Writing

The Selah Branch. Love it or Hate it. But nobody Likes it. Part One.

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It’s been about a year since I published my book The Selah Branch, a Novel of Time Travel and Race in America.

People love it, (it’s won numerous awards).

People also hate it, (I’ve lost friends over it).

No one seems to take the middle ground and just say they “like” it.

This post is about the people who love it and why. Part Two will give equal time to those who hate it.

As I’ve had women of color come up to me and tearfully thank me for writing the book. I’ve also had friends, people of color, stop speaking to me because I wrote it.

I knew when I waded into this territory of race, gender, and politics it was a minefield.  All the more so because I was writing a fictional story from the perspective of a woman of color, and I’m a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, male author. I admit, there is an uncomfortable sense of misappropriation and lack of authenticity in that.

But first, at the risk of sounding defensive, a bit on the positive feedback and my original intentions regarding the story.

My book The Selah Branch features a fiercely intelligent, educated, African American college student, Kenia Dezy, as its protagonist. Kenia is the daughter of an African American woman—a physician—and a father who immigrated from Nigeria and became a surgeon. Kenia comes from a privileged background and has had opportunities to learn about her Nigerian roots, even travelling to West Africa to connect with her extended family. It’s been gratifying to see The Selah Branch receive generous reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. It’s also received numerous professional awards and accolades.

I’d never write a book from the perspective of a woman of color and claim that the protagonist somehow represented the voices of all oppressed women of color. I could never write such a character. To that end, I’d never even make such a claim for the characters I write who are white males like me. There is too much variety within that category alone for me to claim to represent all white males. That is an impossible task for any character, any writer, no matter their demographics, white, black, female, male, non-gendered, etc. . .  And it’s when we take the sample size of one character and extrapolate that representation to the greater whole that we are falling into the very old trap of stereotyping.

I would offer that part of the trick/illusion/talent of writing lies in the artist’s ability to step into the shoes, the skin, the lives of the characters we create. I believe this is similar for actors who portray characters who are perhaps very unlike their true selves.

Even though we authors must write from what we “know,” that is never enough. We still need to use our imaginations and we need to seek out new experiences to feed our imaginations. That way the range of what we know is ever expanding. This includes interacting with people, places, and perspectives that are novel to us. As my friend Rasheed Newson, a writer from television shows such as Narcos, The 100, and Army Wives has attested, “I’ve never been a drug dealer in Latin America, a teenager in space, or a wife of an enlisted soldier, but I write from those perspectives all the time. It’s part of the job and it’s the integral to the talent of being a writer.”

If writers, poets, playwrights, singer-songwriters, and/or actors were locked in to characters and voices that were only aligned with their given identities, it would be a poorer world indeed. Rasheed, as a gay black man would have a very narrow demographic to write about and write to. So narrow in fact, he would likely not have had as many writing opportunities as his career has actually afforded him. I would only be “allowed” to write protagonists who were white men. This would make my books City on a Hill, In the Darkness Visible, and Voyage of the Elawn—all featuring female leads—off limits to me.

Even now, I’m reading Earnest J. Gaines A Gathering of Old Men. Gaines switches chapter by chapter from the perspective of men and women, white and black, young and old. The novel is all the more powerful for it. If Gaines had been limited only to male characters because he was male, or black characters because he was black, this powerful piece of art—that stands as an indictment against racism and a persuasive argument for love and understanding—wouldn’t exist.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/6/28/writing-characters-of-color-when-you-are-a-cis-gender-white-heterosexual-male) I think the position that we should only write from the point of view of characters whom we share an identity with is highly problematic. Such narrow boundaries does more to contribute to division than to foster understanding.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit my own experience, that which I “know” and “see” the world, is limited. I have blind spots. A few I know, but most I don’t. For instance, I’ve traveled to 36 countries. I have friends from a variety of backgrounds—backgrounds and orientations very different from my own. But some of these backgrounds I am familiar enough with that I would be comfortable creating a character from such a place.

But I’ve never traveled in south or central America. I’m sad to say I don’t have a plethora of intimate friends who come from a Latinx background. As a result, I can’t say I’d be comfortable trying to write from the point of view of a Latinx character. I doubt the character would have an authentic feel. I’ve simply had to few experiences and not enough Latinx friends and family members who can speak into my life or check me when I get outside my lane.

In this respect, writers such as my friend Rasheed or my hero Earnest J. Gaines have an advantage over me. As members of minority/oppressed groups, to survive in mainstream society they have to understand the perspectives of the dominant culture.

As a white male, sadly, I don’t. For me, I have to make a conscious, intentional effort to try to see past my own privilege. And I don’t always do it right.

That said, I did feel comfortable writing Kenia Dezy and crafting the members of her family in The Selah Branch. Mainly this is because I’ve been blessed to have friends like Kenia. One of my dearest and oldest friends, Chisara, a woman I’ve considered my “little sister,” and a friend who was so instrumental in encouraging my early writing career that I dedicated my first book to her—she served as the template for Kenia. Do I know enough college educated, upper middle-class black women with a Nigerian heritage to claim to represent all of them? Of course not.

But do I know my friend Chisara and her family. So I felt comfortable writing a story about someone like her.

As a result, the positive feedback I’ve received regarding The Selah Branch has been that women whose experiences align with Kenia LOVE The Selah Branch. They enjoyed a story centered on a character whose experience reflected their own. One woman who had attended a college in a small white town in Texas, where she was one of the few black people, told me that reading The Selah Branch made her feel “seen” and her own struggles validated.

Ultimately, to only identify with characters (or people!) who match our hyphenated identities, may leave us wanting. As a practice, the approach suffers from the same drawbacks that leaves identity politics open to criticism—mainly that is only leaves us more divided and more alienated from one another.

What I hoped to do with The Selah Branch and with Kenia’s character was what drove me to write it and her in the first place: I identify with Kenia. I firmly believe there are universal things that connect us, unite us, and draw us closer through bonds of humanity and compassion. These are things that transcend our long-tailed demographic labels. These are the desires of our hearts, the goals of our lives, the values we champion. I identify with Kenia, not because she is a black woman, but because she is a someone who is against racism, who loves her family and friends, who wants to live right in relationship with others, and who wants America to live up to its ideals.

These things bring us together, across color lines, ethnicity, educational background, and social economic status. My hope with The Selah Branch, was to show that.

Next post: why people hate The Selah Branch. Why they are right, and why I have been donating all the proceeds to causes that counter racial injustice.

To Write Well, Don't Write.

Life is Paradox. One of the most confounding but important things one of my writing mentors once said to me was: The time you spend NOT writing is just as important as the time you actually spend writing.

<Record Scratch>

Huh?

Said another way, every work of writing is a combination of the time spent writing and the time spent NOT writing. You need time to  think about the writing, whether consciously or not (but often unconsciously).

So here are my ten steps to writing a complete work, be it a novella, novel, short story, poem, screen play, or whatever. . .

1.       Write—Randomly. On scraps of paper, envelopes, increasingly I find myself taking notes on my phone. These moments of inspiration come at the WORST times. I find there is an inverse relationship between the ease of writing in the moment and the quality of the idea. For example, while merging into traffic, standing in the shower, or when I am about to fall to sleep at night. . .BAM I get walloped with a winner and the gearshift, bar of soap, or memory foam pillow are lousing writing instruments.

2.       Take Time—To Live your Life. Go and do the thing you were doing in the first place, driving to your destination, exercising, or getting a good night’s sleep. Go gather the experience that feeds your writer’s soul in the first place. You’ll thank yourself later.

