necessarily tied to the race you’re born into.  Experiences might be similar, but they are not the same and not felt in the same way.

But the larger question is: Are the people who review books for the New York Times racist?  And my answer is, probably not more or less than you and me.  We are always being judged by our physical characteristics– our weight, our height, our gender, our clothes, our skin color.  We make these judgments.  Other people make these judgments about us.  Book reviewers probably do it too but in this case, I don’t think that answer can be teased out by comparing my book’s review to The Orphan Master’s Son’s review.

CZ: All right. Yes, I called the Bosman profile a review by mistake. But the review by Garner is entitlted “Imagining a Past That Isn’t His Own.” They’re not pulling any punches!

BC:  It’s not a particularly glowing review so I don’t like revisiting it.  But OK.

By my count, there are three references to race in this 878 word piece.  They are, in order:

“It’s worrisome too that Southern Cross the Dog is set in Jim Crow-era Mississippi and is mostly about the lives of black men and women.”

“Mr. Cheng is a 29-year-old Chinese-American from Queens.”

There is a strong, bitter section here too about white trappers who are about to lose their livelihoods, thanks to the amiable nightmare that to them is the Tennessee Valley Authority.”

The last item is a neutral description of events in the book so we can discount that.

The former two reinforce the contention that the book is lacking in authenticity (“A sense of ventriloquism creeps in. A copycat… is always ‘an energy level removed from the cat he’s copying.’)  Without explicitly saying so, the review juxtaposes the content of the book (“Southern Cross the Dog… is mostly about the lives of black men and women”) with the context of my life (“Mr. Cheng is a 29-year-old Chinese-American from Queens”)– offering that disparity as cause for what Garner feels is a lack of a true voice in the novel.

(Do I need to rail against this notion some more?)

I never thought I’d find myself in the position of having to defend this review, but nevertheless if you look at the review’s title as a statement on race, I think you may miss the point.  It’s a statement about experience– and while race is bundled into experience, I think it is more significantly an indictment of background and the constraints of imagination.

There’s nothing inherently untrue about the title.  Yes, I imagined a past that is not my own.  And its appropriateness to the review is in the implication that not only is that past not my own, but it doesn’t ring true.  It doesn’t resonate for Garner not because I’m Asian, but because I’m far removed from the historical regional and cultural realities of the Jim Crow South.

The same can’t be said against Johnson because we’re far less familiar with the historical, regional, and cultural relaities of North Korea.

Some readers, including Garner probably, think that because I’ve wandered into the wheel house of Faulkner and Welty and McCarthy and O’Connor, that I ought to be measured against them.  That, to my mind, is fallacious but Garner’s thesis isn’t that Asian people can’t accurately imagine the South– it’s that because of these other factors (which includes but is not exclusive to race), I haven’t.

But let’s say for a moment that you’re right and I’m wrong– that the editorial viewpoint of The New York Times is that when minorities write outside of their race, it’s cute and fascinating the same way two-headed spaniels are cute and fascinating.  As a writer and a non-white American, the idea is repulsive and inflammatory– but can we honestly sit here and say that my book isn’t among the outliers in the larger trend for non-white authors to write within the confines of their own race?

Now don’t let me bully you.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  You listed the authors yourself.  Their books are masterpieces and need to be in the world.  But in addition to inspiring and creating opportunities for future writers of color, it can also hem them in.  You create a “tradition” of Asian-American literature and you run the risk of every new Asian-American writer being compared to Chang-Rae Lee or Li-Young Lee or Amy Tan.

Repeat anything enough times and people start having expectations.  Take my word for it.

This doesn’t apply in the same way to white authors because they’ve been crossing cultural boundaries for years.  William Styron, Pearl Buck, Herman Hesse.  Every science-fiction and fantasy writer from Usrula Le Guin to Neil Gaiman.  Some have caught hell.  Some have not.  But the fact remains that white mainstream fiction has not been afraid to cross ethnic lines.  Now you may view that as arrogant or presumptuous, but it isn’t surprising.

CZ: Sorry. I didn’t mean it as a question–and didn’t mean for you to take another look at a review that isn’t to your favor. Just a comment that the review title focuses on the content of your writing as opposed to its craft (which he does compliment in the end).

MS: Let’s do two last questions: 1. Bill, what kind of questions do you wish people would ask you about SCTD, that you aren’t getting? 2. What are you reading right now? Thanks for doing this, both of you!

BC:  Not a problem at all!  And I’ve really enjoyed talking with you both and having the opportunity to talk about these things.

I suppose I like questions that are very specific.  Big idea questions are harder because I don’t want to pretend to any authority on the grand state of high letters or something.  I’ve got opinions but only because I’m snotty and have a high sense of self and like to talk but I wouldn’t want to be responsible for another person’s writing life in any way.

Instead I love craft questions.  I think a writer is as much a craftsman as he or she is an artist.  Why did you use this word instead of that word?  How do you build a scene?  How do you modulate rhythm?  Syntax?  Diction?  That stuff, to me, is really exciting.  It means I’m in the room with someone who really loves language, who reads to become a better writer.  Sadly, that hasn’t happened yet.

