Read this exclusive guest post from John Keyse-Walker, author of Sun, Sand, Muder, about writing protagonists outside of your race and culture, and then, make sure you're signed in and comment for a chance to win a copy of the book!
Write what you know. Every writer has heard this bit of wisdom attributed to Mark Twain. We all try to do this, but nothing flies more in the face of this adage than writing from a perspective the writer cannot fully know—that of a different race or culture. A writer can visit a location, go for a ride-along with the cops, or learn pathology and forensics to lend authenticity and credibility to their principal character’s environment and methods, but they can never completely get inside that character’s skin if they're of a different race.
That irrefutable fact has not stopped a number of crime writers from making a creditable and convincing effort. Richard Price, in Clockers, gave a portrayal of a black, small-time dope dealer and his poor, drug-ravaged housing project sufficiently realistic to inspire the Spike Lee film of the same name. George Pelecanos has been uniformly praised for his portrayal of black protagonists Derek Strange and Marcus Clay, both paired with white partners in Pelecanos's native Washington, D.C.
And, Kelly Nichols and Kris Montee—two sisters who write as P. J. Parrish—may hold the title for working the farthest afield from their natural comfort zone. Not only is the protagonist of their long-running Louis Kincaid series bi-racial and a man, but the duo collaborate on their writing while living in Michigan and Florida, respectively. The sisters are so successful in placing themselves in Kincaid’s shoes that the editor who bought their first book, Dark of the Moon, believed it had been written by a black man.
What do these authors and others who successfully write outside their own race and culture have in common? It seems they are able to affirmatively answer two questions.
The first is philosophical: should you do it?
The second is a matter of skill and craft: can you do it?
The philosophical issue first—should a white author write a black protagonist, or an Asian writer a white one? There is the matter of cultural ownership to consider; literally, should one ever be allowed to write outside one’s race or culture? I think the correct answer is a qualified “yes.”
It must be done for the right reasons. If it is a dalliance or experiment by the writer, then definitely not. No author should decide to write black, Asian, or white simply on a lark or to provide racial balance to a story. My guess is that an author whose thought process runs along those lines would probably not write a realistic character in any event; a token character presented solely to inject their race into a story will most likely be wooden and lifeless because the story does not need the character.
On the other hand, if the character’s presence is natural and appropriate to the story by virtue of location, era, or culture, then it is not only right, but required that the author write outside their race to include the character. To do otherwise is a disservice to the story. To restrict the writer by saying it should not be done solely because of cultural ownership is to restrict the writer’s art.
The second question remains—if the writer has justification for writing outside of their race or culture due to the storyline, can they carry it off? This strikes me as the essence of writing: the ability to place the reader in a realistic situation, even though the writer has never been there.
Unless all writing is autobiographical (which it is not), every writer is called upon to write outside their personal experience to some degree. One doesn’t need to be a serial killer to write, realistically and well, about the inner workings of a serial killer’s mind. One doesn’t need to be a cop to describe the gripping tension of a car chase. And, one needn’t be stabbed to write convincingly of the pain. True, in all those instances, some experience does help—talking to a patient in a mental hospital, driving a car fast, experiencing pain on some level.
But, what about the experience an author cannot begin to have, cannot sample as he can pain, speed, or firing a gun? How does the writer with justification for a foray into another culture make it real—or, at least, realistic? The same way they make other writing believable: by observing and immersing. The writer must visit the places, scenes, or situations that the characters they write about experience. And, they must do it over an extended period of time, if possible—a deep plunge rather than a dip of the toe into the water.
In short, live the life, as much as they can, of those about whom they write. And, they must remember that, while we are not all the same, we all have the human experience in common—and that, more than race, culture, ethnicity, the color of our hair, or how tall we are, is what writers actually write about.
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John Keyse-Walker practiced law for 30 years, representing business and individual clients, educational institutions, and government entities. He is an avid salt- and freshwater angler, a tennis player, kayaker, and an accomplished cook. He lives in Ohio with his wife. Sun, Sand, Murder is his first novel and the winner of the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.