Yesterday I was tooling around the interwebs and--in the inexplicable way that these things happen--came across some reviews for a book the title of which I now can't remember. But the title isn't important. It's one of the reader reviews that caught my attention. I've been thinking about it since reading it, and still haven't quite decided what I think about it.
Basically the reviewer said (and I'm paraphrasing here, as I didn't copy the review and now can't find it): I really liked this novel. However, it bothers me that the author describes one character's Hawaiian heritage and points out that another one is black, but never describes the other characters as being white. It's just assumed that they are. I think this is a kind of racism.
All right, so I can't remember the title of the novel and I can't quote the review directly. Whatever. You get the idea. I promise I'm not making it up. You can ask my friend Jill, as I told her about it at dinner last night. And if you still don't believe me you can call the restaurant (Xiao Loong) and ask my friend Jeff, the owner, because we talked about it with him too.
This is something I struggle with myself. In general it is usually assumed--unless something in the book's description makes it otherwise apparent--that the author is writing about characters of her own ethnicity. I know this is a generalization, but it's true, so don't send me nasty e-mails. When someone picks up an Alice Walker novel, they can be reasonably sure that it's going to be a story about African-American characters, and Amy Tan's readers know that they're probably going to get a story about Chinese-Americans. (Oh, I have a great Amy Tan story. I'll tell you at the end of the blog.)
Similarly, when my readers pick up one of my novels, they assume they're going to be reading about white people, and usually about white gay men. Because that's what I am, and it's what I (mostly) write about. My novels are about what it's like to be a white gay man living in America at this particular time in history. It's my thing, as the kids say.
But I don't only write about white characters. Sometimes I have Latino characters, or Asian characters, or African-American characters. And this is where it gets tricky. I want the reader to know that this character looks a certain way or comes from a particular background. And so I am faced with a problem: How do I do this without it being awkward?
Sometimes using a name helps. Dr. Yan most likely creates a certain visual in a reader's mind, right? But what if Yan is her married name and her maiden one was McClatchy? Or what if Ben Goldberg has a Peruvian mother and a Jewish father and takes after Mom? Now we're back where we started.
"Just describe him," you say. Yes. Well. "Dr. Yan entered the room. Her black hair and tilted eyes caught Reginald's attention. She was stunning." No. And there are only so many times you can get away with "his mocha skin" and "her Cherokee cheekbones." As in precisely once. And if you think for one second that describing a character as having "a profile that suggested a Jewish heritage" is going to win anyone over, think again.
But that's sort of what we're left with. Yes, context usually makes it fairly easy to tell what's going on with a character. But not always. And sometimes you don't have 40 pages in which to establish a character. You have to do it now now now. This character needs to be Eskimo, if not for plot purposes then simply for the sake of accurately describing a world where not everyone is Latino, or white, or Incan. For instance, when earlier I mentioned my friend Jeff who owns the Chinese restaurant, what kind of mental picture did you get? Asian because he owns a Chinese restaurant? White because his name is Jeff? Does it bother you that I didn't give you any clues?
When my main character first appears I don't write, "Philip, a white gay man, stepped out of the Volvo and waved to his friend Brad, who was also white and gay." My readers just assume that Philip is probably white and gay, until something comes along that tells them otherwise. Is this racist, as the reviewer of that novel suggested? Or is it simply that we accept as a kind of shorthand that a book's characters will largely be of the same race as the author? (Assuming that we know the author's race or nationality.)
And what if at that first appearance Brad is standing on the porch with his lover Greg, who happens to be Japanese. Is my best option to open with, "Philip, a white gay man, stepped out of the Volvo and waved to his friends Brad, who was also white and gay, and Greg, who was wearing a kimono that he'd purchased on a trip to Kyoto to research his ancestral roots."? Ha ha! No.
Yes, I'm being the tiniest bit sarcastic. But it's a question worth discussing. How, as authors, do we make our books inclusive without making them feel like some kind of Up With People pamphlet? Is it racist to point out any character's race? And most important, just how do I describe Dr. Yan's Irish coloring, which my protagonist finds very interesting given her surname?
And now for the Amy Tan story. Okay, so years ago I was working with a publishing house that was attempting to get Tan to write a book for them. The publisher (a middle aged straight white man) was a lovely person, but not terribly socially adept. I was in the elevator one day when this man and Tan got in. As the elevator descended the publisher--clearly trying to find some common ground with this author he badly wanted on his list--turned to Tan and said, "You know, I've always liked Chinese food."