Once upon a time, there was a philosophy graduate student who really wanted to be fiction writer. She decided one day that she could write a story so much better than those soap operas she watched while working on her dissertation. And her story–unlike those soap operas–would have lesbians.
Naturally, she made the main setting a university and populated it with students and faculty. And since it was a bit of a lark to entertain her while she wrote the dissertation, she didn’t plan ahead of time what the plot or the characters would be. She just invented a whole bunch of names and, because she was sensitive to these things, she made sure they had a lot of diversity. There were white people and Asian people and black people and Native American people; there men people and women people; young people and middle-aged people; gay, bisexual, and straight people; working class, middle-class, and upper-middle class people.
Then she started writing in order to find out who these people were. She wrote and wrote and wrote, time permitting, and, as often happens in fiction stories, one of the characters took over and decided that this was her story, and she was to be center stage.
And she just happened to be Native American.
Valerie was, not unsurprisingly, a graduate student. She was intelligent, gifted, generous, and ambitious. She was also promiscuous, emotionally immature, a bit of a drinker (although adamantly anti-drug), and had mommy issues up the wazoo (her mother essentially, but not completely, abandoned her as child.)
Why is my character like this? Because that’s the kind of main characters I write.
The Asian character ended up becoming a minor character in the story, and the black characters include a central character who is a good-hearted, efficient nurse with a tendency to be a bit of a control freak in relationships (Felicia), and her aunt Debra, one of the professors at the university (whose main purpose seems to be to offer sensible advice to her niece and the other, more central professor character).
There is another fairly central character, the main character’s cousin, who is a half-Native American/half white (French Canadian) man (Rene’). He is also presented quite often through the lens of his sexuality, since he is there to incite the inhibited passions of the central professor character, but he is also presented as the sensible, loving best friend of his cousin.
The rest of the present-day cast is pretty much white. And each of them has their failings. You have the impulsive underaged ingenue Lisa, who, incidentally, the main character Valerie seduces in order to piss off the ingenue’s mother, who is her faculty advisor. Of course, Lisa actively seeks out Valerie’s affections, at least after the initial seduction. This is a coming-out story for her. You have the faculty advisor, Elizabeth, who is a mother figure not only to her daughter Lisa, but to the main character Valerie as well. Elizabeth is a major control freak, emotionally unavailable, and trapped in a marriage that makes her unhappy. And therein lies the emotional crux of the novel, Dis/inhibition–emotionally charged graduate student works out her mommy issues on her emotionally cold, controlling faculty advisor. Other white characters include the black nurse’s flighty artist girlfriend Sarah and the ingenue’s father/faculty advisor’s husband, the loving but unassertive, depressed Arthur.
Valerie’s actual mother is a character in the story as well and is a bit shallow, flighty, judgmental and emotionally immature. And (naturally) also Native American. There are two other full-blood Native American characters in the story, the main character’s father and grandfather, both presented as kind, intelligent, and complicated. Or as complicated as you can get considering they are both dead and therefore only appear in memories and flashback scenes, mostly from the point of view of characters who loved them. The father died when Valerie was a toddler. The grandfather is the father’s father, and the man who raised Valerie. He was also a university professor and Elizabeth’s mentor, thereby sealing her role as a mother figure to Valerie.
Short story long, I don’t think there’s a single character in this story who isn’t three-dimensional and complicated, but I worry. Two of the most prominent Native American characters in the story are written as emotionally immature and seemingly incapable of long-term relationships. Now one of them, my main character Valerie, is struggling with her emotional issues and trying to work through them and that’s the whole point of the story.
But still, someone could come along and say, “You don’t present Native Americans very sympathetically in your story. And while we’re on the subject, white girl, what makes you think you have the right to write Native American main characters at all?”
I could protest all I want that I didn’t set out to write a Native American main character, I simply wrote a character that just happened to be one, and by the time I realized she had taken over the whole friggin’ story, she had become a real person to me, and I couldn’t change her race any more than I could change an actual person’s race. That’s who she was. That can’t change. That’s no longer negotiable.
But you see my quandary here, and I have been aware of it for a long time. I tried to strike a balance in my story between Valerie’s good qualities and her bad qualities as a person, between her being a graduate student-who-just-happens-to-be-Native American and her being a young person with a connection to her Washoe/Piaute/Ute heritage. I did research into what that meant. I based many of the story bits dealing with her her heritage on a Native American ex of mine I lived with for four years.
So why is I still feel like I have no right to put this story out there in the world? Am I silencing Native voices by being a white person writing in a Native voice without being one?
I think people can write in the voices of Others they are not, and they can do it successfully, but it’s all a matter of being able to understand that Other’s experience as best you can. For example, I don’t often have an issue with a male writer writing a female main character. Sexism abounds in our world, there’s no doubt of that, but a lot of men can pull it off (and vice-versa). Why? I suppose it’s because the opposite sex is an Other we come into contact with everyday, interact with constantly, and even have close intimate relationships with. A racial Other…we don’t necessarily have that. But I know I would never have thought of having a Native American character before my four years with my ex.
I recently heard from that ex again, and there is a lot of complicated baggage in that relationship that makes me want to keep my distance. But it’s also an opportunity to cultivate a new relationship with her in which it might be possible someday soon to run some key chapters past her and get her reaction to them.
So why am I still hesitating?
I wish I had more people of color on my flist to respond to this.