I recently had a lovely chat with a smart, savvy, kind, independent publisher, who had a concern about my novel, "The One And Holy Skillet." He worried that I, a white, Jewish Midwesterner, clinging to the Middle Class by very short fingernails, had written a novel that contained Southern caricatures, as well as a Jewish northerner providing insight to an Appalachian Christian. (Though he agreed that the Appalachian Christian also provides insight to the Northern Jew.)
I wasn't that surprised. I had a similar reaction from a respected agent to an earlier draft of another novel, one I have almost finished, The Color of Safety. This agent, a white, liberal child of Italian immigrants, objected to a white person writing a hundred years of African-American history.
In that case, I had a subplot, which clearly she had not reached before quitting her read, about the parallels between African-American history and that of Eastern European Jews. Through extensive rewrites, I brought that subplot to the forefront, introducing it heavily in chapters one and two. I figured that this woman most likely represented many in publishing, and besides, I had long been worried about what African-American readers might think, though my friends of color love what I have written.
So here, though my southern friends had no problems with the southerners I mocked, in fact, recognized these people with delight, I took his comments to heart. As he said, Garrison Keillor has a field day with Minnesota Lutherans, but he does it with great sympathy and kindness. And I realized, types become types for a reason, whether its brain chemistry, upbringing or lack of other cultural options. (We all know people who would never fly in a novel, because they are too unbelievable to be true in fiction.)
So, I've already lightly layered in those explanations, explaining why my caricatures became who they are. I think that this is a wise edit, and I'm very grateful to him for taking the time to discuss the novel with me.
Still, though, a white, liberal friend, reading a later draft of The Color of Safety objected to a black character teaching a white one to be wary of a black man who was a "playuh," (someone who defines himself through sexual triumphs, and aggressively flirts with every female in sight). My friend said I was--I forget the precise word, though it was obviously jargon, and means sexualizing someone because of their race.
And yet, I have spent whole years of my life as the only white person back stage, at the party, on the subway car, on the street, on the bus, in the mall, in the store, and I have repeatedly been warned off this or that man, who was flirting aggressively with every female in sight, as "a playuh." (I'm not sure how you spell it, but that is how it sounds.) Even from my computer, I can go online and find such men discussed in many African-American blogs.
Am I allowed to discuss my experiences, stating that this is only one type of person? Or is that verboten?
There is a larger question, though: can an outsider write a story about another culture? And more specifically, can someone from a dominant culture write a story about those placed within theirs?
Though you might not realize it, we Jews are familiar with this. For the last two thousand years, our most important stories have been co-opted by various sects of Christianity, their order changed, and they've been turned into an "Old Testament," not the Jewish Testament, an appendage to a larger story that they don't agree with at all. (Remember Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments? And did you know that De Mille's mother was a Sephardic Jew who converted to her husband's faith?)
Also, for the last 1300, some of these same stories have been retold in the Koran, which is why the three religions are known as The People of the Book. Which was ours first.
Anyway, when writing Color of Safety, I most emphatically wanted to avoid writing The Help, which does, to my way of thinking, co-opt the Birmingham Bus Boycott for white readers. That boycott was planned carefully by middle class Black women, and backed by Black women and men on every financial level. The men and women, mostly women, who raised funds with bake sales and drove cars laden with cleaning woman, (though some of the drivers were white women as well) who operated mimeograph machines for hours through the night to publicize the actions to be taken, who walked out their shoe-leather, most emphatically did not need a white student interviewer to inspire them in their peaceful rebellion. (And if any woman of color had fed shit to a white woman, she, her family and her neighborhood would most emphatically have been killed and burned out like vermin.)
So, no, a white savior coming in infuriates me. And as Toni Morrison would so rightly point out, black as a metaphor for evil angers me no end.
But when is it all right to claim a story? Can Christians claim thousands of years of Jewish texts? (Well, okay, they already have, for two thousand plus years--get over it, right?) Could a Reform Jew write a story mocking an Orthodox community, or vice versa? Could the non-Amish tell tales about Plain folk? Can a Baptist write a tale that pokes fun at Presbyterians? And what about The Book of Mormon?
Well, maybe we'll let them get away with that one.