3.       Write—Freely. I’m a person who likes structure so this part is REALLY hard for me. But I’ve learned that I need to take time to do character sketches, jot down scenes, scribble exchanges of dialogue. They might be out of order, they might just be background experiences of characters that never make it into a single draft. That's OK. This is an exploratory stage. Throw things at the wall and see what sticks. Don’t get in your own way. Let yourself enjoy the fun of it. Don’t stress if you don’t have a word or page count to look at yet. This step isn’t something measured that way. Remember what Einstein said: not everything that counts can be counted!

4.       Take Time—For your unconscious to work. This is also a hard part for me because I’m a recovering control freak. But I’ve found that this is where the most mysterious part of the process begins for me. Having sketched out scenes, and characters in step 3, I move on. I work on other things (See Step 2). I go for a hike, I read other books, watch movies, gently feeding images, experiences, the art and work of other artists, into my brain. It seeps into some weird place in my unconscious where the ideas germinate and grow.

5.       WriteAn Outline. I remember a business major roommate of mine in college asking me if I wrote my papers using an outline. I responded, “You mean you don’t?!” But I was an English major so I took the writing process a little more seriously. Here is where I (FINALLY) start adding some structure to the story, with scenes, character arcs, maybe even initial chapter headings. This is where the technical bit of craft comes in, techniques I’ve learned in writing classes, books on writing, and from mentors. I storyboard here, writing summaries of the chapters on 3X5 cards and lay them out on the floor, trying out different sequences. Throughout the process, even up to the final stages, be open to surprises your characters might throw at you or side plots that might pop up. I still do this all in long hand, it helps to remind me that this is still a draft and I can be free and flexible.

6.       Take TimeFor your idea to gestate. Congratulations, you are officially pregnant at this point. Once the outline is out, for me, the story is THERE. It’s a thing and its growing. But again, I find I can never hurry it. I just have to let it ripen at its own pace (although I wish I could force it, but when I do, it’s ALWAYS a disaster). Often, I find listening to music, reading other authors I like, watching movies, hiking and being in nature help, not to mention getting enough sleep—some of my best ideas come from REM sleep (See Step 2 . . .again). Sometimes, being a writer is like having a ghost as a business partner. You’re never quite sure when he or she is going to show up to actually do the damn work, but when they do, and the story feels ready, you know intuitively. The hairs on your arms stand up, the vibrations in your chest resonate and align. It’s inspiration. . .and you can’t not write.

7.       WriteThe First Draft. I write mine in longhand on college rule loose leaf. It’s slower, but it makes me think through my sentences with greater care. It also allows me to be messy. I still liken this stage to sketching as opposed to working on what will be the final piece. That is why I avoid the computer screen, even at this stage. Typing makes me feel like it has to be overly polished.

8.       Take TimeTo Walk Away! Yes, walk away! AGAIN! (Picking up a pattern here?) Unlike REAL babies, this baby may benefit from a bit of neglect. I take a few days between completing that first draft and typing things up. Treat yourself!

9.       WriteOn a Keyboard. Finally, this is when I actually start typing. Note: there have been a whole lot of steps and time leading up to this. When non-writers picture you “working” this is what they picture. But that’s a disservice. The preceding steps, especially the even numbered ones, might NOT LOOK like writing but they REALLY ARE. They are just as critical an ingredient and it’s important to give yourself permission, space, and time for them. (I’m still learning how to do that).

10.   Take TimeTo Edit. Another writing mentor once told me that “There are no good writers. Just good re-writers.” So true. Get some distance from your work while someone you trust edits it and provides you some honest feedback. I can nveer eidt ym owen suftf adqetuaely eonugh 😊 Good writers need good editors.

Then repeat steps 9 and 10 until ready to publish!

Writing Characters of Color when you are a Cis-Gender, White, Heterosexual Male

With the release of my latest young adult novel, Jamhuri, Njambi, & Fighting Zombies (the second novel I've written from the point of view of protagonists of color) I wanted to share here the Author's Note I've opened JN&FZ with which I wrote as an attempt to enter into dialogue with some of these challenging and complex issues. I definitely would never suggest I have all the answers on this, but I think the best we can do is to keep a dialogue going on it. Scroll down past the cover for the full essay.

