Saturday, May 8, 2010
What do Annie Proulx, Neil Plakcy, John Varley and Arthur Golden have in common?
They all write about places and people diametrically opposed to what they are.
Annie Proulx, a thrice divorced woman with three sons and a daughter, wrote the multi award winning short story Brokeback Mountain, a story about two Wyoming ranch hands who work together one summer and become reluctant lovers, a love affair that goes on in secret for years, neither man able to speak of the love they have. Annie Proulx is a) not a man b) not gay c) not a ranch hand. Yet her writing won awards and went on to become an iconic film that won awards all over the world, including Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and Director's Guild awards.
Neil Plakcy is another award winning author who has written a series of books about Kimo Kanapa'aka, a mixed Hawaiian-Japanese-Chinese-Haole homicide detective in the Honolulu Police Department. Now I've met Neil, he's a wonderful, talented man, but he's not a) a cop b) Hawaiian, Japanese or Chinese c) does nor nor has he ever lived in Hawaii. But his books are wonderful and I've never heard of anyone taking exception to his skill in writing about the place or the man.
John Varley is a Hugo Award winning white Texan who wrote some remarkable books set on a goddess made world called Gaea. His characters in that series ranged from a bi-sexual female ship's captain turned wizard called Cirocco Jones, and impossibly, bizarre creatures out of legend like centaurs and flying angels.
Arthur Golden is a middle-aged, Jewish American man who authored the critically acclaimed Memoirs of a Geisha, a story about a young, Japanese girl who was raised/trained to be a geisha girl.
How can these people, so different from the characters they portray do it? Is it wrong for them to try? Is it wrong for a white person to write about a black, a male to write from a woman's POV? Someone who lives on the east coast to write about the west coast, or an American to write about a Chinese character living in 4th Century China? Are there lines that writers shouldn't cross in their stories? And if there are, who draws those lines?
My books all deal with gay men living in modern America, in most cases in Los Angeles, a city I did live in once, but hadn't visited until this year. One of my recent books, not yet published is about a young Latino man from a gang ridden barrio in South Central Los Angeles. As I wrote it, I wondered if I was going to get flack for writing about a world I have never lived in, so in the last while I've been thinking about this a lot, and I've come to some conclusions. I know I've been criticised for writing about L.A. since I don't live there now. And all of us who are female and write gay male fiction face the criticism that we have no business doing so. Is there any merit to what those critics say?
My newest book is a noir historical set in 1929 Los Angeles. I did a great deal of research into that period, including a trip to Los Angeles where I spent some time in their historical archives looking up L.A.'s past.
Personally I'm of the mind that as writers we are supposed to delve into worlds and people we don't know, in some cases can never know. This is the nature of good fiction. Tame books, told about everyday lives, can be good literature, but for me that's not what I want in my books. I want to explore new places, from new POVs in a way that allows me to live them vicariously. My final argument about this way of thinking is that there would be no science fiction, no fantasy and no historical books, since all those require the writer to step outside of their comfort zone and put themselves in another's shoes.
I also think, that as long as we invest in the research and don't succumb to stereotypes, that we should have the freedom to write the stories that come to us.
What do you think? Do you write about places or people unlike your own? Do you think there are things we shouldn't write about?