Writings of the general word's body

Monday, April 19, 2010

Writing black while white

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.

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.


Free Pen said...

Lauri Kubuitsile sounds like a lovely writer. But has it occurred to her that maybe she gets more breaks in Southern African publishing (more books accepted, more commissions, more schools to visit, more TV scriptwriting gigs) than the average black Motswana writer, precisely because people know that she is white? That she may have certain advantages over black writers, being white, despite her black name? Just a thought.

Temitayo said...

Who/what determines if a story is White/Black/Green? Whatever story you want to write...whatever perspective you want to write from...I think knowledge of your story; staying true and consistent to it are much more important. If you've written a really good story, I am not sure people really care whether it's as white as a ghost or as dark an unseen black cat on a deep dark night...but I talk for myself!

Petina Gappah said...

Erm, cough, cough, excuse me and all that but I did not say white writers could not write in black voices ... it's a free world and all that. All I said was that you had to be a damn good writer to write outside your skin ... just as a man has to be a damn good writer to write convincingly in the voice of a woman and vice versa.

As for Zimbabwean names, you are welcome, of course, to invent any number of Shona names you like. If however, you choose to name your character Tundai because it sounds pretty and Shona and I happen to point out that the name Tundai is actually not a name that a Shona woman would ever give to her child because it happens to be the plural imperative for "urinate", and you choose it anyway, well, it would be perfectly legitimate to point this out that this small detail spoiled the story for me. This is not to say you should not write as a Zimbabwean, merely to say that I do not believe in a charcter called Tundai.

But hey, there are millions and millions of readers out there, someone may love the story of Tundai. In short, writers should write what they damn well please!

Petina Gappah said...

"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."

Just another comment to say that I suggested no such thing ... it would be highly presumptious and arrogant of me to suggest that I could "show the way" to anything at all. The course was not about how whites can write as blacks, but about how anyone can write outside a particular culture, or language, paying attention to those writers like Nabokov who wrote from within cultures and languages that they were not born into. We alsolooked at examples of writing across race, from William Styron to Ishiguro from Lloyd Jones to Chris Cleave. We looked at those who have done this well, as well as to those who have done this badly because you can learn from others' mistakes. But above all, we examined the sense of displacement felt by an increasing number of people today, who have left their homes after revolutions, who are in forced or voluntary exile, who are expats in multicultural places like Geneva where they fit neither into the host nor their own home culture.

I co-taught the course with Christopher Home, a writer of immense talent and voracious curiousity, who is interesting to me because he has written equally well about both his native Africa and his adopted home in Europe. At the end of the day, we concluded that this displacement is in itself a gift as it allows us to view both home and host in ways that no one else could. So no, it was not just about whites writing as blacks.

Lauri said...

Free Pen you make a valid point. I've considered what you've said and you are right in a sense. Not about my books, because in most cases they were accepted and then I met the people, or even with scriptwriting but with my textbook writing you are correct. My publisher wanted me to write an English textbook because English was my first language and he said explicitly that he'd tried to do it with Batswana where Setswana is their first languguage and it failed.That is the only case I can think of where I had an advantage and that is not strictly colour but language. In the end I took a partner (black, Setswana as her first language) for the job because despite it being my first language my grammar sucks.

Having said that, if I knew I got a writing gig because of my colour I would feel sick. If I were black, I would feel the same way. I don't know if you are black or white or another colour, Free Pen, but I wonder what you would think if something was given to you or a writing job was accepted because your were the correct colour for that game? I think it belittles you as a writer and if I knew about it I would say no thanks.

Tiah said...

This is fascinating; and, a subject I struggle with. What am I, as a white American living in South Africa, "allowed" to write? Lately, I have been trying to push myself, not only in colour, but gender and age and my only solution to the issues is to: 1 - Listen. 2 - Get outside readers to read any piece before submission and, again, listen to the feedback. If it sounds "false" change it.