Thursday, August 11, 2011

Stepping into a New Set of Shoes

Tennis Match Sneakers
If you follow me on Twitter, you already know I will not be going to see the movie “The Help” for a shitload of reasons, but I will not go into them here because that’s not what this blog post is about. What is the subject of this post? Well, Kathryn Stockett (the author of the book) did some race-jumping with the creation of her characters, and so did I.

In my forthcoming novel Zaire’s Place, one of my characters is a prejudiced white woman who enters a predominately African American domestic violence shelter after she leaves her abusive husband. Rebecca Reich is in her late twenties and moved to Baltimore from Utah. Her working-class parents hate black people, and naturally their views rubbed off on her because children often become what their parents teach. In a flashback from Rebecca’s past, she remembers a conversation between her parents after their family business is robbed and it goes like this:

I heard my mother move over to where he was. His cursing and rambling went on for several minutes as she listened patiently.    
“Did you file a report?” she asked.
“Of course I did. I hope they catch his sorry little ass. That’s the problem with niggers—they’re like cockroaches. After one moves into an area, they send out beacons telling the others to come along. I just don’t want no trouble, Sheila. The shop is so young and getting robbed doesn’t help us one bit. We’ll be a target.”
“Like I said before, money can be replaced, but you can’t.  We’ll work it out, Jonathan.” 

I decided to step into a white woman’s shoes because we live in a diverse society, and I wanted to reflect that in my book. Most people come in contact with different races on a daily basis. It’s unavoidable. So why should books, sitcoms, etc. be any different? I have several white friends that I’ve been friends with for over a decade and conversations about race inevitably came up. I discovered what their parents thought of me…of the black race. My friends would tell me in hushed tones that their parents weren’t “fond of” black people. I listened intently, taking it all in and commenting. I realized what I always knew: that racism is still alive and it doesn't just live in old white people.

My thirst for finding out what white America thought came long before the idea for my novel visited me. As a matter of fact, I HAD to know what white America thought because we live in a society where a black person’s every move is measured by white America. Knowing the way “they” think has been the black race’s survival skill. So when I sat down to write Zaire’s Place, it just made sense to me that a white character would be one of my protagonists.

When I attempted to write from Rebecca’s perspective, I almost gave up because it was so hard. I even considered eliminating her character all together and sticking with my two black protagonists and alternating between their viewpoints. But something told me to keep going…to keep pushing and once I did, it got easier and easier to think like Rebecca.

Another reason why I tackled Zaire’s Place from the voice of a white woman is because I wanted to try something different. As a writer, I think you grow from stretching yourself and doing something you’ve never done before. At the same time, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also looking for a way for my book to stand out among the millions of books out there, and race-hopping is unique.

From what I understand, Stockett’s book was rejected by dozens of agents and so was mine. I could tell many of them didn’t like my take on Rebecca. I finally found a publisher (All Things That Matter Press) that was willing to take a chance on my risky concept.

In the end, Stockett’s race-jumping paid off…she has a best-selling book. I’m hoping I can achieve a fraction of the success she is currently receiving. But as a black woman who takes on a white persona, why do I doubt it?

*To see the blurb for the back cover of Zaire’s Place, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment