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?
Of course it’s a universal struggle, whether you’re a writer or not. I’m a white woman, married to a black man. We have a son. We are fortunate to live in a community that is multi-racial, multi-cultural, and mostly accepting of each other, but I am aware that there are parts of the world where my family would not "fit in."
When I’m writing, I write my world and I worry about capturing the spirit of the neighborhood. Is my Hispanic nurse a cliche? What about the young black woman at the homeless shelter – did I capture her voice? And, even though I’m white, the white guy being interviewed by the police is a thug – did I go too far with him?
Quite frankly, I’ve never described my protagonist’s boyfriend, Skip, in great detail, mostly because when I’m reading a novel with a romantic lead and they’re not described the way I picture them in my head, I’m disappointed. So my readers know Skip is tall and has short hair. They can put any face on him they want. But in my head, he’s Denzel Washington.
this is an issue I struggle with too. Although I’m Asian-American, I write mostly about white characters. I think I can get away with this partly because I grew up so immersed in the majority culture, watching American TV and living in mostly white communities, that I feel comfortable writing about them. But any time I write in a less familiar voice — say, a Russian girl or an African American man — I question every thought that character thinks, every word s/he speaks, and I worry that I’m being presumptuous to even think I could adopt their point of view.
On the other hand, even when you do write from "your" ethnic point of view, you will get criticized. I remember how Amy Tan got blasted by other Asian Americans because she didn’t portray her ethnic group the way she "should" have. Whatever that is.
We face the same challenge when we write from a different gender or a different age or economic group. Do I really know how a teenage boy sees the world? Perhaps the gap between male and female is even wider than the gap between races.
The fact that you’re even bothering to ask these questions is proof of your quality as a writer. Many authors are too self-absorbed to consider the possibility that they may have just botched their depiction of a character different from themselves. It’s all fiction anyway, right? Anyone offended by their take on a black/Jewish/female/whatever character needs to get a life
You, on the other hand, give a rat’s a*s about portraying people accurately, and for that I must commend you.
While I’ve never been a big believer in the "write what you know" school of thought, I have come to realize that our life experiences do make for more authentic writing simply because a) there’s no guesswork or research involved; and b) because no one can accuse you of getting something "wrong." You lived it, it happened, and the validity of YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON IT can’t be questioned.
But when you have to step outside of your own personal experience to create a character substantially different from yourself, what would really help would be to have friends of that particular persuasion to use as a model. "But wait," I hear some in our audience say. "I don’t have any (ENTER MINORITY GROUP NAME HERE) friends."
To which I reply, "Hmmmm. Maybe THAT’S the real problem…"
This is one of the biggest things I think about . . . daily. It’s why I studied all the languages I did — and lived twice in another country. I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re all unique cultures unto ourselves. Every time we write, talk or try to communicate with each other it’s cross-cultural communication.
What a thoughtful post, Stephen. Yes, research can help, especially research done with a writer’s eye and ear and heart. But I’m not sure it’s ever enough. I can write from the point of view of a French woman, but if I haven’t had her upbringing … been raised with her nursery rhymes … tasted Parisian butter … will it be done well?
What wonderful, thought-provoking comments we’re getting today! I love this.
Gayle – you have a unique perspective, with your marriage and the community in which you live. I bet your writing oozes authenticity. I could only get that kind of material from interviewing people like you, or maybe living in a household like yours for a number of weeks. And that would just give me an inkling of what you experience organically.
Tess – I remember the flak about Amy Tan. Her book definitely opened a dialogue on the Chinese-American experience, in all its many different forms. And I couldn’t agree more about the challenge of writing a teenage voice. I’ve got a teenage girl in my second book and I struggled with finding her "voice." I doubt I really captured it.
Gar Anthony – thank you for the wonderful compliments. I tried something new with Book Two – I intentionally thought about real people I knew in an effort to influence my characters. I use character traits from about six San Francisco police officers to create the four principal characters in the book (besides my protagonist). I feel that these characters read real now, from the process.
Pari – what languages do you know? That’s a great goal of mine, to learn a few languages. I have a friend reading Boulevard in Italian presently, and then he will read it in English to let me know how the translation went. I’m fascinated by the process. For a long time I held out on reading Dante’s Inferno because I wanted to read it in the original Italian. Yeah, right.
Louise – I think if you eat a week’s worth of croissants it’ll do the trick.
I totally beat myself up over this, too – the characters I DON’T write because I’m afraid I won’t get it right, and the characters I DO write I always feel as Tess said that I’m being presumptuous.
And writing from the POV of a man, good grief! But then I’m thinking, there’s the readership perspective, too. Fiction is fantasy, after all, and if mainly women are reading something, then maybe they’d prefer my fantasy of a man. I myself often prefer a woman’s POV of things in fiction.
The fact is, we’re never portraying the truth. It’s always our own POV. Most writers I know strive for universality of mind, and that constant striving makes things a little more balanced, but truth? Forget it.
Great post, great discussion.
(And maybe your almost-girlfriend wasn’t speaking from a Christian perspective when she realized you weren’t going to heaven…)
Stephen, I really identify with this post, for a couple of reasons. I have a black character and now a gay character. I’m obviously neither of those. I’m finding it much easier to write the gay character, because the basic experience base is similar to my upbringing. I want to get deeper into my black character’s world, but I always wonder if I’m getting it right, and tend to pull back.
On a more immediate level, this morning, I helped an old lady get into her car in a parking lot. It was raining, and she had no umbrella, so I stood over her and helped while she got her walker into the car and got settled. She was very appreciative of the help, and I was happy to have been there at the right moment (especially since I was running late for my appt). I was about to shut her door and I said Merry Christmas. Her face fell, and she said, "Well, no." And I felt terrible, because I felt like I offended her. So I wished her Happy Holidays, shut her door and went on my way. What should have been a really warm fuzzy situation ended up in embarrassment. This time of year is always so hard because I never know who celebrates what, and it’s terribly awkward. When I say Merry Christmas, it’s a reflection of the warmth, joy and love of the season rather than a religious statement, but that’s kind of hard to tattoo on the forehead, if you know what I mean.
What blows my mind is that there’s still so much intolerance out there for people who are different from you. It drives me nuts. I don’t care if you’re black, white, green or yellow, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Atheist – I look inside to see if you’re a decent, hardworking, kind person. That’s what matters to me. I wish that were a more universal feeling.
On a totally separate note, it’s so nice to see Gar Haywood floating around Murderati lately!
Ah, Alex, so you’re saying she knew me too well…
JT – my second book takes place in San Francisco, so of course I’m including gay characters. I feel I’ve drawn a pretty complete picture, representing some of the different attitudes and lifestyles that exist, while keeping each character unique and real. In some ways I wanted to make up for the fact that Hayden Glass was a bit homophobic in Boulevard. His feelings go back to a particular moment, and a particular issue.
Alex – it’s so funny, I have to go through a paradigm shift whenever I read a novel with a female protagonist. Right now I’m reading Rebecca Cantrell’s "A Trace of Smoke" (fantastic book, by the way) and I’m shifting my brain from the tough private eye I just read in Sean Chercover’s book to the female reporter in Rebecca’s 1930s German drama. It’s a good thing for me to do.
Okay, Stephen . . . since you asked
I studied, but don’t claim total fluency in Cantonese, Beijing dialect, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Sign Language (ASL) and a tad of Hebrew. I do claim relative fluency in French still.
Holy schmoley, Pari.
I took six years of Spanish and learned nearly nothing. I do claim to know the proper pronunciation of the word "croissant," however. Cwa-son’. I go into the corner bakery and say, "Hey there, lil’ lady, can ya gimee one of them CWA-SONS, por favor?" It drives my kids mad.
…and, yes, I know that’s French, and not Spanish…
As a reader I appreciate the struggle you are putting yourself through to deliver a book that rings true to you. I imagine that each character would form through each author’s unique filter…just as we view people through our own unique filter off page.
