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Writing about race for general consumption

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labellamedia

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I've just completed my first draft and I've got a MC who is of color as is most of the supporting cast with a few major exceptions. The MC time travels a bit, in addition to the novel being set in South Carolina. There just ain't no way to avoid race, but I'm wondering how much can be tolerated before the book becomes "uncomfortable" for some.

I've got some really heartpounding scenes that involve racism, but the book isn't about that at all.

Has anyone had dealings with a publisher about race and racism in their books as a negative?
#1 - August 03, 2013, 09:41 PM

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I'm interested in seeing what people think. My first (unpublished) novel was, interestingly, also a time travel novel set in South Carolina. (There must be something in the water... :) ) It's impossible (and inaccurate) to avoid issues of race in that setting, and I worried a bit about how people would read it. A tricky thing for sure. I hoped that my modern time traveling characters would balance out the racism of some of the characters from earlier times.

(FWIW, no agent ever had issues with that element of the book. I'd be interested in other people's experiences, though.)
#2 - August 03, 2013, 10:08 PM

I am peddling a time travel set in SC as well. Must be something in the water indeed! Let's start the 'South Carolina is for time travel' club.

It's hard to talk about the past in America and not talk about racism. Not talking about it gives the story less credibility, IMHO.

My debut book has more prejudices in it than racism, but my WIP has been turned down by two editors because of the time-travel and fantasy aspect. Neither said anything about the racism, although, I must say the racism in the book is pretty mild. I was advised by one editor to consider rewriting the story as just a historical. I may have to consider that I don't do time travel very well, and apparently, it's not as original an idea as I thought. :slaphead:
#3 - August 03, 2013, 11:30 PM
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labellamedia

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I contend that time traveling southern boys and gals are the next big trend. Way to be ahead of the curve! :grin3
#4 - August 04, 2013, 05:06 AM

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Totally! :) (And seriously, how can you set one foot in SC and NOT feel time travelish??)
#5 - August 04, 2013, 07:21 AM

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I am one of the few who hasn't written a time-travel book set in SC, but I still want to be part of your club!!

I think the key is to always be in the pov of your characters. My debut novel includes a male secondary character who is a teen dad. My MC reacted to this fact very much in-character. The book was not about teen parents...it's just part of who that character "is" - - most of my reader mail is from 13 & 14 year old boys and many say this character is their favorite character in the book.

So when your characters from modern day travel back in time...they will obviously react to what they see and experience...and may be changed by what they learn in the past when they return home. Even if it isn't a main focus of the book ---your characters will feel the significance of that experience in the moment. If you are writing what your characters are feeling, you will pull the reader in to those emotions.

good luck!
#6 - August 04, 2013, 08:36 AM
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I'll need to live here at least a decade before I set a story in the marshes, churches, swamps, and oaks of SC :) but I think race and racial tension cannot always be avoided and shouldn't be. If your story needs it, you have to have it.

Vijaya (wanting to follow in the footsteps of great Southern writers. I've got the porch, the tea, the bugs ...)
#7 - August 04, 2013, 09:22 AM
« Last Edit: August 04, 2013, 09:32 AM by Vijaya »
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I don't think making readers uncomfortable is necessarily a bad thing.
#8 - August 04, 2013, 09:27 AM

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Great day in the morning- my just completed (but still a WIP) MG has SC, a bit of time travel, probably everything else y'all got.  :drinkingdone
Maybe we should move one state-over...
#9 - August 04, 2013, 11:45 AM
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I can't speak to the issue of race/racism as it relates to publishing (yet), but I can speak to it as a bookseller. And from my own personal opinions (so take them with a grain of salt).

If you are writing for teens, which I gather from another post of yours that you are, then I don't think it's going to be a problem. Teen books deal with all kinds of dark issues, both central to and peripheral to the main story. And you can't talk about American history (or even the American present) without racism being an authentic part of the world. Sure, it's nice to have books that model better behavior/ideals, but we shouldn't completely lose what's real in favor of protecting anyone. If these are the things that happen in your story, then they do. Don't pull your punches. Especially not in the early writing stages.

The race/racism issue becomes a little trickier when writing for younger readers. This is where, unfortunately, the bulk of the books dealing with race and social differences are. And it's easy to be pegged as an "issue" book instead of a story. Partly because teachers are looking for books that fall into different categories in order to make readings lists. And partly because parents are a lot more involved in selecting what their children read, with each parent having different ideas about what a child needs to be protected from. I've worked in bookstores in both liberal and conservative communities, and while my current, liberal community often comes in seeking books with "characters of color", they are much more likely to be concerned about violent content and would shy away from books that portray the ugliness of racism using violence.

BUT, personally, I think there needs to be more books with diverse characters in them. And if your characters are in a culture where they are in the minority, they are going to experience uncomfortable moments. Even dangerous ones. It's the way the world works, and I think you would be doing kids a disservice by hiding that. The trick is to TELL A GOOD STORY while keeping your world real. Otherwise kids feel preached to and struggle to identify with the characters.

