A fellow blogger once jokingly (I think?) compared my commentary to the dulcet tones of an NPR correspondent when referencing the fact that I try to disagree… nicely. Well, for all that I’m trying to still be pleasant, I think I am about to prise open a dirt-encrusted can of worms here.
I have read about the Brown Bookshelf and 28 Days Later at many, MANY blogs, and thus we have not reissued that information here. However, that’s not just because everyone else is linking to the project, and not because, overall, the project isn’t a good idea. As this is the brainchild of authors and illustrators interested in highlighting some of the ‘flying under the radar’ best in children’s literature written by African Americans, what’s not to like? I’m definitely behind that. It’s just the euphonious euphemism of the name The Brown Bookshelf that has left a little niggling feeling of discomfort.
It’s partially because I am on a quest for names. I had a discussion recently with another blogger who professed a great dislike for the word multicultural — and while I wholeheartedly took her point about the word usually being substituted for ‘a nonspecific racial or ethnic book’ and packaged as something of a requirement which people are happy to fill with any old book in order to check it off their reading list, I asked what she wanted books about peoples of the non-dominant culture living their normal lives to be called — noting that that is far too long a description to put on library shelves. We still haven’t come to a firm conclusion on that, but admit that it’s the semantics that bother us. Names are words that claim things. Maybe I’m just feeling odd about the claim on the word ‘brown.’
Admittedly, that might simply be a California sensibility. Where I’m from, “brown” people are all people of color, in our own peculiar tribe. I am brown with my Chicas and my Pinays, my Desi and my Native friends, and “it’s all good,” to use the colloquialism. I want to be clear: I am not coming out against this worthy project or the people who are involved and in support of it. (DON’T bother sending me comments on that topic, I will just delete them without giving you the courtesy of a response.) All I am saying is that to ME brown is a bigger word.
I blame Colleen. (Mainly because that’s fun, but also because) I credit her with this train of thought, since her post today really struck a chord. Brown people are a part of my tribe. They’re African Americans, though they’re only part of the circle. My tribe is not just women, certainly, or minorities even. My tribe is vast — and is represented for me by the word brown. When we talk about promoting the Brown Bookshelf, I think of books for every child who is outside of the dominant culture. We so very much need to be promoting that, to be wary of further splintering and other-ing and marginalizing, even for the best of reasons.
So, I need my tribe of brown people to be bigger than only African Americans.
Those are my two centavos. Despite the post-apocalyptic viral pandemic zombie movie title, 28 Days Later is a great way to extend the traditional five minutes of Black History Month into something a bit more meaningful. Bravo. You know we can only be all for that.
This is, officially, My Two Cents and a Writing Tip, (which, put together, won’t even get you a cup of coffee, but what are you going to do?)
“Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting.”
That is one of my favorite writing quotes and apparently comes from a mid-90’s movie about a writer trying to make a book into a film. It was frequently said during my undergraduate days as my English 102 professor tried to explain to us the delicate art of the narrative essay. After I finished laughing (at myself and my ludicrous grade), I wrote the phrase down in the margin of my paper, and I’ve tried to apply it ever since.
There are some writers who inject a bit of biography into every single work. I can think of a prominent author whose novels are her own life constantly repopulated with different names, towns and outfits — and with a new cover slapped on — voilà! a new story. This author’s political and spiritual essays sell better than her novels, which tend to be the same song over and over again.
In writing groups I’ve been in, I’ve seen writers project themselves so much into their stories (and sometimes the stories of others) that their characters don’t have any choice but to act exactly as the author might have acted. That’s not really great in terms of letting the creativity flow — and it begs the question of whether or not the writer is writing fiction. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but “just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting.” The key to writing good fiction, I think, is to prune yourself OUT of it.
Does this seem to totally go against the “write what you know” school of thought we all were forced to accept in school? Well… admittedly it does. But I think “write what you know” is one useful as far as writing what you know emotionally. I think the best writers are great big fakes who do a lot of research and immerse themselves into these deeply complex tapestries of a life outside their own experience and then find an emotional truth and write that against the big backdrop of Other. They are then IN the story — just, not as themselves, no so easily recognizable and didactic and intrusive. To me, just writing what you know can be very, very limiting… maybe that phrase needs to be updated to “write what you imagine you’d like to know.”
I love the Albert Camus quote, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” As long as the elemental core of truth is in the story, it doesn’t matter how unlike you or your ideal self the characters behave. Fiction isn’t really about you after all, is it?