Saturday, November 13, 2010

On the Page and Off -- Race, Writers & Creating Connection

Author Lynn Capehart -
photo by Brian Goodloe
This is Part 2. For Part 1 see “That tall black one over there.” Race, Writers & Creating Connection.

“Out of many, we are one.” Lynn Capehart opens her article The Importance of Inclusionary Writing with this reference to candidate Obama's speech on race, and suggests that “by making subtle changes in their prose to become inclusionary, writers can contribute to America’s dream of unity.” To me this sounds like the opening of a valuable dialogue. A writer of color has taken the time and effort to bring a point of craft – and of larger awareness – to the attention of white writers. What will we do about it?

What I particularly value in Lynn Capehart’s article is her thoughtful connection between words on the page – in this case, character description – and the effect they wield off the page, their real-life impact on readers. A writer strives to engage a reader’s imagination, to create response – that is why we learn the craft – but what if the effect we create is not what we intend? What if the flow of my reader’s imagination is abruptly interrupted by what feels like a lack of respect from me, the writer?

Every time a fictional character of color is NOT described with the nuanced detail a writer gives to his story’s white characters, but rather in a simple, generic way – Black, Asian, Mexican – the reader of color is zapped, says Capehart, jolted out of the fictional world with a real-world reminder of an “exclusionary” reality. He cannot help but be reminded – because it is intrinsic to our American history – “of white society’s inability to really ‘see’ [the person of color] as a fully developed human being – an equal, and not an ‘other.’”

“Writers are supposed to look at the world and blend their observations into their prose,” Capehart reminds us. “To do that well, white writers have to start really “looking at” their characters of color. If the creator can’t see the person, how can she describe that character to the reader?”

That question leads, I think, to other questions that writers might want to ask themselves. What about our own real-world lives? How diverse are our friendships? Within any ethnic group outside our own, what is the range of our acquaintances? How well do we know anyone of another race or ethnicity? I suspect that when diversity is a natural part of our off-the-page experience, it will more naturally reflect in our on-page descriptions.

Back to Lynn Capehart, who more than once frames the topic of character description as an area in which a writer can serve the reader – help the reader ‘see’ with new eyes – which, I would add, relates to creating new, more perceptive reader minds. By bringing a new writerly mind to the page, the writer becomes a spark for change. What better way to wield the power of the pen?

My own motivating standard comes from The Baha’i writings, which state that “the solution of so vast a problem” as race in America requires “a supreme effort” by white and black and clearly lays out the attitudes and qualities needed by both. Read my post Race in America: The Standard. A bit of fictional character description may not seem like a supreme effort, but a consistent effort - and the questions it might lead a writer to ask of  herself - can only lead forward.

So how do other writers respond to Lynn Capehart? Check out online comments on The Writer website – and leave your own comments. For a little back-and-forth, check out The Writer’s current December issue and Lynn Capehart’s response to a writer who calls her biased.
Related Posts:
Race: Election, Dialogue & What We Really Believe
Black Butterfly Moon - a poem & discussion of color in writing
Writer Paradigm: "That's good enough to cut out and pin up over your typewriter."
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