By Stephen Jay Schwartz


I tried, I tried, I tried, but I just couldn’t get a fresh new blog out this week due to the fact that I’m on an eleventh-hour rewrite for GRINDER, the film I’ve been writing.  So I’m reposting a favorite blog of mine, one that definitely speaks to me.  I’m still around to respond to comments and I’m looking forward to a lively dialogue.  Thanks for understanding!


Xenophobia: a dislike and/or fear of that which is unknown or different from oneself. It comes from the Greek words ξένος (xenos), meaning “stranger,” “foreigner” and φόβος (phobos), meaning “fear.” The term is typically used to describe a fear or dislike of foreigners or of people significantly different from oneself, usually in the context of visibly differentiated minorities.

I don’t know why this was on my mind this week. Maybe it’s because I’m aware of the unique opportunity we as writers have to combat xenophobic thinking. It brings up the writings of Jim Thompson, a classic crime writer from the 1950s. His protagonists always encountered xenophobic characters, yet even before the days of the Civil Rights Movement, Thompson managed to reveal the absurdity of racism and discrimination through character confrontation.

Thinking about this, I considered my own role in this process. I wondered if I had truly examined my perspective on race and culture. It brought out the moments in my life where I first observed xenophobic thinking:

Memory Flash #1: I’m in high school, with one of my very best friends. She and I weren’t romantic, but we were so close that, at times, it seemed like we were meant to be together. I knew she was a very religious Christian and, since I’m Jewish, I recognized that this was one major point of difference between us. I remember one day at lunch I saw her crying and I asked her what was wrong. She told me she was sad because someday we would pass on from this world, and she would be in Heaven, and I wouldn’t be there.

Memory Flash #2: I’m in college, at North Texas State University, in Denton, Texas. A friend of mine is waiting for the dorm-mate who had been assigned to her. It’s a week into the semester and the girl hasn’t arrived. Then one day she appears and tells my friend, “This is the imaginary line in the center of our room. I’ll stay on my side and you stay on yours, whitey.”

Memory Flash #3: I’m in college again, playing in a sixteen-piece swing band called Big Al’s Swing Dance Orchestra. I’m playing alto and I’m working through a section with the tenor player. He’s being a real jerk to me, as he always is. Suddenly he apologizes, saying that he’s just never been around a Jew before and didn’t know how to deal with someone whose people were responsible for killing Jesus Christ.

Memory Flash #4: A girl hangs out with us at the dorms. She’s mulatto, but her features are mostly African American. She’s a musician, like the rest of us. The guys she hangs out with at the Black Student Union tell her she has to make a choice – is she black or white? ‘Cause she’s acting like an “Oreo”. She is torn.

Memory Flash #5: I’m driving in a heavy rainstorm in Northern Arizona, doing research in the Navajo Reservation. My car breaks down. I’ve got the hood up and a Navajo man in his twenties stops and asks if I need help. I’m freaked out, scared, having heard stories of people being held up on the road in the Res. “No, I’m fine!” I say and I instantly regret it. I see the look on his face, he shakes his head. I can tell I’ve hurt something inside him, hurt him bad. He goes back to his truck. He was only trying to help, after all.

These are experiences I’ve had and I can surely use them in my own writing, in an effort to unmask xenophobia, the way Jim Thompson did. But I wonder if these experiences are enough.

Part of my job as a writer is to walk in the shoes of the characters I depict. But I wonder if I truly understand the racially and religiously diverse characters I write. Am I writing real people or stereotypes? Is there a subtle xenophobia working behind the scenes, keeping me from capturing the nuance of characters too different from myself?

I wrote an African American detective named Wallace into my novel, BOULEVARD. Does he read authentic? Does he need to read different than any other American detective I write? I first wrote the character as white, and then, mid-stream, I changed his ethnic background. Should I have reached back further, created a new character analysis to redefine his perspective on life, based on the different forces that have influenced his life as a black man in America? I did some of this on the fly, but was it enough? I wonder if I have a responsibility to do more.

