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My friend Nathaniel Popkin recently published The Year of the Return, an extraordinary novel in which he gives ten separate characters a first-person point of view. They range from young to very old, from a business owner to a truck driver to a journalist to a deeply troubled war vet. To me the undertaking seemed admirably ambitious, and his ability to pull it off impressive. The characters come vividly alive on the page, each with a distinctive voice.

The one technical problem that caused him the most worry? It was not merely technical but social: namely, that he’s white and about half of the characters are black. Here’s what he said in an interview with Mitzi Rapkin for First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing:

Rapkin: Did you have any trepidation at all about writing half the book in the voice of an African-American family, being a white Jewish man?

Popkin: I had terrific trepidation, I still have trepidation. I still worry. I still wonder if it’s the right thing to do or if it’s my privilege or my entitlement to do it. I wonder if it’s right.

As a fiction writer myself, I see two questions here: (1) Can white authors genuinely understand any African American’s perspective or experience? and (2) Even if the authors understand and create believable black characters, do they have any right to publish such work? Is it cultural appropriation?

The first question links to a larger problem for all writers, especially in fiction. Race is only one of many boundaries we have to cross to bring characters to life. Women often have to write about men, and vice versa. Older people write about younger folk, and Millennials take on the Boomers. Same for natives/immigrants. Upper/middle/lower class. Straight/gay/trans. Married/single. War veterans/non-vets.

At a reading once, I heard Elise Juska, who at that point had already published (I believe) three novels, express worry about her novel-in-progress, which required her to imagine the perspectives of older men. My reaction was—I don’t think I said this aloud, but I thought it—that old guys are just like everyone else, only crankier. And any good writer can do cranky. That novel-in-progress became The Blessings, which I consider one of the best American works of fiction of the past decade.

For me, the male-female boundary feels like the easiest one to cross. My male characters too often share my own neuroses, but a woman protagonist is more likely to become her own person. Age is a little harder, class even more so. Occupation often stumps me—when I imagine a character who has a job I don’t know much about, I wonder what that person does all day. The point is that we all have our limitations of experience, and unless we want to restrict ourselves like Jane Austen (who famously avoided male-only scenes because she’d never witnessed one), we need to let imagination carry us past our borders. Bravely or stupidly, we have to venture beyond the comfortable. If the result is a work like The Blessings, the risk will be justified. If we blunder, well, we move on, try something else.

After all, science fiction and historical fiction wouldn’t exist if writers stuck to what they knew. And as Kit de Waal has asked (The Irish Times, 6/30/2018), “Was Gustave Flaubert a woman who committed adultery before he wrote Madame Bovary?”

The second question—the one about cultural or racial appropriation—is trickier. As historically oppressed or undervalued groups raise their own voices, an outsider’s view seems less justified, especially if it comes from a patriarchal, colonial, or privileged background. Kit de Waal, in the article just cited, puts it like this:

So when people who have lost nothing, people from the dominant culture that has colonised half of the world, reigned over an empire, raped, butchered, enslaved, taken language, lands and people as cargo, when those people say there is no such thing as cultural appropriation and insist that we can do what we want, we need to think again of the impact of taking another’s story and using it as we want.

One writer put it this way. Do not dip your pen in somebody else’s blood.

The powers-that-be have told the stories for far too long; it’s time to invert the pyramid. My friend Popkin is a sensitive person who sees many sides of every question, so it’s no wonder he fretted over the matter of entitlement.

But how far should we take this? If we happen to be straight, should we omit LGBTQ characters from our fiction? Should a writer of European heritage shy away from portraying the thoughts and emotions of a Latinx character?

I confess to sinning in these respects, and I don’t think any fiction writer should need to defend the imaginative act of crossing borders, whatever they may be. The resulting work, of course, is ripe for critique. If we stray into new territory and fail to understand it, or leave muddy footprints where they don’t belong, we should get roundly scolded.

Another friend of mine, David Sanders, has published a novel, Busara Road, about a white Quaker kid in Kenya. He himself was once a white Quaker kid in Kenya, so in that respect he was writing what he knew. But for the sake of the novel he also had to create half a dozen major black characters, both old and young, male and female, and that could be considered a violation of boundaries. The result? On a return trip to Kenya, he was told he’d gotten the characters exactly right.

We shouldn’t forget, too, that the insight of an “outsider” can be useful. As Zadie Smith has remarked (The New York Review of Books, 10/24/2019), “For though the other may not know us perfectly or even well, the hard truth is we do not always know ourselves perfectly or well. Indeed, there are things to which subjectivity is blind and which only those on the outside can see.”

To sum up, consider this from Hari Kunzru (The Guardian, 10/1/16):

Good writers transgress without transgressing, in part because they are humble about what they do not know. They treat their own experience of the world as provisional. They do not presume. They respect people, not by leaving them alone in the inviolability of their cultural authenticity, but by becoming involved with them.

Becoming involved with people: after all, that’s what fiction is about.

Many triggers

November 4, 2019

A story of mine has just appeared in Storgy Magazine, with a very appropriate illustration.

Those who know me may be amazed that a rose could be relevant to any of my fictions. It is truly so, however. You’ll have to read the story to find out why. Click on the image to go to the Storgy site.

Trigger warnings: gruesomeness, religiousness, anti-religiousness, dysfunctional family, gunfire. And probably others I haven’t noticed.

Many thanks to the editors of Storgy who somehow weren’t triggered.

Democracy and Frogs

June 29, 2019

In my day job, I’ve recently had the pleasure of doing layout on a new translation of an ancient Greek mock-epic poem, “The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice,” a spoof of heroic war sagas. The new translation by A. E. Stallings, with drawings by Grant Silverstein and an introduction by “A. Nony Mouse,” is due out later this year from Paul Dry Books. The text and illustrations are both gruesome and hilarious.

To summarize the poem’s narrative: After committing a selfish and deadly error, the Frog King concocts lies to evade responsibility, and as part of his cover-up he leads his subjects into a war on false pretenses. Things go badly for the amphibians, and the entire race will be wiped out—until the gods intervene to stave off genocide.

Could there be parallels to the current day?

After pondering this matter, I’ve decided conditions are very different in our democratic era. Because we no longer believe the gods will intervene.

Apologies to both of my readers for the infrequency of my posts lately. I haven’t even been able to think of more insults for President Twitterman. I blame the news media for distracting me with genuine tragedies.

But here’s one announcement: My Kindle-format novel The Big Happiness has been featured on the website Snowflakes in a Blizzard, which spotlights writers who supposedly deserve more attention from the public at large. I don’t know how I qualified for this, but here’s the link.

Many thanks to Darrell Laurant, who runs the Snowflakes site.

A Silent Breeze

January 2, 2019

Isn’t it especially creepy when a threat makes no sound?

That’s what the protagonist faces in “A Silent Breeze,” my latest story now up on the Pithead Chapel site. It was a finalist in the magazine’s story contest judged by Silas House.

Here’s the link.

 

Sirens

December 21, 2018

On certain days in the city, they seem almost continuous, always in the background, waxing or waning, closing in or fading. Police sirens. Fire trucks. Ambulances. Maybe I imagine them when they aren’t there. But they always have to be there, don’t they?—because at any given moment, there must be an emergency somewhere.

Just as the dog says when he refuses to go out: “I don’t care if the sun is shining here, I hear thunder somewhere.”

Whether the threat is real or imagined, I imagined a character for whom it’s both imagined and real, and she’s in the Adelaide Awards Anthology for 2018, in a story called “Sirens.” If you can tolerate the interface called Anyflip, you can read for free here, starting on p. 77: http://online.anyflip.com/fypa/nifd/mobile/index.html

If you find Anyflip unbearably annoying, just flip it one and go listen to sirens on your own. They’re everywhere, like the thunder. 

Time to Get Crazy

October 22, 2018

November approaches, and it’s time for one of my periodic screeds about voting. Few things perturb me more than Americans who don’t vote.

Well, President Twitterman gets top rank among bugbears, of course. And there’s the Saudi autocrat who’s finally being bashed in the press for murdering one journalist while his mass slaughter of Yemeni civilians continues to be ignored. Yet I don’t know that princely thug called MBS, he’s never bought me a beer, and my outrage at him merges with my general disgust for the fat-cat gangsters swarming the White House and other seats of government.

In comparison, my displeasure with nonvoters is much more personal. You know the truism that sibling feuds are the worst of all? Americans who don’t bother to vote—especially college-educated, middle-class types like myself—those people are family, and so I get really mad at them. There’s no excuse for their behavior. Voting is so simple—how can they not do it?

Do I sound like somebody’s grumpy old uncle?

I am.

Let’s survey some apparent reasons people don’t vote. I’m excusing, of course, those who are blocked from voting by electoral machinations (“you put a period after your middle initial on one form but not on another; therefore we can’t verify your identity”), and those who juggle three jobs and three children and have no time in between, and those whose polling place is conveniently located 153 miles away. Etc. (Although in the latter cases people might use absentee ballots.) I’m aiming this diatribe at people who could vote easily but somehow don’t. The people who elected Twitterman by abstaining. The people who make the United States notorious as a nonparticipative so-called democracy.

Reason for Not Voting #1: “I don’t like any of the candidates. They’re all flawed.”

My response: I hope you believe in a Messiah. Because your perfect political candidate will come along sometime after the Messiah.

Reason for Not Voting #2: “I’m sick of voting for the lesser evil. I can’t compromise like that anymore. From now on, I’ll stand on principle.”

My response: Congratulations on your moral purity. Have you considered moving to a place where none of your principles will be compromised, such as Antarctica?

Reason for Not Voting #3: “None of the candidates talk about issues important to me.”

My response: If you like that situation, keep on not voting. By not expressing your opinion at the polls, you make certain that candidates will disregard it.

Reason for Not Voting #4: “It makes no difference anyway. In my gerrymandered district, people with my views are so outnumbered that my candidate can never win.”

My response: Gerrymandering is a big, big problem. But the canny politicians who divvy up voters for their own advantage are counting on the continuation of established political patterns, including the pattern of people not voting. A sudden swell in ballots from groups they are trying to marginalize could upset their calculations—and maybe set the stage for legislative action to end gerrymandering.

Reason for Not Voting #5: “Votes change nothing. Politicians do whatever nasty things they like regardless of what the public thinks.”

My response: Um, politicians can’t do that nefarious stuff if they’re not in office. Vote them out and they’ll be reduced to making millions as lobbyists. That’s not quite as bad for the rest of us.

I’ve said all this before, in one way or another. But the other day, inspired by a conversation with a politically involved friend, I turned the problem around in my mind, reflecting on what it takes to become a committed voter, someone who turns out in every election:

  • A sense of morality or justice. People are said to vote their pocketbooks, and many do, but in our divided times what seems to drive citizens to the polls is a belief that certain actions and policies are right and others are disastrously wrong.
  • Faith. Not religious belief necessarily, but a conviction that there’s some hope left for the world and that human actions—our actions—can make a difference. Admittedly, if science says the Earth is likely to be uninhabitable in a few decades, faith stretches thin; but there have been Doomsday scenarios in the past that we managed to escape, and it wasn’t by hiding under our school desks to avert the atomic bomb. We must believe that our flawed and compromised democracy can be salvaged and that its fate is important to the world.
  • Irrationality. In the most local of elections, one vote can actually matter. In a 2017 contest Phillip Garcia won the post of judge of election in a Philly precinct because he wrote in his own name—the only vote cast for that office. Still, I have to admit that one vote, which is all each person can control, will change nothing in a statewide or national election. Making a point of casting a ballot is therefore irrational, or at best a stroking of one’s own moral sensibilities (cf. Reason #2 above).

It seems I’ve put myself in the position of urging people to be irrational. Okay, I’ll own up to that. I’ll double down, as Twitterman always does.

Get out there and go crazy, people! Against all reason, act like it makes a difference what you do. Vote for somebody! If necessary, embrace the lesser evil, the best of the bad choices.

Maybe there’s some hidden good there after all.