Writing Race

In my recent interview with C. E. Morgan, I asked her about the challenges of a white novelist writing about race. Here, in part, was her response, though it's worth reading the whole thing if you haven't yet:

The idea that writing about characters of another race requires a passage through a critical gauntlet, which involves apology and self-examination of an almost punitive nature, as though the act of writing race was somehow morally suspect, is a dangerous one. This approach appears culturally sensitive, but often it reveals a failure of nerve. I cannot imagine a mature artist approaching her work in such a hesitant fashion, and I believe the demand that we ought to reveals a species of fascism within the left—an embrace of political correctness with its required silences, which has left people afraid to offend or take a stand. The injunction to justify race-writing, while ostensibly considerate of marginalized groups, actually stifles transracial imagination and is inextricable from those codes of silence and repression, now normalized, which have contributed to the rise of the racist right in our country. When you leave good people afraid to speak on behalf of justice, however awkwardly or insensitively, those unafraid to speak will rise to power.

In asking this question, I was hoping that Morgan would respond the way she did, since I too think it's a failure of the moral, political, and artistic imagination to say that certain kinds of representation aren't permissible based solely upon race or identity. I don't often buy slippery slope arguments--they're usually a way to avoid the hard work of thinking through small but crucial distinctions--but I think you're wading into dangerous waters if you say that a writer can't write about identities outside of his/her experience. Can male novelists not write female characters? Can those in the middle class not imagine their way into the lower or upper classes? If not, what good is the imagination?

In an interview published yesterday on Slate, Jonathan Franzen was asked a similar question about race and representation and boy, did he have a different answer:

Have you ever considered writing a book about race?

I have thought about it, but—this is an embarrassing confession—I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare.

[I adjust the microphone, which he stares at for a moment.] Good, good, good. The mic. Got the mic pointed toward me. I am doing all the talking here. [Pauses.]

You were saying you have never been in love with a black woman.

Right. Didn’t marry into a black family. I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.

Franzen's response makes me uncomfortable for all kinds of reasons. First, if this isn't the distillation of what Morgan calls "apology and self-examination of an almost punitive nature," then I don't know what is. Second, how can an excellent novelist--and Frazen is an excellent novelist--possibly claim that if you haven't "had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person" then you shouldn't dare to write about that category of person?  Besides, to love a person is not to love a category; it's to love a person in all his/her particularity. And what kind of novelist thinks of characters purely in terms of categories anyway? Isn't that betraying the very first task of the imagination: to see and recreate what Henry James calls "the warm & living & palpable"? 

Franzen is no stranger to controversy. This interview is likely to spark another one.



Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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