When I was in college I wrote a screenplay about a nineteen-year old Navajo boy who took a trip through the Res, encountering other Navajo characters on his way to California. I did a huge amount of research for this story and, in the end, I think I captured the characters realistically. But maybe the work was overly sentimental. Maybe it was a white, Jewish, college kid’s idealized version of the world of the Navajo.

What does it take to see the world through the eyes of another? Does our best work come when we rely on our own experiences for authenticity? We’ve all heard that we should write what we know. So many great writers have written from their own childhood experiences and their work stands out because of it. But I’ve always thought that good research would fill the gap. If I research it, I experience it, and therefore I know it. And then if I write this “researched experience,” I’ll be writing what I know.

But is that enough? Can I possibly write from the perspective of a Navajo or African American or East Indian if all I’ve done is the research? Is there a part of me that’s afraid of the differences between them and me? And, if so, will I truly be able to represent their stories on the page? It makes me wonder if I’m capable of exposing our xenophobic world through my fiction, when my own point of view might be influenced by the xenophobia that surrounds me.

It makes me admire Jim Thompson all the more.

18 thoughts on “XENOPHOBIA

  1. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks, Mike! When I feel like I need some grounding, I re-read Jim Thompson. It's a good thing he wrote a lot of novels. That in itself is inspiring.

  2. Sarah W

    Okay . . . I've been thinking about this for a while . . .

    One of my characters is a gay, black man who can bench press a 1968 Chevy Nova and knows more about guns and hand-to-hand combat than I ever will.

    I self-identify as a cisgendered, hetero woman of primarily Caucasian descent and am usually automatically identified and treated as at least two out of four by strangers — I'm also more likely to sit on a bench than use it to lift something and until far too recently, guns were these dangerous, shiny things that went bang (sorry, Zoë).

    So there's much about this character's motivations and though-processes and personal stressors that I'm never going to fully understand, despite months of research and reading and bugging my friends.

    And both the story and the (for want of a better word) groups to which this character might belong deserve better than the same old tropes, tokens, and caricatures. I don’t want to put him in a well-worn box of ignorant, if well-meaning (ugh), assumptions and I'm trying to be very careful not to ignore what I shouldn’t. BUT . . . I'm also trying to be careful *not* to be too careful. The man is not a saint, after all.

    The thing that's keeping me going is our similarities. We've both lost people we've loved very much, who loved us back. We know what it's like to be lonely and in pain and very, very angry about it. Our choices (and our intentions) haven't always been the best.

    Plus, he has a sense of humor that verges on the inappropriate, likes veggie subs, has trouble bluffing on a poor poker hand, and doesn't care to be patronized. Ditto . . . except for the poker.

    I may be talking through my chapeau, here, but we're both people (even if one of us is imaginary) and we're both more and less than our various labels, whether we chose to stick them on ourselves or someone slapped 'em on us.

    And I'm thinking that no matter what I know or don't know, this common ground might at least be a good start?

    And that this was far too long a comment and possibly not entirely on topic? Sorry.

  3. Karen in Ohio

    My uncle's first wife (technically, my aunt, but not related) will not have anything to do with her grandson's wife and new baby because the wife is Japanese. And the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Never mind that Yuli is 24 years old.

  4. Allison Davis

    This blog connects to John Shannon's, and shedding light on those people don't talk about, in the ethnic neighborhoods of Los Angeles. But Stephen's blog and Sarah both raise the point, when are you patronizing someone else when writing about them, or when are you honoring who they are? I just read The Help while on vacation, aware that it was written from a white woman's point of view, and thus could not convey the edge that surely must have been there. Like the Secret Life of Bees, which I loved, it is real? I mentioned the Benjamin January books, written again by a white woman who writes murder mysteries from the point of view of an educated black man during slavery. My current work's protagonist is a Latina war veteran. Can we legitimately write from the point of view of another very unlike us and capture that sensibility? I think the answer is yes, empathy allows that, among other qualities, but isn't that where we are trying to get after all, is inside the other person's head so we can understand them?

