Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Playing the Race Card

What does a cracker think he's doing writing about a black kid and choosing black children as his audience?

Two/three years ago I decided to write a children's novel based upon a library in an inner city area, using a boy of African origin as my protagonist. I wrote pretty much the majority of it, even had it plotted, but my skill with the word wasn't very good back that and like all my projects it fell by the wayside.

As my NAW course now draws towards the last two modules I'm thinking again about the first book I should write - one that will fulfill the criteria of the final project and also be commercially viable in today's pro-child publishing industry. I have (what I perceive to be) a brilliant concept that has the right amount of fantasy but an ample amount of real-world issues that, if I ever were able to write appropriately to the intended age group (and I'm guessing it has to be Harry Potter's initial age group), then this would be a winner and the start of a series.

So, what's the problem? Aside from being afraid to commit myself to a project that I've picked up and put down several times already, I'm suddenly anxious about race. Not only do I not know anything about African heritage but I don't know about it in contemporary inner cities. How do the kids interact and react to the wider world? What makes me think I, a white boy, have any reason to write about black children with the intention of pitching to black children? Surely I should leave this to the likes of Malorie Blackman? She's doing a wonderful job, and dare I say it, but she has a better idea of the culture... surely?

Or am I being typically ignorant - it has been known.

That's why I decided to start reading black (I hope that isn't offensive to anyone) - though it's not easy as I've been unable to wrack my brains about any contemporary black novelists writing about inner city life and I'm going to actually have to do some research. It's a small thing, admittedly, as I only want an idea of my main character and his perceptions of the world around me. I'm worried about stereotyping or falling into cliche traps or simply coming across as offensive when I don't understand my topic.

So, I've started with Malorie Blackman - Pig-Heart Boy and next up will be Noughts and Crosses. The first thing that struck me about Pig-Heart Boy, was that it is so absent of colour - the names insinuate ethnic origins and it helps to have an black boy on the front cover, but other than that I'm not picking up any hints about how I should consider these characters. And thinking about it, I do begin to wonder if any of the other characters (incidental or otherwise) are meant to be white or black? Does it matter? It seems not, and goes a long way to prove that a good writer observes the brevity of their fiction and allows the reader to come to their own conclusions and build their own worlds around the text. The book itself isn't really the kind of text I'm looking for, but it's a start.

Aha, Page 63 (Malorie Blackman's Pig-Heart Boy):
People always used that argument whenever they wanted to use and abuse animals - or even other people. Part of the excuse used to justify slavery was that we black people were 'less than human'. And the Nazis said the same things about Jewish people.

This is brief. A momentary mention but it doesn't dwell. If I pursue my own course I will be spending a greater deal of time on these issues - how do I do that without becoming patronising, didactic or completely off base?

Anyone out there know of any inner-city kids books? I'm really interested in racism between black people and their perceptions about their place in the community.


What always surprises me about books aimed at children is their moments of brutal honesty. Pig-Heart Boy didn't end as I'd imagined and as with the twist in the book/film Bridge to Terabithia I was taken aback (as an adult) by the themes (adult themes) that both are prepared to deal with - life and death and the acceptance of that.

That's not to say that these writers dwell on the moments and drag them out but they use them appropriately, and of course... it has nothing to do with race ;) Perhaps I should stop worrying so much about creating pin-perfect characters (grounded in what ever cultural or race related identity I finally research for them) and simply create real characters

1 comment:

solv said...

Hey ricardo.
The first thing that occurs to me is that you could look at those human issues you're keen to explore and consider applying them to something you know and understand deeply. Perhaps you're interested in prejudice, struggles for equality, class divides - even, at a baser level, desire and anger and love, etc.
You don't have to tread what might be dangerous ground (in that it's unfamiliar and unintuitive) in order to still reach your goal. I daresay you could find all of those issues in your own life somewhere.
If you're still keen to pursue the racial angle, you'll maybe want to read up on Zadie Smith (plenty of articles and interviews on the net), and maybe even read Zadie's favourite book, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. It's a very easy-to-read and touching novel. Certainly much easier to read than anything Zadie has written ;o)