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A Note on Cultural (Mis)appropriation

            I have not stayed in my lane, and my sense of social justice—not to mention my friends who identify as people of color—have called me out for it. Rightly so.

            At first glance, most readers might not see the trouble with a cisgender, heterosexual, white writer using imagery from African culture in a work of fiction. It’s a “celebration of African traditions ignored by sci-fi and fantasy writers for far too long,” or it’s “an overdue acknowledgement of rich African contributions to art and literature.” Maybe it’s even “a healthy, contemporary reaction to the overemphasis of white characters in sci-fi and fantasy.”

            It is, I hope, but it’s other things too—things that must be viewed in the context of colonialism and the social, political, economic, and military oppression of people of color.

First of all, I’m no trailblazer. Other writers, such as Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin, have been producing works that fuse sci-fi and fantasy with African themes for some time. Before them, Octavia Butler was doing the same. Acknowledging, celebrating, and profiting from a white male’s derivations from the art and images of people of color over those artists of color who have a more personal, historical claim is nothing new. It’s a long tradition, characterizing the careers of artists as diverse as Al Jolson, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, and so many others.[1]

            So, depending on the interpretation, Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is a celebration, an acknowledgement, or it’s just another form of exploitation and cultural (mis)appropriation.

            Truth is, it’s all these things.

            To simply see this work as a welcome and timely celebration, a “generous inclusion,” would be to patronize these traditions and ignore great artists of color. It also ignores the historical power imbalances that have benefited Western, white writers over communities of color, whether in Africa or in its diaspora, for hundreds of years. This has been due to quirks of geography, disease, and more insidious institutions and practices such as colonialism, white supremacy, and slavery (to name just a few). Blood, treasure, images, and ideas have been extracted from these communities for centuries, the benefits accruing to whites and the cost borne by people of color. It is a repeating pattern, called out with smoldering eloquence by Jesse Williams in his acceptance speech for the 2016 Black Entertainment Television Humanitarian Award:

 

This invention called whiteness uses and abuses us . . . extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil—black gold—ghettoizing and demeaning our creations and stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.

 

            There is nothing to add to Mr. William’s words. They are complete, powerful, and persuasive on their own.

There is a counter argument. It goes something like this: that the cross-fertilization of cultures has always taken place and led to benefits in a variety of disciplines. The very characters these words are written with are “Roman,” influenced by Greek and Phoenician alphabets; the numbers in this text are “Arabic,” although really first codified by a Persian scholar (Muhammad al-Khwarizmi) who modeled them after a number system used by Hindu mathematicians.

Cross-fertilization indeed.

            The precedents for cultural exchange in fantasy literature are many fold. Take J.R.R. Tolkien, who borrowed heavily from Norse, Finnish, Germanic, as well as his own Anglo-Saxon traditions. Such fusions can create works of profound beauty and stand testament to the value of cultural diffusion. And it is often artists who are pioneers in reaching across cultural and social barriers, drawn by the universal experience of art and the appreciation of beauty. In the process we may blend influences, foster collaboration, and forge lifelong friendships despite ethnic, racial, or other social barriers. Sometimes amazing art is produced too.

But it is equally important to point out that Tolkien’s ancestors did not systematically oppress these other groups. Furthermore, Tolkien, in his own time, did not benefit disproportionately from historic or current oppression of Scandinavians or Germanic people in a way that denied these groups equal opportunity to flourish. The exchange of trade, ideas, and even violence among these peoples took place (more or less) among groups with equivalent levels of power—on an even playing field, if you will. The costs and benefits were equally shared.

No such moral or ethical neutrality can be ascribed to the exploitation of people of color by Europeans or their white descendants. White privilege is real. It has benefited me and still benefits me as a white man, a white writer, in the United States.

