‘Race’? Really? Really.

My natural impulse is to ignore the big story of any given week – especially since this week, arguably, it’s the one big literary story of any given year – The Booker Prize.

Each year the self-proclaimed (and widely agreed) “leading literary award” sparks more than enough hype and hoohah spanning tweets, blogs, newspaper and magazine pieces, and conversations the world over by chin-stroking literary critics, ego-stroking arts journalists, and, of course, dream-stoking authors. Yet there are, still, small intrigues to big stories. Overlooked details, or competing viewpoints that don’t get covered or, even, hulking great elephants in the room.

Earlier this week Paul Beatty picked up this year’s Man Booker Prize.paulbeatty

Like most people on the planet, I had not heard of him. A search revealed Paul to be an American author writing, satirically, about what some might term black identity subject matter. His Booker prize winner is about a black politician running on the outlandish ticket of reintroducing slavery to California.

Before I studied more about Paul, the recognition came that it’s the second year running a black, male author has won the Booker. Not a significant fact except that it reminded me how ‘race’ has been a key element to so many of this year’s stories, in fiction and reality. Beatty’s book is a timely satire, given the horrendous real-world backstory of U.S. police continuing to shoot unarmed, black Americans; and the clear fact that the ‘race’ question has loomed large in the presidential (excuse the pun) race.


American author Lionel Shriver (photograph by Daniel Seed)

‘Race’ sounds an outmoded term to my ears. Yet race chatter recently spiked after a speech from highly respected American author Lionel Shriver.

She outlined, and bemoaned, today’s prissy context in which writers (and politicians and many others alike) must tip-toe around and beware the various semantic minefields of identity politics.

In her lengthy speech Shriver, for me, makes many good points. Here’s one:

“Even if novels and short stories only do so by creating an illusion, fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us.”

But some people – like this Guardian blogger – have interpreted her words very differently and taken offence.

Each to their own. You can read Shriver’s speech here and make up your mind.

Race? Really?

The fact that we’re still having some of the same conversations about and around race that I grew up with, and thought through, and argued and wrote about decades ago is, genuinely, disappointing. Back in the early 1990s I’d taken myself to study at an American university (a long story, preserved for another time). I recall in so many general ways and specific incidents how race and its agency (as the academics discuss its various influence) articulated in everyday life.

A quick example? Many nights I’d go to the dining hall and observe young Americans and fellow international students occupying different tables, literally separated by so-called race and ethnicity. Groups of White, Black, Chinese, Korean, Indian students all chatting among themselves. And this was a liberal, progressive, university of excellent standing in Virginia (not some hokey college hidden in the hills or the insular boondocks. Hmm).

On any given evening, I’d move around various tables in turn chatting with friends that I knew among the disparate groups – sometimes I’d query people why the tables appeared, er, segregated (in a 1950s style despite it being so close to the 21st Century). The common refrain was ‘It’s just the way it’s always been -the way it is.’

Race? Really? Really.

Today, it looks like many (so many) people remain stuck in the strange social ineptitude of this kind of ‘racial’ impasse, where colour is a large barrier to simple, straightforward speech and social relations. Lines are drawn, territories are staked out, and so on. It feels outmoded, to my mind, yet this is many people’s reality. Really.

So, to the classic question:

Is it ok or not, for authors of one ethnic identity to write a character from another, diverse, identity? (Different to the biological parameters and cultural labels that come through the lottery of birth). May a white author write a black character and vice versa?

We could reach back to Shakespeare but suffice to say: for many centuries, countless writers have chosen to write all kinds of characters for reasons of story, context, or to explore the general space between people, or specific issues, or the possible commonalities. These writings are important to offer counter weights to the group think and guarded claptrap of communities of interest that only ever navel gaze, or confirm their biases, or ‘preach to the converted’.

Innumerable writers have been adventurous, post-cultural and category-less: scoping out humanity. By distilling things down to the colourless, creedless, cultureless essence of human character (whether or not they use a central or secondary character who is articulated as ‘black’ or any other label) a writer might just deliver characters that can shed the snakeskin of culture-bound identity and conventional thinking.

Being a chameleon, a mimic, and a liar – for the good reason of great storytelling – is what sets apart many writers. And this is not restricted to ‘race’. smillaFemale authors have had to, or chosen to, write under male pseudonyms.

Some men have written ‘as females’. I recall enjoying Peter Hoeg’s novel, written from a female character’s perspective, Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow.

My wife fondly recallsmister-pip Mister Pip by (white, male) author Lloyd Jones writing as (black, female) teenager Matilda, from an island culture largely unknown to the author.

Many authors have written in engaging, provocative ways, considering the essence of commonality, empathy, humanity – and telling stories that might otherwise never be told in fiction (or covered in the news). And if the self-proclaimed identity police had had their way, free speech would have been muzzled and only the safe, sanitised, sanctioned character would have been permitted. As Shriver says in her (2016) speech:

“Even if novels and short stories only do so by creating an illusion, fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us.”

My humble contribution to this centuries-old tradition among writers is the 3rd person narrative used for The Feng Trilogy – the central character being a Chinese billionaire. I don’t feel obligated to explain this choice – mostly because it made the best sense, and interest, to make the Feng character central. Yet it might be helpful in the light of this post.

Voila: I’ve travelled, solo, off the beaten track in China, and I’ve worked closely with Chinese nationals. When researching the trilogy, I interviewed a wide range of Chinese nationals, along with British-born Chinese. So, on these counts, I had some primary insights. Then I’ve studied contemporary China for part of a Master’s level post-graduate degree. So, I have some secondary insight. And my background as a journalist gave me an avid interest in China’s developing role in the world. So, I follow the news cycles about China.

Meanwhile, there are secondary characters in the trilogy that root these three books in Manchester (UK). So, on balance, I feel I keep one foot on solid ground.

Beyond this trilogy, I’ve started to publish some of my short stories (some old, some new) – all, so far, happen to have white, British voices.

Whichever the fictional project, (hopefully) characters express believable, engaging thoughts, feelings, actions, speech etc. Regardless of ‘race’. Just as I trust Paul Beatty was awarded the Booker Prize, this week, on merit (and not race). In future when I write a character, central or secondary, who happens to be black then I trust they will be read and understood as a three-dimensional human character – otherwise I’ve failed (regardless of whether the character is black).

As Shriver concludes in her recent speech:

“We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats – including sombreros.”


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