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Going Humbly

In the February, 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest, I lead a roundtable discussion on the issue of what it’s like to be a writer of color in the crime genre. The contributors are Danny Gardner, Kellye Garrett, Rachel Howzell Hall, Gar Anthony Haywood, Naomi Hirahara, and Gary Phillips.

How, you might ask, did a mature (read: old) white male get assigned to such a piece?

I’m a contributing editor to the magazine, and so receive the editorial calendar well in advance. When I saw that the theme for the issue in question was Diversity, I decided to pitch an article on the crime/mystery/thriller genre, remembering a piece Rachel had written in 2015 titled “Colored and Invisible,” in which she discussed the experience of being one of only a few black writers at annual mystery conferences.

I felt that was a topic that could easily form the basis of a larger discussion, and asked the other writers, all of whom I knew personally except Kellye, if they wanted to join in. All said yes.

It’s an excellent piece—everyone has fascinating things to say on a variety of topics. But as I read the contributions and took in everyone’s remarks, I couldn’t help but understand on a much deeper level my own curious status in the conversation.

In particular, I couldn’t help but feel a certain inner twinge when the discussion turned to the issue of cultural appropriation. In a way, wasn’t that what I was doing in my role as interloper on a panel about Writers of Color? How long can one hide behind his good intentions?

This had nothing whatsoever to do with how anyone reacted to me. I was treated graciously at every turn. But like I said, these were friends. We’re comfortable with each another.

Even so, as the issue of writing across cultural barriers arose, I realized finally I had a personal stake in the conversation, even though my role as the “question man” prevented me from saying anything.

Several of the contributors noted that they had no problems with people writing outside their own cultural sphere, as long as they did it with genuine respect and a willingness to listen. But they had difficulty when white authors, for example, write about black characters and communities and get lauded for their “grit” and their “ear for dialogue” when in truth their portrayals are often cliched or even demeaning. Worse, African-American writers covering the same terrain either go unrecognized or get criticized for not being “black enough,” i.e., their writing doesn’t maintain the stereotype.

This brought to mind an essay I wrote in conjunction with the publication of my fourth novel, Do They Know I’m Running?, which concerned a Salvadoran-American family suffering a crisis—the uncle who supports the family gets deported, and his nephews devise a scheme to bring him back. What I was hoping to explain in the essay was not only my reasons for wanting to write the novel, but my answer to the question: What gives me the right to do so?

I’ve decided to revisit that essay and share it below, with the hopes it will both continue and expand the conversation in the Writer’s Digest piece. Incidentally, that issue should be available in early January, and I really hope you take the opportunity to read the discussion, as well as its online expanded version, which presents the parts we couldn’t fit in because of word count.

You might also want to read a similar and excellent roundtable discussion that Kellye led for the Los Angeles Review of Books, titled “It’s Up to Us,” featuring Rachel and Gar again as well as Walter Mosley, Kyra Davis, and Barbara Neely, which you can find online here [1].

And, of course, our own Keith Cronin wrote about this subject here at Writer Unboxed in one of my favorite posts of the past few years, titled, “In Which a White Guy Talks About Cultural Appropriation [2].”

With all that as long-winded prelude, here goes.

* * * * *

I grew up in central Ohio, a fairly provincial and racially segregated backwater at the time, despite the presence of the statehouse and one of the country’s largest universities, Ohio State. Before I left, this was changing; African Americans were gaining ground politically, economically and socially, the university’s international draw in both students and faculty was quite literally changing the face of the local community, and Columbus was growing into the major, multicultural metropolis it has become.

But I saw firsthand, at times within my own home, the sometimes subtle and other times quite blatant transformation of small-town rectitude and middle-American conformity into racist fear and anger and contempt.

The word “nigger” was a constant drumbeat among the working class white guys I hung out with, so much so that by the time I made my first black friend—his name was Adrian Bennett, we were both fourteen, working together as volunteers at the Center for Science and Industry—I was startled by how “normal,” how like myself, he was.

I felt embarrassed by this reaction then and still do today. Although I was not paralyzed by white guilt I realized I was by no means innocent. I bore the emotional and conceptual baggage of my place and time and no amount of feel-good hipness could cure me completely.