            There is no getting around this. But just because something looks like an unethical pattern in the past, does not mean it is the exact same thing today. In my heart of hearts, I would hope that Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is not exploitive. But intentions do not exculpate the artist. The art and work will stand for themselves and will rise or fall on the interpretation, opinions, the praise or condemnation, of others. I expect both and I have no answer other than my work.

            So why write Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies? Can we escape these patterns of oppression, exploitation, and historical amnesia?

I hope so.

            Those who are not seized by the urge to create, to channel some idea from the world of the imagined to the real, might not understand the fierce insistence of an idea, a plot, or characters and their stories knocking around in an author’s head. Like the Greek muses, these imagined personalities and events seem to exist outside us, using the artist as a mere channel. Michelangelo described it best when he said the figures he sculpted had always already existed, trapped inside their blocks of marble. It was simply his role to chip away the excess to reveal them.

It is the same with the characters and stories that reside in a writer’s head. They feel, to us, as if they already do and have always existed—a bit like a law in physics, a pattern in number theory, or an undiscovered prime. We as artists reveal; we create, because we can’t not. These characters, Jamhuri, Njambi, Latia, Anastasia, Esmeralda, and their stories, although not completely aligned with my own background, wanted to be out in the world. They wouldn’t leave me alone until they were.

            The second reason was a personal promise. These stories were conceived in the early 2000s when I was living and working at an orphanage for HIV+ children in Nairobi, Kenya. At the time our resources for books were limited. Although we benefited from donations, the books I read to the kids had few characters that looked like them. As much as they enjoyed Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants (which did include a main character of color), they clamored for more characters that looked like them, characters from backgrounds and contexts they could relate to. As children who had been abandoned, abused, stigmatized, and generally not “seen” as individuals outside of their HIV status, this broke my heart.

At the time, writers such as Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin were not on my own radar. So I set out to write a few stories of my own.

As a result, Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is laden with that personal history and meaning for me. If these stories never find an audience beyond the children I wrote them for, then I am at peace with that. The audience and stories deserve at least that much, if nothing else.

            But this all begs the question of whether a privileged, white, male writer can or even should write from the point of view of characters of color. The answer leads me to my third and final reason for writing and publishing these stories.

            “Can a privileged, white, male writer write from the point of view of characters of color?” I will leave that for the readers to determine. I’d like to think these characters are authentic and well developed, but sales, comment sections, and reviews will bear that out as true or not.

            The question of should I have even tried to write in the point of view of these characters also looms large for me. I, for one, believe that art can transcend race (in some ways). As mentioned above, the common ground, the shared experience of being an artist, has united people from various backgrounds for the entire story of humankind. Moving from literature to music, I landed on the career and life of Benny Goodman as an example. Contemporary critics may be split over the legacy of figures such as Goodman, whose classical background and European ancestry “legitimized” jazz for white listeners, making jazz “safe” to bring into venues such as Carnegie Hall. His integration and promotion of this African American art form in his own performances undeniably contributed to his own stardom and the success of his career at a time when black musicians couldn’t drink from the same water fountains, much less perform in the same concert halls as he. So in that sense, perhaps Goodman’s choices were exploitive. But Goodman also launched the careers of many African American jazz artists and, during a time of racial segregation, defiantly toured the US in an integrated jazz band.

            So, as they say on Facebook, the relationship status here is “complicated.”

And that still does not answer the question of whether a white person can even write believable black characters?

It is not as straight forward as I once thought. For instance, my friends—writers of color in literature, television, and film—have had to write white characters throughout the course of their careers. It’s the reality of whiteness being associated with the mainstream, with “normality.” This is a consequence of our ridiculous default culture of white-centeredness and the unfortunate reality of the marketplace. The question of whether or not my friends of color “can” write white characters rarely comes up for them. After all, as people of color in the United States, they are bombarded with images of whiteness. They are forced (sadly) to move in a sea of pallor that is, arbitrarily, considered “the norm.” As people of color in a predominantly white society, they have to understand white culture—even better than we might understand ourselves (as James Baldwin once pointed out).

