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.

Revealing All

April 2, 2016


In a new interview with JD Fox at Mud Season Review, I reveal the connections among Jane Austen, Bernie Sanders, grandmothers and groupies.

Thanks to JD for some excellent questions that allowed me to rant so broadly. Potential readers should be forewarned: this is a somewhat alarming peek into the inner workings of a peculiar mind.

Recently I went to an interview and reading by Elise Juska, author of three novels published so far and a fourth almost complete. Afterward, since I hadn’t yet read one of her books, I used my new Nook to download One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, the story of a woman who walks out of her uninspired marriage and then spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out what to do next. Though I got a bit impatient for something to happen, I admired the writing style—vivid but not flashy—the depth of the characters, and the play with multiple languages (American, Irish, academese, and crossword-puzzle-ese).

Talking about her novel in progress, Elise mentioned that, for the first time in her work, a male character is becoming one of the central figures. He’s also 63 or 64, I think she said, a good deal older than Elise herself, and she was working hard to imagine this guy’s life and mentality.

The comment got me thinking about the many borders that fiction writers need to cross. Unless we want to write book after book about people exactly like us, we’re forced to stretch our imaginations into regions we don’t know firsthand. Well, maybe Hemingway knew a lot firsthand, but most of us haven’t been involved in a foreign civil war and two world wars, hung around with bullfighters, shot big game in Africa, and gotten soused in Cuban bars.

For me, the gender border, about which Elise was concerned, is among the easiest to pass over. I don’t know why, but a woman’s POV seems not that difficult to imagine, and so far none of my female friends has chastised me unduly for failing to understand female characters. Of course I haven’t a clue what makes my wife tick, but that’s different.

Class and ethnic borders are much tougher for me. Say, for instance, that my plot needed a tattooed tough guy from Chechnya who dropped out of school at age eight, helped bomb Russian military outposts, then fled to America to join a crime gang. I could probably describe him externally. (Let’s see, try Googling “Chechen tattoo”? I think he has to be bald, right, with a close-cropped fringe? Raw-boned, smooth-shaven face. Six-one, waist size 40? Slightly faded red T-shirt. Uh-oh, I think we’ve created a stereotype.) Getting inside his head, though, would be tricky; even after a lot of reading about every related subject, I might end up with a miscellaneous bunch of traits rather than a whole, breathing, cussing character.

When ethnic boundaries become “racial” ones, we also face social/political restrictions, real or imagined. Not being a Native American myself, do I dare use one as a main character? Even if I think I can understand him or her, would I be transgressing? How much should I care?

Oddly, too, borders of place are hard for me to cross, even in our globe-trotting times. It’s not the look of a far-off place that’s the problem; it’s understanding what it feels like to be there every day. If I lived in northern Siberia for a year, how would the cold and darkness affect my psyche? What does the Arizona desert smell like to someone who’s been there her whole life? If I stayed for a decade in the Northwest, would the rains depress me, fertilize my brain, or merely make me guzzle more coffee and start a garage band?

It’d be interesting to hear from a number of fiction writers about the metaphorical borders that trouble them most. As for Elise’s concern about her 64-year-old male, I think she can safely assume there’s an infinite variety of individuals in that category, probably even some bald Chechens. Her bountiful imagination is the only visa she needs.