Monday, April 19, 2010

Race and Writing

A warning- this column intends to step on people's toes, so please raise your feet.

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.

I write. I write what comes to me, what my head creates. This last week my first romance novella came out, Kwaito Love. It is about an up and coming fashion designer in Johannesburg, Mpho, who falls in love with a famous record producer, Thabang. Kwaito Love is one of two books launching Sapphire Press, an imprint of Kwela Books, it's an imprint targeted at a black, urban, female audience. My second book for this publisher was recently accepted as well.

When it was announced that the book was out, I got a comment from a South African that my book was accepted only because of my surname; the publisher assumed I was black. Apparently in the world that is South African publishing only black people can write about black people. I knew this to be at least partly wrong since with my second acceptance everyone knew I was white, but it still gave me an ugly, sick feeling in my stomach. What would have been worse would have been if in fact I was black and someone told me the same thing. That kind of upliftment I would think is nothing more than a serious slap-down and an insult to the writer's ability. I took it in the same way.

Last week was the premiere for Morwalela, a television series with only black characters, in which I was one of the scriptwriters. People have been congratulating me on the series, and not one Motswana has mentioned anything about the fact that I am white and am writing about black characters. Not one.

My book ,The Fatal Payout, currently a prescribed book for junior secondary schools in Botswana, is about a black woman detective who solves a crime and goes on to start a relationship with a black male engineer. No one has said a word. Everyone knows I'm a white woman, but it seems they accept that I can write about men and people who are black.

Recently there was a long, arduous and infuriating discussion on UK writer Vanessa Gebbie's blog about writing about "the other". I did not get it at the time, but I think I'm starting to understand. I think perhaps the point is otherness. I'm not saying I'm better or worse than anyone else, but I don't see myself set apart from the people I share my country with. Maybe that is what makes such writing awkward and often patronising- the writer is an other. I'm not saying I'm black. I'm not saying I understand everything that goes on here, why would I? I was forever lost by the actions and motivations of the white Americans that surrounded me in the place of my birth, why would I suddenly be Ms Insightful here? That's not it.

In my second romance novella for this publisher, I have three white, Afrikaner characters. The readers cringed at my stereotypes, at my flat characterisation. For me, they were now "the other" and I was struggling, trying to pull them into three dimensions. Until I could connect with them, and remove the otherness barrier, I would never be able to write them as believable characters.

I know writing for a South African audience is a schlep. Everyone is political. Everyone has a heavy, historical chip on their shoulder. No one there is free from race issues. I thought I accepted this. This past week made me feel sad. I felt sad for my new book that I'd been so happy about. I'm not trying to pretend I'm someone I'm not. I'm a writer. I make up characters. I make up stories. That's it, nothing else. If I've succeeded, then readers will connect with my books, if I haven't- then they won't. That's all that really matters anyway.

Now, if I can only convince myself of that.


daoine said...

I hear you sweetie. It's one of the reasons I assumed I couldn't write in or about South Africa. It would always be damned if you do, damned if you don't. But I'm so glad Botswana is different and more accepting of writers in whatever guise they come.

Val said...

i hear you too. its a sad thing but dont let them discourage you. It IS their issue. Congrats on all your writing successes!

bonita said...

Arrgh those naysayers are sooo last century. Each of us has experiences, both public and personal. We are imminently qualified to write about them. We are equally qualified to write about our observations and our interpretations of those observations. So, to hell with them, Laurie. Best wishes to you and to Sapphire Press. You're not sailing under a false flag, they're making unwarrented assumptions.

Sue Guiney said...

This is such a difficult issue. I think all writers have to deal with it to some extent. It goes hand in hand with readers always wanting to know if the work is "autobiographical." They feel like they know you or want to. But what you are dealing with is on a completely different level. You're right - it's their problem and there's nothing you can do about it except continue to produce the excellent work that you do. But Jeez, it must be so hard :-(

Miriam said...

I've always thought how lucky you are to be able to write about your country without arousing the emotions that would be aroused if I wrote about my country in that way. But we all have to face antagonism - from within or without or both. May you have the strength to withstand it.

(I didn't intend to write so many withwords!)

Anonymous said...

mma kubuitsile! dumela kgarebe!
mme ke go bolelele sengwe, tota ke a go sebetsa: batswana are a people that are peaceful by nature and origin. this statement rings more true to me since leaving home for the diaspora. before then, racism was a word i used synonimously with tribalism or nepotism- manong a ja ka losika!there is something natural and sensible about this idea. ga ke re di siame, nnyaa!kare o ka tlhaloganya gore ke eng fa ke ka batla go thusa ngwana wa ga mme pele ke ka thusa yole kana yole. maybe i ddnt feel the sting of distrimination because i was sheltered back home or perhaps as i like to call it we value people. upon learning the ways of the americas, i am convinced that we have to jealously guard our generousity of heart and open embrace of what is different and/or alien. i think you and i cannot afford to be indifferent. rather we ought to be compelled by the love of another to look beyond the intent to hurt, ridicule or dehuminise from these poor fellow and see the fear that drives their actions. to this day, im convinced it is that poor person's way of numbing the pain and feeling a void. how can you stay mad at someone who has demons that steal their joy- you cant because it is worthless to hold captive someone who is already held in bondage. in closing i am a firm believer that people are generous creatures of love. we derive pleasure in being kind, helpful and all that jazzy stuff.

Free Pen said...

I left a comment on Wordsbody about this. I think you also need to consider that maybe you get some breaks also because you're a white writer albeit with a black name.

Lauri said...

Free Pen, you make a valid point, as I mentioned over at Wordsbody. Still the same applies, if i knew I got a writing job because I was white, I would give it a pass. It would question my ability as a writer. Who would want something given to them when they didn't earn it? But you are correct, less blatant racism in my favour likely exists.

Lauri said...

Daoine- Let's hope Australia is kinder to you.

Val- Thanks for your continued support

Bonita- I think you're exactly right. We can't be second guessing everything we write or we will be writing dishonestly. We must write from what we understand and we experience- from our seats in the stands.

Sue- Most of the time it hardly troubles me at all, occasionally it gets through, though- us writers have pretty tough skin. :)

Miriam- You're right there is always some sort of antagonism out there when we allow the public to be part of our writing, I guess it is just the nature of the game.

Anon- I don't think we should put too rosy a colour on Botswana, we do have our own issues but it is better than the racism that exists down south.

Anonymous said...

I have often heard of the same coming from people, writers often, who happen to occupy the gender and ability spaces. The question being is someone's work being favorably viewed because they are women, to redress the historical 'airbrushing' of women by society? Of course we cannot deny that it does happen, but i strongly believe in focusing on ability, and less on the 'bottling in' of people we are so fond of doing. The course i stand by happen to occupy the socio-economic, ability and opportunity spaces, which is so profound but less talked about in our country beacuse of political correctness. Bravo Lauri!

Anonymous said...

in other words, the posts i have read written by you, gave me an impression of someone passionate about what they are doing and able to back it up. I am yet to read your novels though. It only occured to me that you are of caucasian descent by looking at your picture. I must say, i feel excited to have bumped into your blog.

Helen Ginger said...

I go into a bookstore, see a title that sounds interesting, check out the cover, read the back cover blurb, maybe read the opening page and decide to buy it or not. Unless I know the author personally, it won't occur to me to wonder if the author is male, female, black, white, old, young.

Don't let this get you down, Lauri. You're breaking barriers and you're doing what you love to do.

Straight From Hel

J.L. Campbell said...

I've no doubt it will take some time to get used to what you've discussed here. I know it would take me a while were I in your shoes.

But when I think about it, what you're doing is not so different from what I do. My debut novel is written mainly from the point of view of a man.

With time, acceptance will come.

BTW - Nice to meet you!

Maxine said...

A fascinating post, Lauri. I often have the opposite issue: people in Australia expect a 'Maxine Clarke' (inherited slavemaster name, I'm guessing) to be white!