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“The personal history of the author is tangential at best”

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.

Alaya Dawn JohnsonAnd 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.

Alaya (pronounced ah-lie-ah) Dawn Johnson lives, writes, cooks and (perhaps most importantly) eats in New York City. Her literary loves are all forms of speculative fiction, historical fiction, and the occasional highbrow novel. Her culinary loves are all kinds of ethnic food, particularly South Indian, which she feels must be close to ambrosia. She graduated from Columbia University in 2004 with a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures, and has lived and traveled extensively in Japan.



Racing the Dark, 2007 (Agate Publishing)


Shard of Glass, Strange Horizons, February 2005
Third Day Lights, Interzone issue #200, September/October 2005

Short Stories

Among Their Bright Eyes, Fantasy Magazine issue #4, 2006
Who Ever Loved, Arabella Magazine, December 2004

11 thoughts on ““The personal history of the author is tangential at best””

  1. Diane J Standiford says:

    Very astute points. I thought “people,” understood this about authors and that the masses don’t even care; but in the last 8 years I question such assumptions on my part. I find now, these truths hold for actors as well.
    What a waste of energy.

  2. nojojojo says:

    Good, you wrote it. I was hoping you would.

    This is just another version of the pressure that exists on black writers to “write black”, which is just another version of the pressure that exists on black people to “act black”. It’s all a part of the same stupid, racist effort to pigeonhole people based on superficialities — e.g., she’s a woman so she’s not strong, he’s a black man so he’s not smart. The world has finally conceded that we’re capable of being writers, and good writers, but only in those “authentic” spheres we’re permitted to know from personal experience. And sometimes the worst offenders, when it comes to this crap, are those within our own communities — the gatekeepers.

    This may be the biggest reason why I write speculative fiction.

  3. joankelly6000 says:

    Thanks for this post. I only write nonfiction so far, and it’s interesting to me to hear about a fiction author’s specific experiences around writing and race.

  4. Sandra says:

    Interesting. My current WIP has a biracial MC as well, who feels the ‘not black enuf’ stigma within the story. Coming at this as a white writer, I’ve had trouble trying to figure out what that means, but I’ve gotten help from a few very kind beta readers (one of which is biracial and feeling that herself).

    Tobias Buckell had a blog post no too long about about a similar occurance to yours , based on his fiction vs his bio picture. Alas, I don’t have a link. ;-(

  5. Shannan Palma says:

    Great post. I’ll have to look for your story!

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  8. s c tan says:

    nice blog!

  9. Saladin says:

    Nice post. I agree for the most part. A light-skinned friend of mine who does organizing work in Detroit gets this a lot. Black people especially assume she is mixed and ‘confused’ because she’s is VERY high yellow. But she’s neither mixed nor confused — her dad looks like Nick Nolte with slightly wavy dark hair, but he’s Black.

    Of course the whole association of ‘mixed’ and ‘confused’ is a bunch of annoying BS that ‘monoracial’ (heh) folks on all sides perpetuate.

    I’m not sure I agree with the idea that “The personal history of the author is tangential at best.”, though. There’s no way we can un-know who wrote the Tell-Tale Heart. It affects us when we read. White writers writing Black dialect are doing something different than Black writers doing the same thing. Texts always exist in a context, and author bio is a part of this. By the time we have an open book in our hands and are staring at the first words, we’ve got a whole heap of expectations, assumptions, fears, hopes, etc.. in mind. Our experience of reading the story would be a different one without these things acting on us.

    Which is not to say that’s how it SHOULD be….

  10. nojojojo says:


    Of course the whole association of ‘mixed’ and ‘confused’ is a bunch of annoying BS that ‘monoracial’ (heh) folks on all sides perpetuate.

    Not just monoracials (are there really any of those among non-recent-immigrant Americans? I think we all like to boink the exotic a little too much for that…). I’ve heard the same crap from my own “mixed and confused” family all my life. No different from women who scuttle feminist efforts and black racists (yes, I said racists) like Ward Connerly and Clarence Thomas; it’s all part of the same self-perpetuating system.

    I’m not sure I agree with the idea that “The personal history of the author is tangential at best.”, though. There’s no way we can un-know who wrote the Tell-Tale Heart. It affects us when we read. White writers writing Black dialect are doing something different than Black writers doing the same thing. Texts always exist in a context, and author bio is a part of this.

    I disagree with this. Not in principle — you’re right in that we all bring our own experiences and assumptions to the story (which you’re calling “context”; I’ll stick with “baggage”), and you’re right in that we do this whether we should or not. But I still believe that Alaya’s assertion (“The personal history of the author is tangential at best”) is correct. The emphasis on “tangential” is mine, because I think it’s the perfect word for this issue. Tangents are often totally random, having nothing to do with the subject that inspired them. Tangents in the context of this discussion often say more about the observer of the art, than the artist herself or her work.

    And one of those tangents is racism and/or stereotyping — another name for the context/baggage you’re talking about. Seeing that the author of a novel containing black dialect is white will trigger one set of assumptions, yes, especially if the dialect is handled badly. I might assume this was typical white racism. That assumption might even be correct — though it might not be. Maybe the author doesn’t understand how dialect works, period; maybe he should’ve talked to a linguist. Maybe the author did the right research, but is applying the wrong dialect (to my ear), since black dialect varies regionally across the US. I’m listening for Southern Bible Belt; maybe he’s giving me Midwestern Breadbasket. Or maybe what I might incorrectly assume is racism is simply the sign of a crappy writer who has a poor ear for dialogue.

    If I see that the author is black, that would also trigger a set of assumptions on my part, but those assumptions could be equally wrong. On top of that, I might be more lenient/biased in my judgment of the dialect. (Case in point — I caught myself doing this with L. A. Banks’ Vampire Huntress Legend books. The dialogue and dialect reads completely wrong to me.) For another thing, the same things that lead white writers to screw up black dialogue — racist stereotypes, regional variations, poor research, bad writing — can also affect black writers. You can’t look at us and know the reason. You could look at us and conjure up a plausible-sounding tangent, but it might be complete bull.

    To use your example, I read “The Tell-Tale Heart” before I ever learned about Poe’s substantial Issues. I thought it was powerfully written, full of lovely metaphors. Learning more about Poe might lead me to conclude that this story was written during an alcoholic fugue, or possibly a panic attack triggered by seeing a Jewish person (he was notoriously anti-Semitic). Both and neither of those assumptions might be true. He might also have just been having a really bad day when he wrote the story. Maybe the newspaper boy shortchanged him, or somebody at the grocery store gave him attitude. So does it really do me any good to try and draw conclusions about the man’s art based on what little I know about his background and life? Have I truly illuminated his work? Or have I just made up something that sounds plausible based on my own experiences, yet is completely wrong?

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