Core Questions

If only life were Likert-scale simple…

A couple of days ago, in our discussion over the novel American Dirt and the problems it has presented, I raised a set of questions, originally posed by author Alexander Chee and which I saw in the book review by Myriam Gurba:

Writers interested in exploring the realities of those unlike themselves should answer three questions before proceeding: 1) Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view? 2) Do you read writers from this community currently? and 3) Why do you want to tell this story?

As much as it would be nice to have three simple meditative guides, I find these questions to pose their own new dilemmas. For instance, the frame: “writers interested in exploring the realities of those unlike themselves…” How unlike is unlike, and which “realities” are most salient? Every single fictional character I’ve ever considered is unlike me in meaningful and important ways, similar in others. To borrow from my friend Van, who teaches rhetoric and often thinks about the innumerable ways to compare across circumstances or texts: “what difference makes a difference?” What forms of otherness present the greatest potentials for authorial harm? Are there forms of otherness that cannot be bridged?

The first question specifies more closely: “why do you want to write from this character’s point of view?” That’s a particular version of the dilemma, that of casting a POV character. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, there really are only a few of my 80 most recent characters who wear the custom golden POV badge; the rest are the people who are encountered, on stage for a paragraph or a page. But author Brandon Taylor explicitly points out how problematic “minor characters” can be:

When an author writes a black woman who shows up only to be angry in two scenes full of sass and pilfered vernacular, divorcing the anger from its cause and playing to the worst of tropes, he is performing a violence. When an author conjures up a Latina cleaning woman who is old and slow and barely speaks English but leaves her home, the people who love her, and the dignity of her life on the cutting room floor, he is performing a violence. 

It makes sense that I bear some obligations to all of my characters, whether lead actors or supporting actors or extras in the crowd. The issue at hand is, what kinds of obligations?

Let’s loop back, though, and respond to Chee’s three questions, questions that make sense no matter what the distance might be between character and self.

Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about young people whose talent is recognized early and coached steadily. What does it mean for a young person to be so talented, and to have acquired the singular focus required for professional-level skill? What would he leave aside as he pursued that one thing? And what would it mean for that one thing to be as obscure as table tennis (a sport that I loved in my teens and 20s)? I’m always drawn to write about men of any age who are aiming at something they can’t even understand, and the ways in which they discover capabilities they hadn’t had the chance to fully exercise before.

You’ll notice that there’s nothing in my writerly motivations here about specifically wanting to write an Asian American character. I think it’s just a fact of the sport that a kid that good would be the child of elite players himself, and also be surrounded by a community of coaches and competitors who demand more of him every day—and in the US, that’s going to mean people of Asian heritage. But it’s been noted by lots of writers of color that a common flaw when white writers create characters of color is that those characters are just white. They don’t have the daily lives, the history, the concerns and joys that a person truly of that culture would experience. So my job is to work even harder to understand the day-to-day specifics of David’s life. I’ve done a lot of that. There’s a lot left to do. 

Do you read writers from this community currently? So here’s an embarrassing moment. I don’t read nearly as much fiction as I ought, at least in part because I’m so frequently disappointed. The demand for trauma in contemporary fiction is so high, and the bar ratcheted higher every season, that I’m often unable to appreciate the craft through the pain. I don’t watch many movies, either, for the same reason. I seek out writers of hope, and they’re hard to find. David’s and Gwen’s story is more nearly a Helen Hoang book than an Ocean Vuong book. It has some similarities to Peter Ho Davies as well, a writer who’s done a great job exploring what it means to be simultaneously Welsh and Chinese and American.

And here’s the even more embarrassing moment. I’m an ethnographer. So I’d much more trust my own observations of a community than some other writer’s description of it. It’s like primary and secondary sources, I want to see lives. And so YouTube has been my friend here, watching the loneliness of Xu Xin as he goes back to his bare dormitory room after yet another day of training, watching what it looks like when Soyoung Park nearly collapses after playing Ginastera’s Sonata #1. Biographies as well, especially Andre Aggasi’s brilliant Open, showing us the demanding father and the Bollittierri boot camp and dropping out of school in 9th grade to just play tournaments. Those are the source documents from which this story is made.

Why do you want to tell this story? Well, that’s a tough question to come right after I admitted that I don’t trust fiction to always tell us the truth. But I think it can. And maybe that’s just industrial-scale hubris on my part, to think that I can succeed in doing work that I don’t always trust when others do it. But I’ve always wanted us to see hope, to see the possibilities just below the surfaces of life, and to recognize the room for the greatness of everyday people. That’s what’s behind ALL the stories I write. That’s why I wrote about teenagers 25 years ago, to help people see that those anonymous kids in their classrooms actually had rich, complicated lives.

Another part of it is the creation of what writers call counterfactual narratives. Most of my characters start out in circumstances that are something close to my own experience: the failed academic career; the safe, dull professional work; the high school life of being good at sports that had no social cachet in a football-centric culture. But I use those stories to learn an alternative path, tracking the marble down a different hill than I rolled, to see what the other side of the slope might look like.

So this has turned out to be a long post, and I’m sure there’s some TL:DR going on. But, you know, the subtitle of this website is “Where a writer thinks things through,” so you know what you signed up for, right?

Back soon with more.

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