In a way racism is not unlike alcoholism. The tendency cannot be escaped, merely controlled, and the control requires insight, honesty and discipline. Put differently, it requires one to become more fully human. And like an alcoholic, I very much wish I did not have the thoughts and feelings and impulses I still sometimes observe within myself. I wish I was colorblind, race-blind. Instead, I have tried to become insightful and conscientious, I’ve learned to question and control my impulses, I’ve learned to listen and observe.

Much has changed. I now live in a very mixed community in a California neighborhood so diverse I once reflected, during our yearly Nationwide Night Out get-together, that I and my neighbors looked like we’d been transplanted from a Jonathan Demme movie—whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, Filipinos, all intermingling effortlessly with genuine warmth and fondness. We look out for each other and involve ourselves in each other’s lives.

It was the experience of living here, together with my working beside late wife on several emotionally charged probate cases involving African-American families, that prompted me to write about them and my hometown in my second novel, Done for a Dime.

In particular, without having grown close to many of the people involved in those cases—my wife, who passed away in 2001, could often be more of a professional big sister than a lawyer—I never would have attempted to write about African-American characters as I did.

Befriending someone in a time of high stress, seeing them through one of the worst episodes in their lives, witnessing firsthand the effect on their families, seeking not only to understand but help—and being held accountable for that help—offers a unique perspective on the human experience. Not just that of others, but of oneself.

Now and then I felt those old racist thoughts and feelings rise up, only to burst like acidic bubbles as they encountered the truth of what I now saw on an intimate basis in these people who were becoming our friends. I felt diseased, and yet life had given me a chance to heal.

As I wrote my novel, fictionalizing what I had experienced, I tried to honor the people I knew and did my best to portray them honestly. But after listening to the roundtable contributors for our Writer’s Digest piece, I couldn’t help but wonder—did I? Or am I fooling myself?

Regardless, the question arose again when my writer’s eye turned toward Central America.

It’s the 21st Century. “Post-Racial America.” All is well, no?

When I first came to California in the mid-seventies, I worked briefly at a Los Angeles restaurant with a largely Mexican staff. I was supervised by a waiter named Ramon, who asked me to help him learn French, in return for his help in teaching me Spanish. But Ramon was not merely generous and curious. He was also proud, world-wise and reserved. He knew that I, as an Anglo, might easily replace him as head waiter if the Caucasian owners saw fit or if customers groused.

The other Mexican waiters also treated me with a mix of helpfulness and detachment; one actually picked a fight with me in the dressing room. And though none of the other waiters who were there came to my defense, none of them jumped in to help my adversary either. The fight was no clash of civilizations, it was between him and me, nothing more, and we could fend for ourselves.

What is strange to me in reflection of these incidents is how different in character my feelings were at the time than the racism I’d known growing up. There were clearly tensions between us—and those tensions were the result of our being of different color and class and culture—but there was also an awareness of each other as human. I’d known no Latinos in central Ohio; the Great Brown Threat had yet to register on our radar. I had not been indoctrinated in community-wide resentment and fear. Latin Americans were not the Other, to be loathed and mistrusted, controlled and repelled. Not yet, anyway.

But I remain very much attuned to tone. I have a pretty good radar for bigotry, due to my own struggles with it. It’s for that reason that I’ve grown increasingly disturbed at the poisonous distortions that too often overwhelm the immigration debate. I detect in the shrillness that old familiar fear and guilt and anger, with its gloss of righteous indignation and “common sense” and its rhetoric of protection—defense of our borders, our laws, our culture, our way of life. I hear echoes. They are not pleasant ones.

One of the most frequent things one hears is the epithet “illegal immigrant,” with the underlying insinuation that the undocumented are intrinsically criminals, since their very existence in this country is testimony to their violating our immigration statutes. And criminals deserve no compassion, no respect, no “amnesty.”

I see the situation somewhat differently. When my wife was dying of cancer, she was once in such extreme pain that, as I drove her to the emergency room, I ran two stop signs and a red light, driving over 80 miles per hour in 25-mile-per-hour zones. She later thanked me, even though what I did was clearly against the law. And I would do it again.

The “crime” attributed to undocumented immigrants in crossing the border is analogous—and much less dangerous to everyone but themselves. They do what they must for the sake of the well-being of their loved ones. If this is the moral outrage anti-immigration zealots make it out to be, show me the innocent.

