(Warning to readers of The Artstars: this post contains minor spoilers.)
Midway into my first draft of “Three Lessons in Firesurfing,” I discovered that my narrator-protagonist was not as woke as I wanted her to be. She was afraid of her new friend, who presented as a butch Lesbian: “Lesbians make me uneasy sometimes. I’m never sure how friendly I should get.” She was afraid of her other new friend, a talented Korean-American sculptor: “Steve intimidates me terribly.” She was a fish out of water, timid generally and afraid most of all of being misunderstood. She was even afraid of Midwesterners: “Whoever said Midwesterners were polite never had to deal with this lot.” As the voice emerged from some part of my consciousness, her fear of difference bloomed. What did this say about me? What vile part of my brain was generating these thoughts? Will people assume it is a self-portrait? Will my Lesbian friends hurl the book across the room? Should I cut that line, for the sake of keeping the peace, for the sake of not hurting my friendships, for the sake of not hurting my friends, for the sake of my reputation? Should I cut the part where she thinks of her Asian friend as “inscrutable?”
Or, should I use those bigoted thoughts as a way to let the character begin to wake up?
Speaking of hurling books, I had that reaction to Willa Cather once, when she described the “wool” of a Black person’s hair. There the book went, behind the bed, where it wedged against the wall for a good week before made myself pick it up again. The book was My Antonia. I’m glad I continued reading it. The character was a servant’s son with natural talent at the piano. Yes, there are clichés in Cather’s depiction. Yes, it is offensive to contemporary readers. But Cather engaged with the character and allowed him to transform. What Cather’s work doesn’t do is present a homogenous world of rich, white, city people. She earnestly depicted the world she knew, which was a diverse one. And there is a plain purity to Cather’s language that puts this earnestness on display. I am moved by it. I don’t know if all readers are, but I am.
I found myself blogging on the Cather book and concluding that the most earnest among us cannot see our own prejudice. We are likely to fall into clumsiness and unintended effects, but that should not stop the effort. And I also resolved to keep my cast of characters as diverse as the world around me and to let my protagonist have her uncomfortable thoughts—and to let her be relatively likable as well—but I also recognized that this earnest storyteller had some responsibility. I could not just let those bigoted thoughts lie.
The story suddenly became about prejudice—hers, that of the small towns she visited—and her immunity to the real dangers her new friends faced. I thought it was supposed to be a story about making sculpture. But as often happens at the keyboard, this story had a mind of its own. And I realized that in breaking open her thinking about her artwork, she might begin to notice the flaws in her thinking about other people.
But that shit is tough to pull off. And I may not have. Too much and it becomes an Afterschool Special. Too little and you are alienating and triggering beloved readers. Either way, I kept it all in, to open up the conversation. I really want to hear your feelings and thoughts. Even if they are difficult ones.
Check out this essay by Sea Stachura at Ploughshares Blog, “Writing Racist Characters.” She challenges (especially Caucasian) fiction writers to take on the responsibility of exposing the bigotry in our midst, specifically racism. She explores the topic through the lens of craft, paying attention to the modulation of narrative distance and other strategies in fiction by Eudora Welty and Danielle Evans, citing guiding critical texts by Toni Morrison and Robin DiAngelo.