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Sarah W – it sounds like you have a strong, convincing, real-life character on your hands. I think you've done everything possible to bring him to life. And I agree, ultimately the things you have in common with him, the things you bring out of yourself, will bridge the gap between fiction and reality, and you will find truth. I think you can put that character in any situation and whatever he says or does will be believable. You've done the work. Now trust your instincts.

    Karen – boy, I see this all the time. It seems especially true of the generation that fought in WWII, where good-and-evil was so carefully defined as us-against-them. It disturbs me when I see our government describing our political enemies as "evil," because, for the most part, the guys we fight in the field are just conscripted citizens who don't really want to be out there killing people. I'm not talking about the "holy war" guys, who are committed to destroying all Westerners. I'm talking about the kind of soldiers depicted in books like "All Quiet on the Western Front."

    Allison – yes, that's exactly what we're trying to do, get inside their heads so we can understand them. And I think we can understand anyone, providing we've done everything we can to see their situation from every side. I've read your Latina character and she reads true–it doesn't feel like a white woman's perception of what her life would be. It isn't patronizing, which could be the unintended consequence of someone writing about a culture not their own. I still wonder if I can truly, authentically, capture a character that did not experience a very similar upbringing to me. I think there are levels of psychology and sociology so subtle and so abundant that the character would not ring true, at the level that I would see if that character had been written by someone with the same cultural upbringing. I've certainly experienced that while trying to write Dutch characters for my current WIP. It is for this reason that I'm choosing to change the venue of the book from Amsterdam to Las Vegas. Because my characters are just not ringing true, in Dutch. I think they could get there, but I wouldn't feel comfortable with them unless I spent six months or more in Amsterdam getting to know the people and culture.

  6. Jenni L.

    Sarah W makes a great point, that we are all individual people in the end. Having grown up in various cultures around the world, that is the point I always come back to when I hear xenophobic comments or feel the subject of someone else's xenophobia. We are all similar under the skin. Most of the people of the world want the same things – a safe place to call home with at least basic water and food needs met, quality education for our children, a sense of community, and access to decent, meaningful work.

    I think if you are consciously thinking about this, your treatment of your characters will reflect the individualism you are striving for. Being aware of the differences and working to understand them can only add depth and texture to your writing.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Jenni – thanks, I agree. I think we as authors must accept this responsibility. We should strive to present fully-realized characters that move beyond cliche or stereotype. I don't say we always succeed, but we should shoot for that goal.

  8. David Corbett

    Hey, Jazzman, Coltrane gave us the best advice on such matters: When there is something you do not understand, you must go humbly to it.

    I'm not sure where imagination ends and compassion begins, but they're linked, because we cannot KNOW what another person goes through, we can only imagine. But trying is an act of compassion.

    Christ, who hasn't been in a long-term relationship, years of living together, only to have your honey sweetie babycakes say or do something that makes you go: Where the hell did THAT come from?

    You're imperfect. Deal with it.

    It's best not to neglect the sharp razor of reason when you go about it. Ask yourself: What if I'm wrong? Look at it a different way — is that possible? Likely? Don't keep your character in a race box. Don't trust your first impression — it's probably wrong — question it, peel back the layers of cliche and get at teh guilt, the shame, the fear, the love, the pride, the humor.

    One of my best black friends loves white rock&roll, reads science fiction, and rides a Harley. Oh, and he's gay. Woke me up quick to: Everything you think you know about black people, cracker, you've got wrong. And the fact he's my pal humbles me, reminds me what an idiot I can be, being risen in lily white Columbus, Ohio, as segregated a city as any I've seen, or it was when I grew up.

    The best antidote to having blinders is to make a friend like the character you hope to portray. Not always possible, but damn helpful when it is.

    Other than that, accept that we all get it wrong all the time and go humbly, but go. Write.

    P.S. I still don't forgive you fuckers for killing Jesus.

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen
    Interesting post, and I hope the rewrites are progressing well!

