The Right to Write, the Right to Speak—for others and ourselves

person with body painting

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If you have read my blog recently, you probably saw my firm opinion about The Nation editors apologizing for publishing a poem written by a white guy in Black vernacular (AAV, AAVE, whatever). I believe—still—that the poet has the right to write (and publish that writing) for other races, so long as he does it well. I haven’t actually seen anyone critiquing the poem saying the vernacular was used incorrectly. Mostly it’s been woke white people saying a white person shouldn’t use it at all.

Moving on from that, however, I was thrilled to read an article in The New York Times entitled “Go Ahead, Speak for Yourselves” written by Kwame Anthony Appiah. I have no idea if Mr. Appiah supports the right of Mr. Carlson-Wee to write in Black vernacular or not. However, I liked his take on representing for different cultures. It seems these days that we’ve simplified things a little too much. We’re “woke”, so Black people speak for Black people, gay people for the gay community, and white women for white women.

But what do I—a middle class suburbanite raised in a lower income household—know about a white woman raised on a farm? If I express an opinion “as a white woman”, does it represent everyone from my retired next-door neighbor to my daughter (who is very different from me and will, by the time she is my age, have had very different experiences throughout her life than even some of her peers)?

As a writer, I feel the limitations of this. I strain at the bonds of being a Southern white woman forbidden to write or empathize with other cultures, even when I do my best to learn about and experience those cultures. It’s a multicolored world and we all have a portion of that rainbow in us, whether we’re Black transsexuals or white Southern GRITS or straight Mexican men. I believe if we all learn to embrace that rainbow and take more of it into ourselves, we will grow not only as individuals but as a united human race.

That’s why I stand up for Mr. Carlson-Wee’s right to write and empathize with a race he did not grow up in, even when he and his editors did not. That’s why I will continue to write from the perspective I am drawn to, regardless of what color that person’s skin is. I hope someday I will have the skill to write from the perspective of someone who is truly different from me. I will keep working toward that goal, improving and expanding the boundaries of my empathy.

Because that’s what writers do.

Poetry-gate and what it means for writers

I have been taken to task—and found wanting.

No kidding, friends. We are never finished learning, are we?

I will not and do not apologize for my last post. I still support Anders Carlson-Wee’s right to write what he feels. And if he can get it published, more power to him. I do not believe that the poem he wrote was in any way intended to be disrespectful to another culture. I believe it was written for those of us who enjoy white privilege and good health and plenty to eat.

However, I now see the problem. It was written by a white guy in good health with plenty to eat.

Before you say, “But Mark Twain!” (as I did), look at it this way. There are plenty of black writers out there now. The Nation did not publish them. During Twain’s time, very few black people had the ability and voice to protest their lot in life. So it fell to Twain and others like him to do so for them.

We’re at a pivotal point in literature. Every culture has writers. Excellent writers. Talented poets. And then there are people like me. I’m a little white girl from the South who refuses to write exclusively about little white Southern girls. I mean, what kind of romance would that make—okay, yeah. And not that there’s anything wrong with that (wink, wink), but I prefer a little diversity.

So, I’m working hard to incorporate diversity into my writing, even if my writing is “just” romance. I’ve written about the Cherokee nation, had a Greek-American heroine in a novel and a Greek hero in a short story. I’ve had supporting characters of different races and sexual orientations. And I didn’t even start out intending to make these things happen. They grew naturally from ideas whispered to me by my muse.

We need to be careful as writers not to make it taboo to write about a different culture from the one we were born into. It is our job to introduce new ideas and concepts to our readers, whether it’s in literary fiction or romance or a travel article. As a little Southern white girl, I’m going to do my best to keep expanding my cultural knowledge and hoping more of it leaks into my writing—and once it’s there, I’ll do my best to make sure it’s both sensitive and appropriate.

As a writer, that’s my job.

Poetry is meant for more

I’m reeling. I read in The New York Times that The Nation apologized for publishing a poem because of social media backlash. The editors apologized—as did the poet—for using language identified as black vernacular because the poet is white.

Okay. I get the whole black face thing. I agree that no one should ever attempt to use language or cultural appropriation to make fun of another race. However, this poem (“How-To” by Anders Carlson-Wee) had a certain beauty to it and was not, in my opinion, intended to outrage anyone. But if it was…so what?

You think Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn with its anti-slavery views without intending to outrage his fellow Southerners? Do you think it would have been as effective if Mr. Twain had not used black vernacular? And yes, I know in today’s world old Huck has become somewhat despised among some literary snobs, but I still—and always will—love that book.

But poetry! Poetry is meant for more than being politically correct. Poetry is meant to entice and outrage. Poetry is meant to make you think about things a different way. Why the hell do you think it’s so difficult to understand? Why do you think your English professors could spend an entire class period on a ten-line poem? Because poetry is different. And it’s off limits to political correctness.

To those who think Mr. Carlson-Wee had no right to appropriate black language, I say this: He has poetic license. He’s a talented writer who sees the world a different way. He’s white but, for this poem at least, he spoke for another race because that was what his muse whispered to him. Who are you to say he was wrong?

By the way, I had a whole other post planned for today extolling the virtues of this cover for Dickens Magic. Because I seriously can’t stop looking at it. Many, many thanks to Farah Evers Designs for the fantastic work on it!

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