Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sell out? Ambassadorial? My People? The Other?

Please excuse me for the post of this title. I just couldn't come up with an appropriate subject line.

By some weird confluence of cosmic racial thought floating through the ether, I found myself looking at three different takes on the same subject:

First Nnedi, author of Zahrah the Windseeker, asks if she is a sell-out.

Then Alan Schrager writes a post on on his surprise that a black musician didn't know who Miles Davis is.

And I had posted a comment on in which I listed some multicultural writers. I wrote the list because when I went to the book-signing I was asked about other black writers -- as if I was a font of knowledge. So I decided to make a list to carry with me at different readings. I figure I'll also make a list of Christian writers also. One never knows.

Now, this leads to my point. The typical American writer is usually white and if religious, his/her religion doesn't show up blatantly in his/her book. Not to say the typical American writer isn't religious, just that they don't put a LOVE of GOD into all of their books.

So then, what are we atypicals to do? The typical writer doesn't really have to wonder what the OTHER thinks because he/she is not writing to the other. Oh sure, they will try not to create stereotypical characters but as Cindy Ward and Nisi Shawl, authors of Writing the Other have shown, even then the typicals blunder.

But to the main point: These three posts are asking the same questions: Where does my art belong? Where should it belong? How do I approach my art? Do I owe my readers or myself or the Other anything?

Let's face it, Nnedi's post does cut to the chase: Do people want to read a story about people from another culture? And should we write about folks from another culture?

An aside here: In a nation where supposedly "few" people read, reading can be quite a production. It's not like a rap song which even a country singer might hear and indulge in for 5 minutes. And it's not like a movie --only 2 hours, so we can once in a while peer into the lives of cultures unlike our own. (Okay, okay, most Americans don't really go to foreign movies. Except for maybe a Chinese martial arts film. Some folks even balk at English and Australian movies.)

Now, getting down to the immediate -- me-- I have been thinking about what kind of novel I want to write in the future. Notwithstanding the horrible scary fact that three stories are pushing at my brain, I still have some control about what I put in my novel and about A) how much I want to stand apart from the typical B) how much power I actually have to stand apart. After all, even if I choose to write a book that has no religion in it and that has no black folks in it, will someone actually buy a black book. I won't tell you how many times this kind of conversation goes on in black spec-fic circles and in Christian spec-fic circles.

Lately something happened that made me think. (Never a good thing, trust me.) First I've got to say that I'm a Christian and I like anthropology. To me the search for the true God can be seen in the folklore of all peoples. In Wind Follower, I set up a culture around a Bible verse: "The one wounded in the house of his friends." That created a culture in which hospitality was the highest moral value and betrayal of a friend the lowest.

Lately a story came to me which was trying to be a prequel for Wind Follower. I set out to world-build other culture around another Bible verse and around anthropology. But then, a couple of Christians had a problem with my book. Mostly because of the sex scenes and the violence. In short, I wasn't behaving like ONE OF US, but like ONE OF THEM.

There were other problems too. Stories with how the story was written. Stories about the "culture" in the book. It occurred to me that perhaps there were other issues at play. Christian and specfic and Black! Oh my! That was a stretch of the borderlands that many did not cross. So far, I've met Christians who loved the book and were willing to enter that borderland. I've met non-religious or anti-religious people who also loved the book and didn't mind the religious region they found themselves in. What can I say? I'm pretty ambassadorial? When I write, people from other cultures can identify with the folks they find in my narrative region. Of course, they can only identify if they actually bring themselves to read the thing.

And of course, they can only identify if I don't sell out.
Now I find myself asking, "What do I do? Do I write for the black women I know who only like mainstream stories?" "Do I write for non-Christians and leave the religious stuff aside?" Do I write for those who will read a book populated by no more than two black people? Who are my people? Will they claim me? And what if I sell-out? Who will claim me then?


Tia Nevitt said...

I think you should write for yourself. Write the type of story that you always wanted to write, and the type of story that you love reading. I wouldn't worry about what other people say, and I wouldn't worry about trying to get feedback too soon. Let your muse speak to you. When your first draft is done, throw it to us and we'll let you know what we think.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Ah, you're sweet. Thanks. Will see. I swear! The way we christian and black and christian black writers get ourselves twisted. -C