I want to imagine that that’s true of all writers.  You guys both write, do you agree?

Right now, I’m reading books written by friends.  I just finished reading Jessica Soffer’s Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots which is a lovely and beautiful and heart-breaking story about a damaged teenager named Lorca who is trying to learn to cook masgouf and an Iraqi-jewish cook named Victoria who’d just lost her husband.  What I love about Jess’s book is that it reminds you how powerful confident writing is.  The whole foundational structure, the whole universe of that novel works and comes alive because of the strength and forthrightness of the author’s language.

I’m also in the middle of a book called Sharing by Miracle Jones which was self-published on Smashwords.  I love all of this guy’s stories– they’re raucous and joyful and obscene and touching–  but Sharing is something else entirely.  I feel like if I try to describe it, I’d do it wrong somehow and just end up confusing you.  You have to go into this book with no a priori knowledge.  All I can say is when I’m reading Sharing, I don’t want to sleep.  It’s not for everyone, but if you love this book, you’re my kind of person.

After that, I’m going to read Carmiel Banasky’s novella manuscript The Spirit Photographer, then re-read Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic for an event we’re doing for the Books Beneath the Bridge series in Brooklyn in a few weeks.

Then I’ve got a stack about a mile high of all the great books that came out this season and last season and the season before.  And at the very bottom of that is a barely-mussed up copy of Moby Dick.

CZ: I love that Moby Dick is at the bottom of your stack. I’ve always got a copy of Salman Rushdie’s MIDNIGHT CHILDREN on my nightstand myself.

I just had a baby a few months ago, so I’ve only recently begun to do some serious reading again. Like Bill, I’m reading books written by friends. I’m reading Patricia Engel’s IT’S NOT LOVE, IT’S JUST PARIS. Have you read her story collection VIDA? It’s such a sharp bunch of stories. And Nova Ren Suma’s 17 & GONE. I started reading BLACK SWAN GREEN by David Mitchell while pregnant before my brain blinked off, and I’d like to finish that up. I’ve honestly got about fifty books on my Kindle and my bookshelf that I bought while pregnant that I’ve got to read. I’m so behind!

And of course, I just finished reading SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG by this guy named Bill Cheng…

Bill Cheng received a BA in creative writing from Baruch College and is a graduate of Hunter College’s MFA program. Born and raised in Queens, New York, he currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife. Southern Cross the Dog is his first novel. 

Christine Lee Zilka is the Fiction Editor at Kartika Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as ZYZZYVA, Guernica, Verbsap, Newport Review, and Men Undressed. She has a novel in progress.

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About Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses contributed to the very first day of The Good Men Project. He writes the "Love, Recorded" column about his wife, baby, and cats. He has written for The New York Times, NPR, the Center for Asian American Media, Salon, The Rumpus, and others. He is the author, most recently, of Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American masculinity. See more at his eponymous website. Contact him via email or @salesses.

Comments

  1. By all means, YES!

    It is not for authors to confine themselves to creating characters within their race – or gender, sexual preference, ideology, and social status for that matter. I agree with Christine Lee Zilka, who thinks it “hard to get away with painting NYC entirely white.” This, especially that I have written a novel about the United Nations, and birthed a hierarchy of characters – from the secretary-general down to the mission-area pawn.

    From my experience, researching and absorbing cultures outside of mine (in order to craft a good, realistic story) had been a reward in itself. I put reader-interest, critic-opinion, and any disabling conventions aside so I could explore worlds previously unknown to me and weigh my options therefrom. It was liberating to be immersed in the so-called quirks of peoples other than my own, and then to find confidence in building such fictional, multidimensional characters as Czech diplomats, Filipino peacekeepers, American service members, French divorcés, and homosexuals from the British civil service and the Argentine military. The target audience may not have picked up on this yet but, at least, I have fully satisfied my personal aim of promoting “border-less humanity”, and of splashing vivid color in the story.

  2. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Darn. I’m having such a case of identity fatigue. I write, and I’ve published one story from the point of view of a woman. Jim Harrison, to speak of someone much more talented, is a master at this. Some of the “exploitation speak” and “offendedness speak” tropes have just worn me down. I know that there’s such a thing as privilege, but I’ve decided not to worry about it because its variations are infinite, and it’s politically and socially divisive.

  3. wellokaythen says:

    At some point, unless you’re writing an autobiography, your characters will always be different from yourself. (Some would say this is even true of autobiography).

    Our current racial categories are not very old. If novelists are only supposed to write about “people of their own race,” then that means that historical fiction is essentially impossible for any historical context earlier than 400-500 years ago. That would mean nobody, including modern-day Italians, would be allowed to write any story set in ancient Rome. Are white Americans really the same race as the Romans? Are Chinese Americans really qualified to write about Korean Americans? The peoples of East Asia sure don’t think their all one race….

    Come to think of it, that rule would mean no more Bible stories, either….

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