12.13.2013

Writers of Color and Their Characters

Recently I've been reading a few things on the subject of writers of color and their characters (the hip hop teacher blog linked below in another post and a Twitter thread over at Lee & Low with author Tess Gerritsen, who says, interestingly and sadly, that Asian American protagonists don't sell (she'd been told this by an editor a while ago) here's the Tumblr on it: http://leeandlow.tumblr.com/post/69705514018/why-bestselling-author-tess-gerritsen-doesnt-write). So I thought I'd jot down some thoughts:

During my own reading from my formative years--middle and high school, I mean--was like anyone else's pretty much: my fill of the Classics. But I read outside of class, as well. I wouldn't be a reader today, otherwise.

(Give or take a couple, I bet I can put my list up against yours and they will match.)

So I distinguish between reading for myself and class-sanctioned reading assignments. You get the picture.

In middle school, I recall going to the library at Nellie Schunior Junior High and perusing the spines of books on the shelf--this during my own time, not class time, so before the first bell, during lunch, after school.

I'd look at a title and if it struck me as interesting, even remotely, I'd pull it from the shelf and judge the book by its cover next. If it didn't catch me off guard, I'd slide it back in the empty slot, or if it did, I'd open it to page one and read the first sentence or two, and if those suckered me in, I'd hope that by the end of reading the first paragraph or two I'd want to keep reading. If not, I'd shove the book back onto the shelf in its place. Then repeat cycle.

This is how I found a book that was a game-changer, though I didn't know this back then. I didn't even know to remember the book's title, nor its author. Years later (a very convoluted story, one I'd rather tell in person than on paper or blog because the keyboard doesn't have the type necessary for me to tell it right), so years later, remembering that one of the stories in it involved a character called Pedro Pistolas and another about a konk, and thank goodness for the internet and search engines in particular, I typed those clues in and got this: Piri Thomas and Stories from El Barrio. (I've since ordered it online and reread it and enjoyed it all over again.)

Okay, here I'm taking a jump through grades 8, 9, 10 during which time I never went back to that book nor any other with Latino/a characters and Spanish words here and there, didn't know I could...

...and now I'm in 11th grade. In Ms. Ida Garcia's ELA class. She let me read The Count of Monte Cristo instead of Salinger's Catcher. This is another of those major moments in a reading life: this was the first book in a long time, since elementary, as a matter of fact, that I had really gotten into. I loved it, I'm telling you. But this story is not so much about my reading life, though it seems like it is. It's actually about my writing life and my use of characters of color.

One writing assignment Ms. Garcia had for us was a short story. You've got to understand, I was writing for a grade, not because I was a writer, not because I thought of myself as a writer. So when I think back on this assignment, I never think of it as the beginning of my writing career. I wrote a cheesy horror story and got an A on it. The thing of it is that my character was a Mexican American kid much like myself, in a setting much like the rancho where I grew up, who goes to a corner store that was the corner store in my little neighborhood in deep South Texas. I reread it today and think a couple of things: first, if a student handed this story in for a grade in one of my creative writing classes, to be nice, I'd score it a D (no offense to Ms. Garcia and her grading ways, she was just being awfully kind, I think); second, I'd have to say, for an attempt at horror, it's a pretty miserable attempt. Looking back, I don't know what it was that gave me permission to write about a Mexican American kid (because, like I've said, the only Latino kid I'd read in a book was Pedro/Piri, who wasn't Mexican American from deep South Texas but a PR from Spanish Harlem and so where I got the idea to write about what I knew is beyond me).

Next year, my 12th, Ms. Garza challenged us to write another short story as part of her ELA class. Again, without knowing to this day where I got the idea, I wrote generic Hispanic characters: this one a remake of Romeo and Juliet (more like Westside Story, though I've never seen the musical, not on stage, not on the tv). This one set in NYC, where I'd never visited up until a few years ago for a conference, and worse, on a subway train and the stations associated with it. I had watched a movie called The Warriors, and so maybe I was taking from Shakespeare and popular culture (a movie shot back in the late 70s with Michael Beck in the lead role as gang member Swan). Again, somehow I knew to write about what I knew despite not really knowing any of it.

Next, I went off to college in South Carolina, to a place called Bob Jones University where eventually I did begin to think of myself as writer, or writer in the making, anyway. Took creative writing classes, submitted works to journals and magazines, including The New Yorker, if I remember right. And during these years, I wrote almost exclusively white characters in what I guess were white settings: lakesides, high rises, etc. And maybe with one exception (but there is no hard copy proof of it) a story I titled "Highschool Daze," that was set back in La Joya where I went to school K-12. And I used Mexican American characters. But that was it. Otherwise, a very anglo vision of what "writer" did.

It was only after reading folks like James Baldwin late in undergraduate years, and Sandra Cisneros in graduate school (then Denise Chavez, Rudolfo Anaya, and a few others) that I figured that my story was worth telling, and telling it my way, which meant writing about Peñitas and La Joya, about Rudy down the street, and Joe and Andy at school, and Bell and Cindy and Ana, and teachers like Mr. Ojeda, Ms. Garcia, and Ms. Garza, and the other Ms. Garza, the assistant principal who we affectionately nicknamed La Tweety, who was a fantastic educator and advocate for students).

Point being: had I not read, mostly on my own, books in which my story was recounted, I wouldn't have become the writer I am today, a guy who writes what he knows, including characters who are brown-skinned, whose language is brown, whose ways are brown.

Imagine if we introduced would-be writers from the get-go to characters of color in the reading we choose for them in the classroom: imagine them reading themselves in these stories and poems; imagine, without giving it any thought, these same kids tell stories that include themselves as characters, as the heroes of their tales. What a wonderful place it would be...

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