Sunday, October 19, 2008


By DiAna DiAna and Vikki Perry

The Question
I'm revising a slave's story and recently read in the NYT's Book Review about the maelstrom that surrounded William Styron's publishing The Confessions of Nat Turner (1968). What I got from the article is that whites can't understand the slave's life, and for one to try to write about it is insulting African Americans. I don't know what to think about that. —Bonnie Stanard

I agree that it would be almost impossible to write as a black person without living the black experience and being black. Maybe a focus group on cultural sensitivity would help people to understand the "other side." This could also help in writing and style and connecting with your audience.

One person who pulled this off was James Patterson with his Alex Cross character. In reading his books, I was impressed that he “got it." But, I don't know how he got it, but he did.

If you say that a white author can't write well from an African American perspective, does that mean conversely that an African American can't write well from a white perspective? I think writers can cross the cultural divide successfully if they navigate the waters very carefully.

There are a number of authors (in addition to Patterson) who have crossed the cultural divide and seemed to do it well. Three that I can think of are: Suzanne Brockmann, a New York Times bestselling author who is white and has written from an African American perspective; Brenda Jackson, a bestselling author and African American, who has written from a white perspective; and I don't remember the name of the white writer at the SC Book Festival last year who won a Newberry Prize for her children's book about an African American Little League team in the Jim Crow South.

I write from the male perspective occasionally, and when I bring my stuff to workshop for critique, I hope the group tells me where I'm going wrong and how to make my character more real. With one story, you told me that my 13 year-old boy should be a 13 year-old girl. That is honest and exactly the type of critique I look for.

Perhaps the same applies to writing from a different culture's perspective. Find people from that culture who will react honestly and tell you how to improve. Maybe this is where cultural sensitivity training comes in. Understanding how and what other groups think can only improve our writing.

I want my writing to reflect the real world (at least somewhat, since I like to write about supernatural beings) and it can’t do that unless I include people of other cultures. When I was writing my paranormal for the first time (I'm on my second version), a sexy male immortal witch, who happened to be African American, appeared unexpectedly in my story. I had to cut him because he was subverting my heroine, the vampire queen (she liked him too much), and she had to be the vampire hunter for the purposes of my story. I'm thinking that he is going to hook up with a merperson, but I'm not sure yet. I would be disappointed if I couldn't attempt to write his story.

My comments were based on past experiences with other groups where individuals spoke up for people they knew little or nothing about. For instance, in an AIDS focus group, a white woman volunteered to represent the black, gay male perspective. I asked her what part of the black, gay male experience she could relate to. Was she black? Well, no. Was she a gay male? Well, no. And I asked her, "What part of the experience are you comfortable identifying with?” Naturally the discussion was wide open since the group had several white people who wanted to represent not only black, gay males, but Asians and Hispanics, with no point of reference to their experience or culture. We found this offensive and insensitive and presumptuous.

If Patterson can write about blacks, so can others. My point is that when you bridge cultures, you can not judge your success with your own peers. Since this is a writer's group, it might be nice to give yourself an edge and expose yourself to how others feel. My comments are for blacks who write as whites, as well as whites who write about being black.

I am of mixed cultures, but even with this birthright, I will never be black enough or Hispanic enough to fully speak up for either. And since I was raised in a town that was mostly white, my cultural exposure is very mixed and limited. I can probably relate to whites more than my own races.

Since my grandfather came to this country unwillingly, my thoughts may be different from those who owned him. You can't see something from another person's point of view and live through what they lived through. You can only write about what you think it was like, and that is what some people might find offensive.

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