Thursday, February 2, 2012
On the Difficulty of Writing Non-White Characters
I have always loved to write stories. I also find it impossible to write about non-white people, even though I am of predominantly Indian descent. For many years, I felt guilty every time I replaced Anekha and Suresh with Jessica and Paul. Try as I may, I could not bring myself to write the same story with characters that didn’t sound or appear White enough. Their names felt strange on my tongue, even though I grew up with more Preeti’s than Kelsey’s. They did not seem to belong in my fictional universe; I could not imagine them feeling the things that my White characters did, having the complex relationships that they did and leading such interesting lives. Even more problematic were physical descriptions; the beautiful heroine could never have brown skin, black hair or dark eyes. Even though I was surrounded by women with these features, women that I considered beautiful, they refused to translate into my story. The heroine was always fair-skinned, with red or blond hair and unusual – violet? – eyes.
Even today, as I force myself to draw on the authentic world I grew up in and acknowledge my own experiences when writing fiction, my first impulse is to write about a Mary-Jane with long blond hair. Why? I believe that there are several reasons for this, some of which are very personal but others which I think are common to other writers of color. First, although I spent my childhood and adolescence in a predominantly non-white country with a majority Indian population, my experience was somewhat atypical. I grew up with parents linked to the West in more than one way; European ancestry, European educations and pasts. This meant that much of the media that I was exposed to growing up was Western; books written by American and British women, films featuring white actors, magazines filled with white fashion models and blonde Pop idols. Some of these were inescapable, even for others who had a more traditional upbringing; I remember girls having an obsession with looking like Britney Spears, bleaching their black hair and investing in bright blue contact lenses.
However, in many ways, I was more immersed in Western media than any of them, and from a very early age as I read a lot. Of course, the stories were about White children in Europe or the United States. I identified strongly with these characters, creating a tension between reality and imagination. I never thought of myself or anyone around me as “non-white” until I virtually came into contact with these fictional blue-eyed, pale-skinned children. I had always been the default, never the Other. Yet it slowly dawned on me that these children whom I identified so strongly with were not like me. The more I read, the more I realized that I had no place in their world other than as an unfamiliar and often downright bizarre figure (I read a lot of Enid Blyton). In their books, in their films and in their tales, a girl like me could never just be one of the children playing and enjoying holidays by the sea. In their tales, I could never be the good, beautiful, beloved Princess, only the jealous step-sister or dark witch. I believe that I refused to accept this Othered space but at the same time internalized ideas about what is good, beautiful and lovable. That is why I continued to read books with White characters, many of whom I continued to identify with, and continued erasing people like myself from my own work, because in the fictional worlds that had become familiar to me, these people could only ever lurk in the margins as distorted shadows, never stepping into focus, center-stage.
Paradoxically, while internalizing the Otherness of colored people, I also refused to confront this problematic issue by making all my characters the White “default” of the West. Writing characters who fit the mould allowed me to retain my sense of being like them, of retaining my identity as the “default”, rather than the Other; to write about Keerti or Sapna would be to bring up a rush of uncomfortable feelings and to realize that there existed a world where these girls could not fill the center as they did in my world, but where they would forever be confined to spaces where they would not disturb White people’s vision of How Things Should Be. It was easier to write about Elizabeth and then go back to my own reality where I was a whole individual with a multifaceted personality, loving parents, friends and a rich, fulfilling existence, rather than just “that Indian girl”, one of the nameless, faceless crowd.
I would like to write more about the context and situations in which we tend to encounter characters of color, and how this also contributed to my avoidance of such characters for such a long time. That could take up pages, so for now, I leave you with this.