Good company for thinking about race in novels

Does depicting racism in the past fuel it or fight it now? (FYI: photo taken in Belfast, Northern Ireland.)

Who else is thinking about race in fiction AND has battled evil garden invaders?

The answer is…. Justine Larbalestier* (psst, that asterisk means “see memorial footnote below”)! On her blog this week, she has a great post about handling race (and racism) in her current project. Also if you dig around her site, you’ll find this post where she mentions her warfare against basil-eating slugs. Why the heck am I talking about her battle against slugs? It’s about solidarity… In light of my current offensive against a whitefly infestation, I need a sister in arms.

That solidarity carries over to writing, too, since we’re both dealing with how to write about race and racism in the 1930s, although J.L.’s work is set in early 1930s in NYC and my novel #3 is set in East Texas at the end of the 30s. In her post, J.L. points out that “a distinction has to be made between depicting the racism of a particular time and being complicit with that racism.” I’m not so worried about that problem as I am about another one that J.L. mentions: the danger of turning all white people into villains. She writes,

Some of my characters are white. Most have the racial attitudes of their time. If I depict them accurately they can only be read as villains by contemporary readers. But if I depict them as thinking and acting like a twenty-first century liberal white USian then I create a very unrealistic depiction of the time and place. Which makes me wonder why bother writing an historical?

I get to sidestep this a little since the color spectrum I’m working with is fuller; my protag is Mexican-American, her twin (half-) siblings are mixed, and her love interest is black. Because the East Texas town of the time didn’t have three-fold segregation like regions with heavier Hispanic populations (a bit more about that here), Naomi and her sibs manage to slip into the white school, giving me a lot of situations where I need to deal with particular patterns of racism.

J.L. also points out that even those sympathetic to the situation of black individuals could be hideously patronizing in the 1930s, and I agree. I have some of those folks in my book. But I also think that there are wise souls in every time who think a bit outside of the paradigms of their world. This needn’t be a protag or even a main character (indeed, let’s avoid having a white character “rescue” people of color), but the presence of such an individual can help readers recognize that the author isn’t trying to vilify white folks.

Like J.L., I have been struggling with the question of what to do about the N-word in my novel. I’m mildly obsessed with a feeling of authenticity in dialogue. Dialogue shouldn’t be a facsimile of reality (boring!), but it should gesture convincingly toward it.

This is why The Knife and the Butterfly contains a number of words–and sentiments, especially about women–that aren’t at all an expression of who I am. They’re part of who the protag (a teen male) is at that moment, and I need them so that I can show how his experience deconstructs that bravado (at least partially).

So where does that leave me with the N-word in novel #3? I would never dream of inserting it with anything close to the frequency with which I am sure it was uttered in 1937 East Texas, but to omit it completely seems wrong, too, although as one commenter pointed out, we can generally count on readers to fill in at least some of the trappings of racism on their own.

Right now I am using the N-word in the mouths of a few characters in their most extreme states. (I did the same thing with the F-word in The Knife and the Butterfly and managed, by the end of writing, to cut down the frequency pretty dramatically.) I will have to decide later if the N-word needs to come out altogether. I’m not sure, though, that in a book that deals with lynching (as mine does at one point) that it’s right to excise it. After all, this was a time when some white people still attended lynchings as if they were picnics, keeping photos as souvenirs or to send as postcards.

For now, I’ll just keep writing. And following the discussion on J.L.’s post here.

*It’s possible (ahem, probable) that I have a professional crush on Justine Larbalestier. Not that I want to be·her–or to have her particular challenges when it comes to getting publishers to behave properly (I mean that whole white-washing thing with Liar). But I do admire her bold stance on various issues and her adventurousness·as a writer (check out this challenge list of genres and subgenres she wants to hit at least once). I also love her use of footnotes on her blog. This footnote is a tribute to all that awesomeness. And like the mention of slugs, this footnote has nothing to do with what today’s post is about.


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