Artists can be a nuisance at times, especially the pen-wielding delinquents amongst them. I don’t know what it is about them (maybe it’s their over-active imaginations?), but writers can out of nowhere decide to row against the river of reason when the nagging voices of sense in their heads tell them to do otherwise. This is not an entirely bad thing, though. There are times when going against the grain is needed, especially if it’s done by the more artistic amongst us. But there are also times when we need to let our small boats go with the flow of reason and let things run the way they need to, and this is where some people lose the plot.
A couple of days ago I read an article by an Indian-American author who, before reading said article, I had never heard of before. Her name is Thrity Umrigar, and she is the author of seven novels. In the article, which was published in The New York Times, Thrity speaks about the backlash she recently got from her readers for writing from the perspective of an African-American protagonist in her seventh novel “Everybody’s Son”.
Like I said, before my chance encounter with the article, I had never heard of Thrity Umriagr or read any of her work. With that said, then, I could never be brave enough to take a swing at the contents of the book in question or any of her other work. As a matter of fact, I believe would be an idiot of the highest decree if I attempt to do so. Nevertheless, the thing that compelled me to write this piece involves her and the (dare I say) ignorant remarks she made about her use of a dangerous stereotype about African-American women in her book.
Like how I said writers tend to do, in the article she decided to row against the river of reason when she should have just flowed with it.
Anyway, the contents of the article are concerning to me and, I believe, her main concerns in it are misplaced. Instead of addressing the concerns raised by her readers – concerns about her decision to write her novel from the perspective of an African-American male when she’s not one herself – she is more concerned about “how [people need to] balance pertinent questions about appropriation with the creative freedom to push boundaries and take risks that are essential to good writing.” While her concern may seem valid, though, I believe it is more of a silencing tool than it is an invitation for discussion.
For instance, she uses the fact that she has “never been asked about the appropriateness of creating white American characters” as a sort of justification for writing her book the way she did. Worse, she even justifies her use of a negative stereotype about African-American women for one of her characters by saying that she also uses one about a white father “who epitomizes white privilege and uses power to get what he wants”.
While such reasoning might seem justifiable at first glance, what it essentially ignores are the social conditions that created and facilitate both those stereotypes. So, her use of one as a justification for her use of the other is her attempt to, in a way, place them on equal footing and somehow ignore the fact that one is a direct result of the other and not its comparative equal. But that’s an argument for another day. Instead, what concerns me is what is at the core of the backlash she has received: her appropriation of a narrative whose troubles she could not fully express, and claim creative freedom.
It’s true what she says in the article, “men can [and do] write about women”, but that doesn’t make their appropriation of female narratives, and as a result her appropriation of the African-American narrative, a right thing. What she seems to be getting wrong here, and what the male writers defending their appropriation of female narratives are also getting wrong, is this: people are not saying they should stop writing about them, what they are questioning is the way in which they write about them.
For instance, if she is going to write a book about an adopted black son’s search for identity in the space of the white family that adopted him, and his reconciliation with his past, like she says she did in this book, it is only fair that questions about her ability to truly articulate such a struggle, which would be foreign to her (no matter how much research she did), from a perspective of the boy, are asked. Questions about how, when the struggles she’s writing about she only knows from an observatory point of view, she chose to write about them from a point of view other than an observatory one?
In the end people see no problems with her, as an Indian-American writer, or anyone for that matter, writing about black people or the struggles they go through. The problems arise when she chooses to write about the existential struggles that a black person goes through when trying to find his identity in a white space, from the perspective of said black person, when she does not have enough knowledge about them to adequately express them.