Growing up in Australia through the 70s the coastal town I lived in was largely descendants of English/Irish immigrants. At that time no one mentioned if your ancestors were convicts. Very few people were open about indigneous ancestors. I think at my highschool there were two families of indigneous Australians and one family that were descendants of people taken from the islands to work in the fields between 1800’s up to Federation in 1901. (That practice was called ‘Blackbirding’)Not a proud time.
I remember feeling awful at about 15 when my friend, a guy I’d spent almost all year with, swimming and laughing, asked me out. Trying to struggle with saying, the I think you’re a lovely guy speech. And he asked me if it was because he was Aboriginal and I remember saying no. As genuinely as I could, I said no…and that truly wasn’t the reason.I’d had the most intense crush on his elder brother all summer and couldn’t stand going out with John and feeling so much for his brother. It all heightened that teenage emotional fumbling to a new height.
I’m not sure if I wrote some similar character interaction in a fictional sense without it feeling clunky. That has more to do with my lack of writing muscle though. To me if the writer is skilled and fluent enough characters ring true regardless of ethnic background, or life experience. To the best of my knowledge none of you authors are sociopaths, yet your characters still feel real.
I think as long as the characters ring true within the context of the story, it keeps them unique to that time, that place, that author.
I should mention that the southern cities in Australia were much more diverse at the time. Even the town where I grew up from the 80s onwards had a much more diverse mix of people. Attitudes to difference have changed hugely.
This is addressing JT’s comments. I’m sorry your moment with the old lady didn’t end with the warm fuzzies. However, to be devil’s advocate and to show another perspective — Christian’s don’t have a monopoly over December. It’s also Hannukah and Yuletide and Kwaanza, and sometimes even one of the Muslim Eids fall in the month. So when I hear people getting upset (not you, but others around town) that they weren’t greeted with Merry Christmas or their greeting wasn’t reciprocated, I feel like saying really "Happy Holidays" is not offensive, it’s just more inclusive.
Sorry, couldn’t help adding my two cents.
Stephen, I struggle with this too, every step. As a white person with black family and black friends, I have access to their thoughts and perceptions, but it never really feels like "enough." I am married with two sons and run a construction company, but men still constantly surprise me at the depth and breadth of their thoughtfulness and feelings, because I was "taught" at an early age that boys didn’t care about such things. I think there’s always going to be a chasm between the "I" and the "other" and that’s one of the main reasons we read–to follow other people into their worlds.
I particularly struggled with this with Ce Ce in my books, because she’s black, a business-owner, with her own sense of humor and manner of sort of running roughshod over problems until she’s cowed them into submission. I love Ce Ce. Love her like a very best friend, and I wanted to be sure I got her "right" — and I fretted over that for the longest time. Then one day I realized something: I did love Ce Ce. She didn’t have to be representative of all black people and all black experiences because there is no such person and to try to accomplish that was the very act of creating a stereotype. All Ce Ce had to be was Ce Ce. She had to be true to her own upbringing, her own world, her own opinions and POV. She had to have her own flaws, and her own graces, just the same as any other character. I’ve gotten so many fan letters for her, people asking if she was going to one day have her own book, her own story.
I interviewed people, read biographies, read up on newspaper articles of the times she was growing up, and found a balance. Since I was writing humor and she’s a secondary character, I didn’t get to go into too much of that nuance and detail, but I think it came through that I knew her and loved her. That, ultimately, is all any of us can do for any character, male of female, who didn’t grow up identically to the way we did.
Another thought provoking blog post. Thank you.
Catherine – I think your personal story about the boy whose brother you liked would make a wonderful moment in a novel, short story or film. It jumped right out at me – I could SEE it. It’s almost Shakespearean.
And what a rich backdrop from which to write. Remote Australia, 1970s. I had never heard of Blackbirding – sounds like something out of a Dickens novel.
JT – What a lovely thing to say. Thanks.
Toni – You nailed it. Fiction is a test with no right answer. Your only obligation as an author is to make an honest effort to avoid creating a cartoon rather than a character.
Toni – I think you nailed it for me when you said that you love your character. I noticed that I really like the characters I’m writing, I’m seeing them as real people instead of plot-movers. I want to hang around with them. Just from the way you describe Ce Ce here, in your comments, I can sense her authenticity.
"She didn’t have to be representative of all black people and all black experiences because there is no such person and to try to accomplish that was the very act of creating a stereotype. All Ce Ce had to be was Ce Ce." – Point very well taken.
I’m white. My main characters are white. Except I have two secondary characters who are not. One is black, another is Asian, and I am terrified about how to get that across.
I’m trying not to play into stereotypes. The Asian boy loves to juggle, the black boy is an inventor. They’re both just teen boys, is what I was trying to get across, even though one has an accent. But as I struggled, and tried to wonder how much was stereotyped and what wasn’t, I remembered something else:
Mainly, that I’m female, and that of the three main characters two were male. Why wasn’t I worrying so much about writing male VS female? I tried to tell myself it’s because I know a lot of boys, and don’t know so many minorities. But another main character I write is a little kid, and my writing group says his voice is incredibly realistic for a little kid; and unlike me, most of them have experience with little kids.
I am never going to think I can do different races accurately enough, and I will never be afraid to double-check some fact or thought about them. But I think research and imagination can work out okay sometimes.
I was going to say what Toni said, but she said it better.
I will say this: People are different. Race and religion are just two of the things that differentiate us from each other. Honestly, I’m not convinced they’re the most significant things. The Jewish friends of my parents (in MN) were very different from the Jewish people I knew in south FL. The Southerners (white and black) I knew in Atlanta were very different from the Southerners (again, white and black) I know in NC.
Two of my co-workers are black males about the same age and do the same job and both were born and raised here — they’re very different people. Two co-workers are white males, same job, same background, very different people. All four are men — one is always pessimistic, another is always laughing and joking, another one you’re lucky if he says more than two words at a time and the fourth just. won’t. stop. talking. — all day long.
You have to do your best to understand all the different aspects that make up your characters. ALL of them. I think a huge part of that is being able to listen, to your characters and to the people around you. And then you hope you do a good enough job of showing those things to the reader in such a way that the characters ring true.
You’re thinking about it, that’s very good.
I grew up in a part of upstate New York that was so white that if people went outside naked in the winter, you’d lose them. I cringe at some of the things I said out of stupidity.
It seems hard to ask people what it’s like though. I hesitate to talk to people at work about what it’s like to be black, or gay, or Jewish, or Islamic. It’s cowardice, I’ll admit, because if you ask the wrong person the wrong question, it’s tough to recover from.
The one time I did get to talk to someone about what it’s like to be black, I worked so hard at phrasing things to not be offensive, I offended her. I guess if you wanted to do research on what it’s like to be a putz, I’m your guy.
Maybe that’s part of being a writer I need to work on. I’d like to know these things. I’m a white, Christian, heterosexual male. I don’t know what it’s like to look everywhere and not see people like me.
By the way, thanks, Stephen, for this wonderful post.
Thank you, Chris. Don’t worry, I’ve been a putz a number of times myself. I think if you’re sincere about your desire to learn about people, they see past that. Most people want to help others understand what their lives are like. And, if they know that they might see their efforts in your novel, they might be even more accommodating. And understanding of the awkward position it puts you in.
Great post! I think most of us should struggle with this. If we don’t struggle, is it because we’re oblivious? Or naive? Or something worse? The mental struggle alone probably makes our writing more in tune with reality. I hope.
So far, the mcs in my writing match my ethnic background, but many of the minor characters come from other backgrounds. I’m a bit lucky in my life in this department. Three of my best friends growing up were from different cultures than mine. I learned a lot about these cultures from them. As a teacher, I’m exposed to a lot of cultures as well. Currently I have kids from 7 different cultural groups in my class. So, I’m fairly comfortable I’m writing from non-stereotype perspectives, but I still wonder. Still worry.