The Right To Write And/Or Being Woke
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
A few years ago, a novel I wrote found an agent. I know. A miracle. But that's only the start of this story. The agent worked with me for a year and a half to bring the novel up to snuff. Off went the agent's letter to twenty publishers. Some nice responses, some terse, and some non-responders. These last remain locked in my virtual prison for egregious sinners, where with a mild case of covid they peel onions all day.
No acceptances. I think the agent felt worse than I did. Being an agent was his (their?) day job. Writing certainly was not mine.
The agent and I parted company, but over coffee a year later, we conducted a postmortem. We started to brainstorm possibilities. With a tad of embarrassment, the agent floated this one: Suppose my novel (which has as its main character a woman on cocaine who delivers a premature baby) was turned down by publishers, not because it was mediocre, but because white males had no business writing about moms on crack, especially if they're African American. With more discomfiture, the agent raised the possibility of my taking on an (and I choose the next word carefully) under-represented co-author to give the novel some crede. Here, Gentle Reader, I'll give your reactions time to settle.
I asked a friend of mine what she thought of this idea. Maybe she could speak for all African American women the way I can for all white males. She pretended she'd have to think about it. But she did anyway. Even asked some of her friends what they thought. After a courteous while, she responded that the idea was unbelievably stupid as well as slimy, though she said it more nicely. Meanwhile, a fairly well polished draft, entitled, "Saving Julian," sits within my computer, gathering dust so to speak. (Though I'd be remiss not to tell you my first novel in this medical series, Baby Doe, involving a white mother who delivers a baby with problems other than prematurity, was happily published in March, 2021.
Since then, I've seen some takes on this sort of situation. Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards said that "...whenever we treat an identity as something to be fenced off from those of another identity, we sell short the human imagination." And Gates said of W.E.B. Du Bois, "he never let anyone tell him to stay in his lane. When he needed to, he paved his own." Granted Gates might be defending only the rights of African Americans to write about characters who aren't black and to explore the "white" literary canon, but I think Gates is talking about the need for writers of all backgrounds to write about anything they want. And despite this POV leading into some dark corners of the web, Gate's was talking to writers at PEN, thereby implicitly withholding these rights from those who'd shout "FIRE" in a theater, or most anything else in an attack on the Capitol building.
More recently, The Gray Lady, ran a review of "Manifesto: On Never Giving Up," by Bernadine Evaristo (NYT Jan 26, 2022). Raised Catholic, with a mom who was white English and a dad who was Nigerian, bricks were hurled at Evaristo's house in South London indicating how unwelcome an interracial family was. Nor is Evaristo's position on the LGBTQ scale clear in the review (though she says, "I was the ultimate lesbian. I wore the badge"). Her relationships good and bad, include "The Mental Dominatrix."
The NYT's reviewer, Quiara Alegria Hudes, writes, "Being mixed race makes Evaristo an awkward candidate for the singularity of identity politics. While she's not quite the 'Authentic Black' some of her peers expect ('a reductive and laughable attempt to essentialize the concept of Blackness' into a prescription for how she should think, speak, write, dress, and date); neither will her white grandmother display Evaristo's photo in her home." "'Manifesto'" offers an irresistibly paradoxical invitation to writers: Create a literature of those left behind, by letting your heart run free."
I'm not sure that gives a certifiably old, white, cis-male, and relatively new Jew a pass on writing any old thing, but I appreciate the seeming license to do so.