    Bias of all descriptions – the assumption that a particular person must hold certain attitudes or beliefs, or must/not have certain abilities or skills, purely based on age race or gender – never ceases to infuriate and amaze me.

    And I confess I'm intrigued by David's description of his Harley-riding friend. What did you imagine he was going to think/like/be interested in, that the reality surprised you so much?

  10. David Corbett

    I thought Joe would be into jazz.soul/R&B (he surprised me by loving "You're Gonna Miss Me" by the 13th Floor Elevators), be into sports, maybe read James Baldwin and Walter Mosley, and I had no clear idea what his ride would be, but a Harley just seems like such a whiteboy iron horse. And the gay black men I'd known were, well, more conspicuously gay. He wasn't closeted, he just didn't think it was anybody else's damn business unless he decided it was.

    Mind you, admitting all this makes me feel extremely sheepish, and I say it to reveal that I have prejudices I've had to overcome. If anyone else doesn't, please step up and save the world.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Davie – I'm with you, babe. Coming from Albuquerque I was a bit sheltered from the world, though probably not near as much as someone from Columbus. Although I've been to Columbus recently, and they're quite hip now. Lots of tattoo parlors and gay clubs and cafes. Of course, step two feet in any direction from downtown and it's back to the lily white of your youth.

  12. David Corbett

    Christ, you've got a campus of 50,000, you'd think there'd be some diversity finally. And there's a sizable African American population, with a tradition of great jazz and soul and R&B in various clubs around town. Rahsaan Roland Kirk played there till he died. But yeah, outside a couple of enclaves, it's Home of the Stepford Buckeye.

  13. KDJames

    Stephen, I remember this post but I'll be damned if I can remember what my response was to it at that time. Apologies if I repeat myself.

    I think you're worrying needlessly, even though it's appropriate and important to ask those questions. It sounds to me like you're asking how we can possibly know what it feels like to be treated differently because of what we look like or what we believe, if we are not a member of that "minority." But haven't we all been judged in that way? You have, for being Jewish. I've been trivialized and not taken seriously due to looks and gender. Is it really such a stretch to imagine how that type of treatment might feel to someone else? Is it so hard to extrapolate how we might feel if that judgment were to touch every aspect of our life, as it often does for minorities? And how do we define minority these days? Everyone other than white males? Living in the South, I've been in plenty of situations where *I* was the minority. In fact, every day, I go to work in a place where I am the only woman, the only person not "from" here.

    I do think it comes down to empathy. I'm not sure it's possible to be a writer without it. Well, not a very good one, anyway. I mean, how dare I write any character who is not exactly "me?" Never mind black men, but any men at all? People who are older than I am, richer or poorer than I am? People who live in places I've never seen? People who have been orphaned or who have never had children? People who are [gasp] not blonde? What a boring writer I'd be if all I had to draw from in my paintbox were monotones of me.

    I saw a tweet earlier (can't remember the context) that said something like we need writers to stand witness. And that's what we do. We observe. We empathize. We try to tell stories that ring true to us and that somehow make sense of the things we've seen. While being entertaining.

    Do we sometimes get it wrong? Hell yes. Might we see or hear something tomorrow that will change everything we'd believed was true? Of course. But it's fiction. If we screw up a character, it's not like we've created a real person who will hunt us down and murder us in our sleep for making them endure an entire lifetime as a caricature. It's just one story. There will be another. And another chance to get it a bit more right. All we can do is tell the truth as we know it at the moment we're making stuff up.

  14. KDJames

    Sigh. Re-reading that, it sounds like I'm saying it doesn't matter if we get it right. After all, it's just fiction. Which is not what I intended to say.

    I think the best way to get it right is to create characters who are more than just their appearance, who have things motivating them that go deeper than that. Like Sarah's guy. People who are bigger on the inside. And the best way to do that is to get to know people who are different from you. You want to write about a homeless person or a [fill in the blank] person, maybe go talk to a few of them first. And listen. Really listen.

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    KD – I'm with you all the way on that. Especially what you said there at the end. We have to listen, really listen, in order to get it right. To stand witness.

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