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.
What do you think, folks? Is this a universal writer’s struggle, or am I making more of it than I should? Should I just shut up and get back to work already?