I write historical fiction, and my approach is largely realistic. I also grew up in the South and set most of my fiction there, and for the time being, most of what I write about is set during some of the most difficult and painful eras in our nation’s short history: the Civil War and Reconstruction. That means I wind up writing about people and attitudes that we would find appalling today.
Or, that we should find appalling, but as we’ve seen in the past several days (if not in the past several years), there are still people in this country who espouse racist and white-supremacist views.
Equally bad, there are people in this country who are not themselves overtly racist or white-supremacist, but who serve as apologists for the people who are or else just ignore the racism and white-terrorist movements that exist in this country. And that willingness to excuse or ignore the worst of us is itself a kind of racism, a kind of white privilege if not white supremacism.
The book I’m writing now has been in the works for years, and I keep struggling to finish it because, to do my job as a writer, I have to present even the villains of my story as fully rounded human beings, but I keep discovering that the people I’m writing about are present in our world today and presenting those people in the round can too easily slip into excusing them, apologizing for them, condoning them.
I want to say this here clearly and unequivocally: I do not excuse, apologize for, or condone in any way any attitudes of racial supremacy. I do not agree with — and, when I can, I actively stand up to — Nazis, white supremacists, anti-Semites, or any other group of people united by hate. And I stand up to anyone who excuses or tries to explain away those groups.
I stand with every marginalized group in this nation. African-Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, Latino- and Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, gay Americans, trans Americans, women. As a cishet white male, I am among the people this nation was literally designed to cater to, and because of that, it is all the more important that I stand up against oppression, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and any other form of collective hatred and prejudice we encounter. And I stand with everyone willing to stand up against those hateful attitudes.
Which is why I have taken so long writing this current book. Every day, I am reminded of the ways in which we have hurt our fellow Americans throughout this nation’s history, and while I want to be careful to present our history through my fiction in the clearest, most honest light I can, I also want to be careful to avoid glorifying the harm we’ve done each other in the past.
And that’s not easy.
Just last night on Facebook, I shared with excitement the news that I had found newspaper items contemporary to the period I’m writing about — the mid- to late-19th century. Shortly after I posted that, I found a Civil War-era editorial advocating secession and war with the federal government in the name of maintaining and advancing the enslavement of human beings. And, aside from a few grammatical quirks of the time, the rhetoric in that editorial was indistinguishable from the rhetoric we are hearing from racists and Nazis and white supremacists today. It was indistinguishable from rhetoric we hear even from some of our so-called leaders.
And that’s horrifying.
So I struggle to write through that.
But I am reminded of a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” [SPOILER ALERT!] In that story, Borges describes a man who wants to write, from scratch, a contemporary version of Cervantes’s classic Don Quixote. The story Menard eventually produces is utterly identical in every way to Cervantes’s original. Same setting, same characters, same words — the entire text is a verbatim reconstruction of the original text. There is no difference whatsoever between the Menard version and the Cervantes version. And yet, Borges describes, Menard’s version is celebrated as a brilliant commentary on the modern age, on how contemporary readers reflect on an age centuries earlier. It is the SAME text, yet people embrace in a completely different way.
I view historical fiction in the same way. Even when we recreate with perfect authenticity the earlier era we write about, we are still commenting on our current perspective on that era. Our attitudes now come into play; and if ours don’t, the attitudes of our readers will.
So I write on, as honestly as I can, even when my characters horrify and appall me. Because we are living through much of this now, again, and this past pain and growth is worth revisiting as we experience similar pain and growth today. The passive racists and violent white supremacists I write about are no more horrifying than the violent white supremacists we saw in Charlottesville or the passive racists who excuse or ignore them today. Our sins today are, if anything, worse than our sins 150 years ago, because today, we are supposed to know better. Many of us do know better, but clearly, not enough of us do. So perhaps, through my fiction, one reader might also come to know better. And maybe, through writing as mindfully and compassionately as I can, I might come to know better, too. Because make no mistake: as long as I, a cishet white male, continue to benefit from the society we’ve created here in the United States, I will always have plenty left to learn.
And so I write on. Always learning.
Keep learning, dear readers. Keep questioning your privilege, whatever it might be, and keep fighting to ensure that everyone else can experience the same privilege. Keep fighting for equality until there is no such thing as “privilege.”
And keep writing that truth.
4 thoughts on “Thoughts from a white writer on our responsibilities as writers”
This is exactly why I love what you write. Your writing is directly from your heart and it’s all perfectly clear and believable when I read it. I’m so proud to know you. You’re a great person, Sam!! I’m sharing this so more people can know you and what we should all stand for to make this world better. Thanks for writing from your soul! 😊
I don’t think anyone can accuse you of being any sort of racist or racist apologist. Recognising people as people and not stereotypes is what stops you from writing fiction that is trite.
May I suggest that you read Paul Scott’s ‘The Jewel In The Crown’ (well, maybe the whole of the ‘Raj Quartet’) and contemplate the character of Ronald Merrick, the way Scott portrays him. He is, undoubtedly, the book’s ‘villain’ and a racist to boot. But the fact that he is intelligent, resourceful, and even that he possesses a great deal of personal courage is what makes him utterly fascinating. No one could accuse Scott of endorsing his unpleasantness or his hatred of Indians.
A great suggestion! Thanks, M. I’m trying to filter what I’m reading right now through the sieve of “influences for this novel,” so I’ll have to take a look and will probably get to it later, but I’ll definitely add it to my to-read list!
In the meantime, I might revisit McCarthy’s Child of God, whose main character still gives me nightmares but who is also fascinating.
Also, I’m noticing that many of the research materials I’m looking at lately, even books on the African-American experience during and after the US Civil War, are written by white men. I am long overdue for reading other perspectives. So I’ll add that to my list, too.
I suppose the name that instantly comes to mind is Frederick Douglass. But that fact that it is THE name that comes to mind is a problem in itself. However, Douglass’s account does contain some interesting information about how come there is not a lot of black text from that era to start with.
‘Child of God’ is a wonderful book – the narrative style is so simple.