I also think that time travel books dealing with these issues could also present a really nice way to bring a more modern view into the past, assessing and addressing where we've come from and where we're headed. I'd like to read books like this.
#10 - August 07, 2013, 11:35 AM
« Last Edit: August 07, 2013, 11:37 AM by HDWestlund »

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I also think that time travel books dealing with these issues could also present a really nice way to bring a more modern view into the past, assessing and addressing where we've come from and where we're headed. I'd like to read books like this.

^The gist of why we insert time-travel, I think. You nailed it.
And yes, *a great story* trumps all.
#11 - August 07, 2013, 12:13 PM
THE VOICE OF THUNDER, WiDo Publishing
THERE'S A TURKEY AT THE DOOR, Hometown520

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anything done well could work and sell.

having said that, i think publishers are indviduals
and you'd have to find the right one that falls in love
with your novel--just as with all of us writing whatever topic.

but good for you for including diversity and tackling
racism. it is a challenging subject to write.

i felt rainbow rowell handled it very well in Eleanor and Park.

good luck!
#12 - August 07, 2013, 01:43 PM
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I'm not gonna go on as long as I could on this topic, because I could go on for a while, but I'll say a few things.

I'll start with a suggestion that references the name of this thread, "Writing about race for general consumption." You might try this: think of your book as being a book for general consumption. In fact, think about ALL books that directly confront issues of race as books for general consumption, because they are.

A related thought: don't think of your book as "a book about race" if it has a character with her own specific racial background, because every single character in every book that exists is a character with a specific racial background. EVERY one of them. A character's race isn't always the focal point of a story, or even a point of incidental discussion, but every character does have a racial heritage. Please don't forget that.

I'm a believer that racism doesn't have to be a major plot point in every story, regardless of the ethnicity and race of the characters in a given story. But it depends on the story, and also on the context. Does your story take place in a racially diverse community with a longtime history and culture of socially progressive behavior, choices, and policy, with a plot that takes place over a 24 to 96 hour period in which it's realistically possible that your characters might not experience moments of overt racism? Does it take place in a non-diverse community with a longtime history and culture of segregation and racist violence, during a time when it's NOT realistically possible for your characters to avoid experiences driven by racial tension? What kind of decisions do you have to make in order to be true to your story, your characters, and the setting they exist in? Be true to the context you've chosen.

Lastly: don't write your book with an eye toward appeasing publishers who might have a negative reaction to your subject matter. There may be publishers who respond to your manuscript in a negative way, of course. I can't say what their specific thoughts about your book's portrayal of race-related issues might be, but every manuscript has the potential to be seen in a negative light for some reason, just as every manuscript has the potential to be seen in a positive light for some other reason.

You can't control that. What you can control is the quality of your manuscript. In the end, it doesn't matter if you write a book with the potential to draw complicated reactions from editors, publishers, and readers, because every one of those people will have their own unique and unpredictable reaction. What ultimately matters is your ability to write a book that's good. That's your goal. Write a good book.
#13 - August 07, 2013, 02:26 PM
« Last Edit: August 07, 2013, 02:28 PM by Mike Jung »

^^^great post
#14 - August 07, 2013, 03:20 PM


i felt rainbow rowell handled it very well in Eleanor and Park.


I did too. What other books or writers spring to mind in terms of handling race well? Lisa Yee, Mike Jung (in his book as well as the great post above). Others?
#15 - August 07, 2013, 03:24 PM

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There was a very good discussion of writing and race here last summer http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php?topic=63917
#16 - August 07, 2013, 03:34 PM

Mike, thank you for gently making this point:

Quote
I'll start with a suggestion that references the name of this thread, "Writing about race for general consumption." You might try this: think of your book as being a book for general consumption. In fact, think about ALL books that directly confront issues of race as books for general consumption, because they are.
#17 - August 07, 2013, 03:52 PM

Dionna

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One of my stories takes place in 1941 Virginia. The main character's best friend is African-American. The main character simply states the facts about things, like he and his friend go to different schools. But racism is not a part of the picture. My main character shows by his actions that he and his friend respect each other mutually, help each equally, and do not first of all see color then second of all see a friend. (Not all people of any particular time or place were for sure to be prejudice. Wouldn't that be prejudicial to think so?)

By the way, 217Mom, my main character says, "Great Day in the Mornin'!" all the time!
#18 - August 07, 2013, 03:55 PM

labellamedia

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Thanks for all the insight. I've been thinking about things all wrong. I cut an awesome scene that confronted racism head on, but it helped establish the setting and solidify a romance.

Fear got in the way.
#19 - August 07, 2013, 04:25 PM

it is hard not to be afraid.
but i think being true to the story
and characters is so crucial. and sometimes,
that isn't easy or pretty, you know?

other books that deal with race well:

The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson.

