RACE & FICTION WRITING: quotes and discussions


February 2018

I think the only key to writing about characters who aren’t your race — or gender, or sexual orientation, or religion, for that matter — is not letting that otherness become the character’s defining trait. Race is part, a huge part, of who a character (or person) is, but where writers (and people) get into trouble — rightly — is by making race all of who that character is, as if “black” or “Asian” or “Jewish” or “white” comes with a certain and unchangeable set of characteristics. . . . You have to ask yourself: why am I making this person someone other than who I am, and who else are they to me besides their otherness? If that’s the only thing you can see of them, and the only thing you have determined about them, then chances are they’re not a character: they’re a symbol of your own discomfort. And symbols are boring to read. — Hanya Yanagihara

February 2017

Have you tried to form relationships across racial lines? How have they worked out? If they didn’t get very far, how did you explain that to yourself? — Debby Irving

Discussion question: Talk about when you wrote a character of a different race than yours. How did you construct that character? If you’ve never done that, why not?

January 2017

How do we handle racial marking in our stories? While avoiding clichés such as “caramel skin,” “red hair” (which doesn’t mark race anyway), and characters looking in mirrors, how do we let the reader know what race our characters are and why does it matter?

August 2016

Human kindness is increased when we pursue specificity. — George Saunders

May 2016

Art is always difficult, but it is especially difficult when it comes to telling other people’s stories. And it is ferociously difficult when those others are tangled up in your history and you are tangled up in theirs. What honors those we look at, those whose stories we try to tell, is work that acknowledges their complex sense of their own reality. — Teju Cole

March 2016

Writing difference is complicated. There is ample evidence that it is quite difficult to get difference right, to avoid cultural appropriation, reinscribing stereotypes, revising or minimizing history, or demeaning and trivializing difference or otherness. As writers we are always asking ourselves, How do I get it right? That question becomes even more critical when we try to get race right, when we try to find authentic ways of imagining and reimagining the lives of people with different cultural backgrounds and experiences. Writing difference requires a delicate balance, and I don’t know how we strike that balance. — Roxane Gay

December 2015

I remain convinced that the metaphorical and metaphysical uses of race occupy definitive places in American literature . . . Encoded or explicit, indirect or overt, the linguistic responses to an Africanist presence complicate texts, sometimes contradicting them entirely. A writer’s response to American Africanism often provides a subtext that either sabotages the surface text’s expressed intentions or escapes them . . . — Toni Morrison

February 2015

How can you change something if you won’t even acknowledge its existence, or if you downplay its significance? White supremacy is the great silence of our world, and in it is embedded much of what ails us as a planet. The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, or the Voldemort name which must never be uttered in the Harry Potter novels. And yet here’s the rub: if a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction. There’s that old saying: the devil’s greatest trick is that he convinced people that he doesn’t exist. Well, white supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that, if it exists at all, it exists always in other people, never in us. — Junot Díaz