Should you write ethnicity as a response?

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Here`s the thing, I write romance. I-write-romance. But even in romance the ethnicity of characters are an issue. Now, one can easily point to history. You can point to the fact that there are more ‘white’ (I use the word because it`s easy) authors in the world than ‘black’ (again it`s easy). Oh and of course in romance writing circles. Of course the latter becomes irrelevant in African countries and countries where ‘black’ people are represented. But here`s another thing, I can only write with authority on South African romance writers and books.

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As someone who grew up on the typical South African Afrikaans story where some farm or other is involved and blond leggy girls with wavy hair, and handsome rugged land barons’ features, I can safely say a book with clear ethnic distinctions never crossed my hands. And when I refer to such a book I mean; the main characters weren`t black or Colored (in SA that`s a distinction). I didn`t read about Thandi or Ingrid. And yes Ingrid is a also a Colored name, ask my aunt *grin*

With a history so rife with political upheaval and segregation, trying to write a romance novel that`s distinctly ethnic for someone like me is problematic. And you`re asking why? Why would that be problematic, you obviously are a person of color, surely you can.

Uh …no not that easy.  Not for me anyway. You see we write what we know and sometimes we branch out and write about what we don`t know after having done extensive research. I can`t write ‘color’ into my books because I am color. I don’t know if it makes sense, I am me. As complex as I am as a human being, I am me. When someone says, ‘just be yourself’, you`re always thinking ‘well heck how do I do that?’ because you know, you`re not going to be completely yourself. Because no one really wants people to ‘make themselves at home’ in their home, that would be rude, especially if it`s their first visit.

But this doesn`t even scratch the surface of what I mean. I am a person of color, which means whatever I write, breathe, speak, will be filled with ‘color’. So when someone tells me, my characters sound white or they didn`t think a certain character would be Colored, I pause. Yes pause, because how can the character be anything else than what I intended them to be *laugh* Yes I know, our readers like us, are subjective. We have a frame of reference that we use. And from my earlier observations of writers in romance, certain expectations consciously or subconsciously have been created.

If you don`t describe a character in detail, writing specifically about the color of their skin, you`re going to find yourself in -what Shonda Rhimes called, “an odd assumption of whiteness.”  That you write ethnicity into a story when it`s anything other than white. Now look, I`m not ignorant *grin* A friend of mine actually said that to me recently in reference to this topic. I know the history of this world, of my country. I studied it for three years at varsity level. I also studied psychology, I know what the Frantz Fanon`s of the world had to say about colonization and lactification.

I know. I know how ‘whiteness’ are evident in romance novels. Yet, I stand (actually I`m sitting but let`s ignore that) by what I`m going to write now. This is my view. It might change in ten years time, who knows. But right now, at this specific point in history, this is what I think.

I`m a storyteller, that`s my main passion. I love telling stories. I love the story more than any other thing and I will tell the story, write the characters that fit that particular story. Will all my stories have a multicultural feel? Yes. Because that`s how I grew up, that`s how I interpreted my world as a person of color. Not everyone has the privilege of that experience. Because you see, in SA, the Western Cape, using a character description like, “Olive skinned, light golden brown eyes and wavy brown hair”, doesn`t mean white. That`s a description of my mother *smile* and if you`ve checked out my profile picture you`ll see I`m not olive skinned, I`m brown!lol Like seriously really, really brown *laughs*  My extended family looks like a representation of what the world could look like, if ethnicity wasn`t such an issue.

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Now if I write like that, you the reader`s interpretation of that description, is your interpretation. I can`t decide that for you. There are other factors, like if I write a Zulu or Xhosa main character, than yes there would be rigid distinctions. But because I grew up in a culture/people that`s more westernized and diverse than most culture/people around the world, it would be hard to pinpoint when I`m writing a Colored or white main character. And I have to say sorry to some of my Beta Readers, because I blew one of their interpretations clear out of the water last weekend.

I am a South African writer, writing stories set in Africa and abroad, with a global identity. That`s who I am. I can navigate comfortably in all spheres of culture because other people`s boundaries doesn`t faze me. I`m a product of what happens when people try to draw clear lines in the sand. I wasn`t born in a time where I had to come up with definitions of the ‘other’ because I live on those hard earned victories, so I won`t have to defend my descriptions.

Maybe I’m an idealist when it comes to romance writing.  Hey the words ‘romance writer’ says it all! *grin* I do view the world with a romantic lens. I choose to. I would never write ethnicity as a response. I`m not trying to create Black Consciousness, that`s been done. I`m not kicking down walls, that`s also been done. Now it`s the next phase. And the world is prepared for that. I believe that.

I do believe the world can accept books/authors who write with the knowledge that the story is more important, not what color eyes the main character has.

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7 thoughts on “Should you write ethnicity as a response?

  1. I get what you’re saying. I get the same bee in my bonnet when someone tells me to write about down-trodden Africa. It’s not me and I can’t relate to it without extensive research anyway. Great post, Inge!

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