I’m more conscious than ever about Racefail in new projects. Over the past few years, writers, blogs and forums have done a cracking job in dissecting various types of issues that form part of an ongoing debate. We are, I’m sure, more educated on when novels go wrong.
I think most novelists will agree that part of writing a novel is minimising problems. There will always be flaws in novels. Someone, somewhere, no matter what you write, will always take issue with a writer’s portrayal of race, gender, and so on. All a writer can do is be aware of where they have failed and try to fail better next time. For my previous novels, I had the excuse that race was split along the species line, but for Drakenfeld, everyone is human, so I felt I should confront the issue of race head-on rather than avoid engaging with it at all.
I’m currently writing a black character, but painfully aware she’ll easily be perceived as the ‘sidekick’ to the first person lead, who is not black (he’s not particularly white, either – I’m evoking a classical, Roman-Perisan location, but that’s besides the point). I’m aware, then, of the gaping chasm of racefail that stands before me, like I imagine it can stand before every author.
I’m trying very hard to make sure she exists in her own right, has complexity, doesn’t exist solely to further the plot of the non-black character, that she’s strong without being magical, that her race is addressed in the context of the world, that I’m making sure the reader understands such things without it being a lecture, and without me incorporating guilt of Western privilege (probably unavoidable, if I’m honest). In a secondary world of my own building, I must address such things.I like to think I’m not going to head feet first into the ZOMG turban dudes = bad like some. I’m half-Indian, but I’m not sure that really helps all that much, other than perhaps it reinforces some vague awareness of the inherent problems with addressing issues of race in a novel.
It should be simple, but unfortunately it isn’t. To some extent, I feel a little like Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar in my efforts to engage and over-engage with the situation, but I’ve decided that’s a healthy thing. It’s better to be Mr Palomar than to waltz into a novel blindly and reinforce current cultural prejudices. Not thinking is no excuse.
Anyway, one particularly fantastic short-hand resource, I’ve discovered, is tvtropes.org, which assiduously lists the many pitfalls of film and literature tropes, but has a good deal to say about race, too:
In order to show the world that minority characters are not bad people, one will step forward to help a “normal” person, with their pure heart and folksy wisdom. They are usually black and/or poor, but may come from another oppressed minority. They step (often clad in a clean, white suit) into the life of the much more privileged (and, in particular, almost always white) central character and, in some way, enrich that central character’s life.
A vast and brutal database, it’s actually been very helpful in showing me where I can go right as well as wrong, and I recommend spending a bit of time looking up the tropes if you get a moment. Anyway, as ever, not sure I was going anywhere with this – it ended up being more navel-gazing than I hoped. I just wanted to share a healthy concern.