Who Do I Think I Am?

Outrage is a luxury. Writers write, and I felt a particular need to contribute something, to bark back at the distorting invective. I felt it particularly important that Anglos chime in on the side of Latinos out of a sense of justice and simple decency. Silence was not an option.

But I’m a novelist, not a pundit. And what right does an American mutt like me, a white male from the very heart of Middle America, have to depict in fiction the life of a Latino family?

I came to Latino culture first through fiction—Borges, Amado, Cortazar—but I gained my greatest appreciation of it through music, perhaps its most accessible art form.

Also, being partially of Irish descent, my imagination leans instinctively to the underdog, especially one standing in the shadow of imperial power.

Last, being raised Catholic, I felt a special fascination with the manner that religion took hold in the southerly Americas, both Gothic and primitive, awake to suffering, fiercely immediate.

From where I sat, Latino culture in general and its music in particular possessed a vibrancy, a passion, a sense of both the tragic and the joyous I found mesmerizing. Santana could blister your soul. And Santana led me to Tito Puente, who led me to Ray Barretto, who led me to Poncho Sanchez and on and on: Willie Bobo to Eric Bobo to Los Lobos to Celso Piña to Control Machete to Julieta Venegas to Ana Gabriel to Pescozada . . . The chain hasn’t stopped in thirty years. I pray to God it never does.

Admiring a culture, though, doesn’t grant me a right to depict it in my own work. Artists steal from each other at will, musicians especially, it’s almost lazy not to. But can fiction writers get away with it?

All artists are outsiders to the extent they observe more than they participate, but everyone joins in to some degree, just as we all reflect. Rather, the crucial question seems to be at what point does observation fail us, i.e., when do we begin to imagine, and why?

Again, I would not have attempted to write across this particular cultural boundary if I didn’t have intimate friendships to guide me. Before I began writing about Central America, I had begun a romantic relationship with a Salvadoran woman named Ana who introduced me to her family, her friends, her larger social circle, and her beleaguered, beautiful country. We lived together for a time. I helped her and her children come to California.

In creating my characters and scenes, I blended what I’d learned from Ana and her family, as well as from new friends and others I came to know in the larger Latino community, with what I imagined, mixing what I knew with what I felt the story required.

Taking that additional step, that leap of imagination, is an act of presumption, yes, but it is also, or should be, an act of love. If not, then we can rightfully be challenged concerning our purpose, and questioned on the grounds of cultural appropriation.

In a way we imagine each other every day. So simple an act as reading a facial expression, whether that of a stranger or an old friend, requires innumerable acts of interpretation we make unconsciously—”interpretation” being the guise imagination assumes to appear more reliable.

And as we imagine others, so they imagine us. But is this act of imaginative interpretation intrinsically flawed? Are we to believe we never really know the difference, cannot know the difference, between when we’re loved and when we’re misunderstood—or worse, getting used?

John Coltrane once remarked that when there is something we do not understand we must go humbly to it. That humility is the test of our honesty. Our art will demonstrate not just our understanding—our sensitivity, or lack thereof—but how honest we allowed ourselves to be, not just about our subject matter, but ourselves.

If we sense sloppiness or laziness or sentimentality—worse, a bigoted indifference disguised as a well-meaning advocacy—we can justifiably criticize the result, regardless of who the artist is or what the work portrays. This is a question not just of execution, however, but of motive, and all such inquiries are slippery. We can hardly accuse an artist of botching something he doesn’t understand by attributing to him motives we cannot possibly know. The inner life of the artist is no less inscrutable than the soul of the vato.

But the craving for authenticity is as strong as ever. Everybody wants the real dope, even the person who wouldn’t recognize it if it sat on his head. But the authentic is an illusion, we never possess the truth, we approach it—not just with our eyes but our imaginations. And, if we are wise like Coltrane, we do so humbly. We do so in a spirit of love, not empowerment or appropriation. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know the difference.

* * * * *

So—what are your own beliefs or experiences concerning writing across racial, cultural, gender, or other boundaries? Who gets to do so, who gets to decide, and why?

About David Corbett [3]

David Corbett [4] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [5], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.