Lauri Kubuitsile has an interesting post on her blog about being a white writer with a black name writing black stories in Botwana. Here goes
I am a white woman with a black name. The rough draft of me was finished in America, while the final edits are being done in Botswana. I often find myself in situations I call "the lekgoa moment", it is that blank stare or awkward pause when the person I am meeting is trying to reconstruct their idea of me with the reality before them. I try to tell myself that it is their problem not mine, this usually works. I try to maintain that point of view in my writing too. Still it is hurtful when a person loves me to death as the black writer, and then meets me and suddenly has no more time for who I really am. It's happened numerous times and always with South Africans or people in the publishing industry who want to "uplift African writers". I tell myself it is their issue, but it's difficult. I suppose the same happens for black writers with white names- maybe. It's crap- racist, sucky crap, from any direction it comes.
- Read her full post here.
Lauri Kubuitsile's is the latest in the debate about an issue that, by my calculation, has reared its head on at least four writers' blogs thus far. First there was something on Sara Cowley's blog - A really long post about fiction, autobiography, cultural tourism and such like - that generated a mile's worth of comments.
Then came Petina Gappah's contribution, a post which asked, Can white writers write in the voices of people who are not white? Gappah picked issue with a lot of White South African writing that's written in the voices of black servants, presumably because this is the only aspect of black life they tend to have a window into.
I have a bit of a take on this aspect of South African writing. I read a collection of short stories by South African women a couple of years ago and I remember coming away from the book really put off by the often stereotypical depiction of black people therein. One story about a female in an abusive relationship with of course a white man, has a passage where she encounters blacks on a street corner and immediately she fears being robbed, raped or killed. What was disquietening about it was that the authorial voice presented this as though these horrific possibilities were the only likely outcomes of such an encounter between white and black. These were the only blacks in the story, they appear in only a few lines, and are made to symbolise untamed evil in the most stereotypical fashion. They are foreign intruders in a comfortably white psychological landscape, heart of darkness personified. Whereas the greatest threat to this female character is really her white lover. This was the worst example in the book, but there were mild shadings of this in many other stories. A wonderful story by Anne Schuster was one of the few that bucked the trend. For a book by 'South African women', it also surprised me that there was only one black writer featured, along with 2 who in SA may be termed Coloured. By and large, there was an insularity in many of the stories, as though they were written by white people for a white readership only, as though it never occured to many of the writers that a non-white person may ever pick up the book and seek to see themselves in some universal way therein.
Anyway, back to Petina Gappah, who didn't seem to think white writers could write with authority in a black voice, at least not unless they tried very hard. She tried to buttress the point with the example of "A talented British writer of my acquaintance [that] once wrote an awful story about a Zimbabwean man. She invented a Shona name, and, as I pointed out to her, this was completely unnecessary because many Zimbabweans have English names."
Gappah does have some points. But about whether or not it's unnecessary for a British writer to invent a Shona name because he/she is unschooled in Zimbabwean names, I thought it was neither here nor there, quite frankly. Didn't they say J M Barrie invented the name 'Wendy' in Peter Pan? Besides, I'm Nigerian, schooled in Nigerian names and often their meanings - yet I've invented a few character names in my time. Why? To de-emphasise the ethnicity of my character in certain sensitive situations, especially in a country like Nigeria where ethnicity is a boiling issue. I do it sometimes in order to be less specific about which African country my story is set in. And I guess writers - myself included - sometimes invent names simply to play God, because we can. That said, more often than not, my characters have Yoruba names. The point is, it didn't matter too much to me that the British writer in question invented a Zimbabwean name. I also did not think the only medicine for having no knowledge of names in a specific African setting, is to choose an English one simply because Africans sometimes bear them.
As to how white writers may get better at writing in authentic black - or 'other' voices, Gappah seemed to suggest that a Faber course she was going to co-teach could show the way. No sooner had the course passed, up pops a post in which the aforementioned writer of Petina's acquaintance outed herself!
In a post titled 'Cultural Tourism: writing 'other' - Vanessa Gebbie revealed herself as the writer of the so-called "awful story" - saying, "and finally, we have an actual piece of work to illustrate the issues. Maiba's Ribbon, by meself." Gebbie also revealed how she came by a Zimbabwean character's name, inadequate though it was: she looked up a website about Zim names. Easily done. I did same for a Zimbabwean character in an unpublished story of mine.
Back to the original dilemma: can whites write authentically in the voices of blacks? I have an anecdote of my own. I was once part of a writing workshop in which a white US writer wrote about the Liberian war from the point of view of a superficial, diamond loving American woman who's dealing with a Liberian refugee and who, when she looks at him, only sees in CNN induced one dimension. I had a lot of issues with the story and critiqued it heavily. The story was eventually rewritten through the eyes of the Liberian guy, in his voice, and it worked. So it is not impossible, but admittedly it's difficult. Now the flipside: I have a short story written from the point of view of a white British woman, and I'm still struggling with the draft, 2 years on.
Then along comes Lauri Kubuitsile's post, about her experiences as a white American-born Motswana writer with a black name writing black in Botswana.
Read all of the referenced posts, and see what you think.