Friday, June 10, 2011

The Tillerman Novels, and Writing Race

I recently started rereading Cynthia Voigt's fabulous Tillerman novels. I had read the first few when I was a young adult myself (I'm still a young adult, at 34--perhaps I read them when I was a Young Adult): Homecoming, Dicey's Song, A Solitary Blue, and The Runner. I loved them, and I think I read them more than once, though not in order, perhaps. However, there were apparently other novels in this sequence, and I don't think I read any of those: Come a Stranger, Sons from Afar, and Seventeen Against the Dealer, published in 1986, 1987, and 1989, respectively. The earlier books were published 1981-1985.

It was interesting to me, reading these, how dated they feel. Very early 80's. But I just read Come a Stranger, and I think Come a Stranger feels dated in a different way--it's a book a white woman wrote in 1986 with a black girl as the heroine, and it is very much about race--not only about race by any means, but the fact that Mina is black and the implications of that in her life is something she becomes aware of over the course of the novel--in that way that we become aware of such things as we grow up and venture outside our small and most familiar circles. Over the course of the book, Mina goes from the end of fifth grade (eleven?) to the end of her sophomore year of high school (fifteen?), and she figures out a lot of stuff, as one tends to during those years.

Rereading it, I was thinking about how it really stopped being okay to "write outside one's race," a term a writer friend brought up, saying, "as it was spoken of, in accusing or defensive tones, in the 1980s." She mentioned that she's been listening to the audiobook of Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains, which may suggest a change. I was thinking about that and I'm not sure if it does--Chains is a historical novel, while Come a Stranger is (was) contemporary.

I asked about this on the fabulous children's list listserv I'm on, and Nisi Shawl's Writing the Other was recommended to me. The library doesn't have it, but I put an anthology she edited on hold, and I've read a couple of her essays on the subject online: Transracial Writing for the Sincere, and Appropriate Cultural Appropriation. She's talking specifically about this in the context of science fiction, but it certainly has broader applications.

And then I remembered Justine Larbalestier's Liar, and the whole thing about the cover. Micah, in Liar, is biracial--but I was like, isn't Justine Larbalestier white? I found this, in which she discusses that. (Apparently this blog post/essay first appeared on Larbalestier's site, but I found it at racialicious, and I love racialicious, so there you have it. Here's her post about the Liar cover, also reprinted at racialicious.)

I'm thinking that Larbalestier addresses race from a different POV, being Australian, and that multiracial characters pose new questions for anyone concerned with people representing only their own race.

But I know it has historically been an issue in terms of white writers depicting characters of other races, and those portrayals constituting a representation of those populations within fiction (or movies, or television...), at the expense of books (or movies, or TV scripts) by authors of color. So that as an issue makes sense. But I loved so much about Come a Stranger, and it's sad to me that it will fade into oblivion partly just because most books eventually do, but also because it is a white woman's story about a black girl, written at a moment in our cultural history when that was more appropriate, but then passing through other moments in our cultural history when that was less appropriate.

I have so many more thoughts about this, but I'm not arranging them very well or very coherently, so I'll stop for now. I'll just say this:

Shawl closes her essay "Appropriate Cultural Appropriation" with a quote from Geoff Ryman: "I think that it's a good thing for the imagination to do to try to imagine someone else's life. I see no other way to be moral, apart from anything else. Otherwise you end up sympathising only with yourself...."


No comments: