I was going to write about the novel I’m working on in this post. Then I decided that I wanted to take a stab at writing about a decision I was struggling with until a particular controversy exploded online. You’ve probably heard by now about Hunger Games’ fans tweeting their racist rants about the casting of black actors in the movie. If you haven’t, go here and see if you don’t have an Invisible Man moment as I did.
As said in the previous post, the statistics are daunting for writers of color who want to make a living making books. There’s no denying that book-buyers don’t match the Census numbers: for now, most of them are Caucasian. In terms of my book, I’ll tell you that my lead is a Latina female and my male lead is Caucasian. A cynic will say I decided to ‘make’ the principal male character Caucasian because I wanted the chance to make my book more marketable.
Don’t believe me, but that’s not how it happened. My male-lead, Quinn, stepped forward long before I met my female character, Mercy (short for Mercedes). My imagination introduced me to my characters. In fact, I blame my fascination with history for introducing me to Quinn, an immortal boy who was born in Ireland shortly before the potato famine. I started writing the novel around October, and then attended New York’s SCBWI conference late January. That’s when I learned the stats that play like neon lights on my frontal cortex.
Funny enough, the problem I’ve had isn’t with Quinn, but with Mercy. Over the last few months, I’ve struggled with whether or not I should reveal Mercy’s skin color. Yes, I want to be successful. No, I don’t believe that a good book will be enough. I need to write REALLY well, and that means creating a page-turner. Why isn’t a good book enough? Think about it. Today, writers are being asked to do so much more: write a book with the potential for a movie tie-in, create a platform, land an agent, etc. What I don’t hear is ‘write about characters that are brown.’ Why is that? Is it because the big book publishers don’t believe book-buyers want to read about people like me? Are they right? I know much of the answer has to do with the lack of diversity within companies producing books. If you reflect the ‘mainstream’, what incentive do producers have to make books for people of color? Organizations like the National Association for Black Journalists, and the National Association for Hispanic Journalists have been nagging news companies to diversify their newsrooms for decades. I haven’t seen an equivalent yet for the book publishing industry.
So, I was still waffling on how to write about Mercy’s race when a friend sent me a link to White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games, a blog post written by Anna Holmes on The New Yorker.com. The part that resonated for me was in the last two paragraphs where Holmes talks to an expert about the white default. “(The)white default—in books, as in other forms of mass media—is learned and internalized early, including by children of color. It takes vigilance—and self-awareness—to overcome.”
What this means for me is that I’m not going to hide my lead character’s race. Her color has shaped her. I know that fact too well. I needed a kick in the butt to see that if I am successful, I don’t want to make choices that are influenced by the possibility of money. Not only is that arrogant, but it’s a huge swipe against the girl I hope will someday read my book, and see herself in Mercy.
I know of at least one successful author who decided not to reveal a character’s race. The character isn’t a lead one, but is important enough to drive much of the story. I suspect that other authors make the same choice, but may not talk about it. Writing can be a lonely affair. I hope my honesty won’t bring out the trolls. Instead, I want to learn from others about the decisions they’ve struggled with.