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

good luck! stay true. in truth lies the strength
of our stories.
#20 - August 07, 2013, 05:38 PM
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Bone by Bone by Bone deals with the friendship between two boys (one black, one white,) segregation and racism in Tennessee in the 1950s. It's very central to the story and the author, Tony Johnston, deals with the subject head-on. The more uncomfortable I was reading it, the more respect I had for Johnston's fearlessness.

It received starred reviews but some of the reader comments (on Amazon, etc...) reflected serious discomfort with the whole subject. That's bound to happen.
#21 - August 07, 2013, 06:10 PM

labellamedia

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That's just the thing. I don't want it to be central, just a part. Too many books with POC are just about racism and not about time travel or robots or everything else that we deal with or want to.
#22 - August 08, 2013, 09:08 AM

labellamedia

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Bone by Bone by Bone deals with the friendship between two boys (one black, one white,) segregation and racism in Tennessee in the 1950s. It's very central to the story and the author, Tony Johnston, deals with the subject head-on. The more uncomfortable I was reading it, the more respect I had for Johnston's fearlessness.

It received starred reviews but some of the reader comments (on Amazon, etc...) reflected serious discomfort with the whole subject. That's bound to happen.


I'll check out some of these great titles. I love a thematic reading list.
#23 - August 08, 2013, 09:11 AM

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There was a very good discussion of writing and race here last summer http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php?topic=63917

That was a great link to read AnneB. And thanks, Labellamedia for starting this thread. I've been laboring over a book that touches on black-white racial issues. I don't want those issues to overwhelm the plot because while they're necessary to the development of the story, the focus of the story is the shared experiences the two characters have.

I guess I never stopped to consider that I shouldn't be writing from another ethnic point of view besides my own. I feel equally linked to both characters and as sappy as it sounds, the emotions I feel when I write some of the tougher parts for my "non-white" character are real even though I've never personally experienced them. When I do write for this character, I am forced to see the world through his eyes and I love that.

But I didn't stop to consider how this would come across, so I'm interested to see the comments here. I've already let one of my friends read parts of it and she's offered some good ideas as she does sort of understand the world of my one MC in a way I don't personally. I suppose I'll keep running things by her and get her take on it, but even her take won't speak to everyone who shares her ethnicity, and I know there's things in there that will be controversial to both white and black readers, so it's a gamble. I'm naive enough at this point to be willing to take the risk because I feel so passionately about the story and the characters in it.

Can't wait to see what everyone adds to this thread. I'm getting schooled in a good way.  :thanx:
#24 - August 08, 2013, 11:04 AM
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Mike Jung

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Don't stop yourself from writing in an ethnicity other than your own! It's absolutely a legitimate choice to make. Just be aware that it IS risky. You'll need to do research, probably a lot of it. You'll want to find help - people who do come from the culture of origin you're writing about, for example, or academic experts, or both, or more than that. And the odds that someone somewhere will take issue with what you've written are high enough to be considered a guarantee, in my opinion.

You'll hear some criticisms that can be brushed off, but you'll hear some criticisms that are absolutely legitimate and should be incorporated into your worldview as both a writer and a human being. You're absolutely right that you can't write the story in a way that will resonate or ring true for everyone, but you're also right that the emotional truths of the story are the most important part.

Try to be as completely aware of your own biases as you can be, because characters from different backgrounds won't always share them. Be aware of the potential repercussions, and be prepared for difficult, challenging conversations if/when they happen. And write the book anyway, because when it's done well, the racial/ethnic heritage of the author doesn't matter. Trent Reedy isn't a teenage Afghani girl, but WORDS IN THE DUST is a remarkable book anyway. Kay Honeyman is a lifelong Texan, not a Chinese immigrant in 1920s New York, but THE FIRE HORSE GIRL is still wonderful. It can be done, and given the continuing dearth of racial/ethnic diversity in kidlit, it needs to be done.
#25 - August 08, 2013, 11:29 AM

I like Mike. He is rocking this thread.

...and I am a member of the SC time travel novel club!  Mine was only fast-drafted then set aside about 15 years ago, though.

:) eab
#26 - August 08, 2013, 01:01 PM

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Aunty! I didn't know ...

I've never forgotten what Donna Jo Napoli said. You have the right to write ... about anything or anybody. If Chinese culture interests you, you don't have to be Chinese to write about it. I think of Laurie Halse Anderson, who has written the historical fiction books Chained, Forge -- and from the black perspective. So well done. Gilbert King won a Pulitzer prize for Devil in the Grove. It's about racial injustice. Paula Jolin wrote In The Name of God (young Islamic female POV) and got it right. Research &/or assimilation in a particular culture can make all the difference.

I laugh/cringe when I see the typical Indian portrayal in books ... but stereotypes are there for a reason. Even my son is not immune to it. He is expected to be genius in math. He's not. He's merely good. But you look at a book like Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, and the class differences, the injustice, the nuances are so perfectly captured it makes you weep. That's the kind of writer I want to be.

Good luck writing.
Vijaya
#27 - August 08, 2013, 01:57 PM
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Mike Jung

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I like Mike. He is rocking this thread.

:)
#28 - August 08, 2013, 03:02 PM

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