            Whites do not have the same need. As Jesse Williams reminds us, white society might extract black culture, treating it as a costume to put on, or a thing to demean, to make the “other.” But we have the choice. If we whites wanted, we could likely pass the day without encountering a person of color IRL (in real life). With effort, (and sometimes without) we can whitewash our social experiences and our media consumption, eliminating diverse images and voices and validating only our own. Living a life in an echo chamber like this, as so many white Americans do, eliminates the need to appreciate the perspective or point of view of someone different. It is a great loss, but it happens. I know this from teaching classes on race and reconciliation to white participants. One woman in her fifties in one of my classes recently had the epiphany that, “I worked as a trauma nurse in for thirty-two years and it’s dawning on me that I never worked with a black nurse. It didn’t even occur to me that that was even remarkable until 2017.”

            Baldwin has written that people of color are forced to “get” us whites, to understand us. Sometimes reading white people, living in a state of double consciousness (knowing yourself but also imagining how others misperceive your identity), is a matter of life or death. The tragic deaths of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Charleena Lyles, and the murder of so many other black citizens by police can attest to this.

But to say that whites cannot do the same, that a white writer cannot and should not write from the point of view of black characters (as I have been told) is a conclusion I am unwilling to accept. Such a conclusion is flawed; it posits that we whites can never understand, much less endorse, the perspective of anyone but ourselves, even with effort, intentionality, and exposure. If this were true, it leaves me without hope. If understanding could only go in one direction: people of color learning to interpret and live with white people who are unable to do the same, progress would be impossible.

I don’t want to live in that world.

            It may take intentionality and no small amount of effort, humility, and discomfort, but I want—I need—to believe that members of a group of people who have been oppressors and a (rapidly diminishing) majority can come to understand and endorse, to love and accept the perspective of an oppressed minority. Perhaps it is the part of writers and artists, who try to see out of the eyes of others, to play a constructive role here. Again, to say otherwise—that artists, or even people in general, cannot do so—would be to suggest that people of color alone have this ability and whites do not. This seems like an overgeneralization, a dangerous assumption—in short, pure fallacy.

So yes, I believe that a white, privileged writer can and even should try to write from the perspective of others—with care, humility, and historical sensitivity. Must we be aware of harmful cultural legacies? Absolutely. We should also take care to consider whether or not our voices are taking up space that could be granted to writers of color who have not had the same opportunities to speak or to publish. The realities of the marketplace and the attention span of the modern human dictate that this is a genuine possibility. But to stop short of trying because of these risks handicaps us all.

The default flow of information, attention, experiences, and imagery might be in the direction of white people like myself—we the loud, obnoxious, blundering, self-absorbed, self-centered sibling of the US family, we who have historically been the referent. Thanks to demographics, this will not always be the case. But in the meantime, with intentionality, I believe this myopic vision amongst wypipo can be remedied. It takes exposure, dialogue, travel, reading, watching, and most of all, shutting up and listening.

            In that spirit, I think that is enough from me. People who look like me have had the spotlight on them and the microphone clutched in their hands a long time. Acknowledging that requires me to step aside, to let the characters take the stage—in this case Jamhuri, Latia, Njambi, Anastasia, and Esmeralda, who all have their own real-life counterparts—so they might tell their stories. I’ll be off to the side, sitting down and shutting up.

            Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy. If you don’t, well, I’ll try to do better next time.

 

—Ted Neill, Seattle, 2018

 

[1] This even happens in social activism. One need look no further than the initial confusion about the origin of the “MeToo” campaign. Many Twitter followers attributed it to Alyssa Milano, when it was actually a campaign started in 2007 by Tarana Burke, a Harlem activist, as a way to support women and girls and women of color who had been victims of sexual abuse.