Last weekend I had the strange and wonderful experience of reading The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman. I had put off starting it because the whole thing is written in an invented post-apocalyptic dialect and sometimes you just don’t feel like doing all that work. Well, it was work, in the best possible sense—immersive, rewarding and exhilarating, the best kind of reading there is. In fact, you can get a feel for Ice Cream’s language and grammar within a few pages; what’s really dangerous about the book is the way it gets a feel for you. My truest life is reading and writing fiction. I read a new novel every few days, but this one reached me in a place where books don’t usually go. I think that’s in part because the half-alien language is a Trojan horse that carries the book’s beauty and despair straight into your heart. Read more
Tomorrow in Race and Fiction Writing we will discuss the question: How Do We Write Characters Whose Race Is Different Than Ours? Meanwhile, I struck gold on the reading-copy shelf a few weeks back. I got fourteen books! Plus Charles Bukowski, On Cats, which I gave to a friend.
One you can’t see in the picture is The New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott. Romie is a South Carolina taxidermist who undergoes a sort of flowers-for-Algernon experiment and emerges with greatly enhanced mental capacity. He throws himself into creating avant-garde animal dioramas that illustrate “the trans-human ecology,” hunting down a mutant monster known as Hogzilla, and the odd drunken funk. The writing is great. I was going along enjoying the book well enough, and then I came across something I’ve never seen before. Read more
I read a jaw-dropping book by Howard Jacobson called J. Jacobson is known for writing about what Philip Roth terms “that topic called The Jews.” So this dystopian fantasy set in some kind of Anglo-Teutonic coastal village seems like a real departure at first. Until you notice that every single character has a Jewish name. And that a very Jewish sense of dread hangs over everything. And that the one word never used in the book is “Jew.” Read more
I gave this talk last fall at Community Change. It has some points in common with another talk of mine, “How I Set Out to Write About the Revolution,” but it goes further and says more of what I’d really been wanting to say, for some time, about whiteness and writing fiction.
Hi, I’m Cathy and I’m white. I’m probably one of the whitest people you’ll ever meet. I grew up in an overwhelmingly white environment, in a place called Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and attended majority-white schools. My whole family is white. Until recently I worked exclusively for white organizations, and I still have mostly white friends.
I’m also a novelist. I began writing fiction when I was a little kid, and I’m currently midway through my ninth book. After many years of trying to get a traditional publisher, I published The One-Way Rain myself last year.
I didn’t set out to write about racial justice when I started The One-Way Rain. My original idea was to write a literary version of an action movie, with a kick-ass heroine. I assumed without even thinking about it that this heroine would be white. Around the same time I was also interested in the concept of a freedom fighter who was willing to die for her beliefs, and I ended up adding a second protagonist who was Black. Read more
I recently gave a talk at Community Change called “On Being a White Novelist” (the writing of which took up some brain I otherwise might have used to blog). One thing I discussed was how I feel about novels with only white people in them. (Hint: They make me nuts.) On that topic, Pia Glenn observes:
Not unlike Iggy Azalea or Bethenny Frankel, Nicholas Sparks’ work has every right to be as annoying and mediocre and white yet popular as it wants to be. But when it is rewarded with contracts and six-figure deals, that becomes what success looks like. The erasure of anyone but the same white archetypes within the work itself is compounded by our resulting erasure in the industry itself and they perpetuate each other in a vicious cycle.
I’ve always been one to put down novels very fast. A few years ago I judged mostly on prose, sometimes plot. Now I judge on those and the author’s treatment of race as well. If a character of color is introduced in a stream of stereotypes, I won’t make it through the rest of the book. Here’s something from a recent novel featuring a female private eye: Read more
Today in the Antiracist Book Club, a frank and incredibly helpful essay recently posted on the UK site Media Diversified. Under the title “How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour if You are White,” Kayla Ancrum lays it all out in what amounts to a self-help kit for white writers. Seriously, I feel like she should be charging for this (except then I would never have seen it. And, by the way, Media Diversified deserves your support).
“When writing people of color,” Ancrum advises, “producing quality work comes down to three things. Research, Persistence and Consideration.” Using the example of a white author creating a Black woman character, she goes on: Read more