“The personal history of the author is tangential at best”
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It’s a common misconception that writers create characters or situations that have a direct parallel to their lives or the people they know. It’s not always that straightforward, and many times happens on a deep, unconscious level. For Black History Month, I’ve invited a few writers to explore how history — whether personal or family or country or world — affects their fiction.
Today’s Guest Essay is by Alaya Dawn Johnson
There seems to be a pervasive issue of credentials when any writer decides to tackle race in fiction. White people tread in this territory at their peril: no one wants to be the twenty-first century’s Harriet Beecher Stowe. But it’s not just white writers who have to beware the pit of fraught historical relationships and remembered grievances when they address race (and racism) in fiction.
A few years ago, I had an unusually vivid illustration of the unwritten rule that says that when black writers write about black people, those characters must be thinly veiled versions of themselves. To some extent, everyone hopes to discern some important quality of the writer inadvertently revealed in their writing. Why else make so much of the fact that Jane Austen died a spinster, or that Zora Neale Hurston lived in poverty and literary obscurity? Fiction reading is an utterly different experience when you have no personal knowledge of the author. Sometimes, the author bio can help inform texts and give you a greater appreciation of the depth of the work and characters. But at others, these personal details are irrelevant and can irrevocably damage the reading experience. Specifically, how do you approach fiction differently when you decide that the author does not have the “cred” to write that story? And when the author is black and writing about race, we edge into fraught territory: just how black is “black enough”?
Whatever that means.
Yet, there I was, reading a negative review of one of my short stories that managed to make only a passing mention of the story itself.
The problem? Well, my daddy, this reviewer said, was white, my mom was black, and I just didn’t know what I was talking about. This reviewer did not know me personally. Information about the ethnicity of my parents is not available online. There was, however, a photograph of me at the end of my offending story, revealing the salient detail: I’m one pale black person.
And now we begin to understand the perils of placing too much emphasis on personal history in fiction. Because the main character of that story also had a white father and a black mother. Assuming biographical details of an author based on her characters should always be absurd, but many people, oddly enough, make race an exception to that rule. Any reviewer who speculated, say, that Ursula LeGuin is a hermaphrodite because the humans in The Left Hand of Darkness perform the functions of both sexes would probably be laughed out of the profession. Thousands of science fiction authors write about aliens, and yet no one claims that as evidence extraterrestrial invasion. But let a black person write about people of color and they’d better make sure they have a very explicit author bio. You can imagine these denials over the course of the twentieth century: no, my husband never died of rabies, I don’t have a special room in the basement covered in light bulbs, and as far as I know the ghost of my murdered slave baby has not come back from the grave.
Listen, either the story succeeds in its aims, or it doesn’t. The personal history of the author is tangential at best. Put another way: Zora Neale Hurston’s literary obscurity matters only after we’ve established that she is worth reading in the first place.
My maternal grandfather grew up on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. My maternal grandmother was a lovechild raised by her half-Blackfoot mother in the twenties and thirties. My dad actually was the defendant in a historic supreme court case that desegregated the national court systems (Johnson vs. Virginia). Both of my parents are black. Yes, I’m “high yellow”, but last I checked the brown paper bag test is not an ideal method of evaluating fiction.
Of course none of my other stories resulted in similar personal speculations. I wish they did… I’m not a blue-skinned, shape-changing demon who lives in a desert. I never grew up on an island or dove for pearls or had to leave my home at a young age because of natural disasters. I don’t know witchcraft. I was never reanimated from the scavenged body parts of a Victorian graveyard, and though I’ve visited Brazil, I’ve never been in the Amazon rainforest.
But I am a person of color. And I wrote a story with a bi-racial main character. Wait, it all makes sense to me now! My daddy must be white.
I guess I’ll have to tell him.
Racing the Dark, 2007 (Agate Publishing)
Shard of Glass, Strange Horizons, February 2005
Third Day Lights, Interzone issue #200, September/October 2005
Among Their Bright Eyes, Fantasy Magazine issue #4, 2006
Who Ever Loved, Arabella Magazine, December 2004