Books, Writing

Common or Uncommon Ground: writing your own or different cultures and ethnicities through time.


To follow on from my discussions of age and gendered writing, I got to thinking about how writers of different races, cultures and ethnicities write, how they represent their cultures, races and ethnicities and how they are thought to do this or what they are supposedly expected to be able to do in terms of this.


I will say now that I do not intend to offend anyone, but apologise if I do.  I only intend to put forward my musings on this topic, not to upset or enforce a view.


In my varied reading of authors from around the world, it has become clear that not every author will write a character who is not from the same cultural, ethnic or racial group as them.  Quite an obvious observation, yes, but have we come to expect that white authors will write mainly white protagonists or that English authors will write mainly English protagonists, and to go a step further and include gender, that female authors will only write female protagonists and vice versa for male authors when it comes to novels more than biographical works or other non fiction works? My question is not does race have a place in literature because of course there will be characters from all nations, races, ethnicities and cultures within the books we read, but rather – and to restate this – does the background of an author in relation to race, culture and even how and where they are raised have an impact on the kinds of characters that they write?


Yes, there are many examples where this is true, perhaps too many to list that rely on certain types of characters filling a role. One example might be E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and how the native Indians are viewed by the English colonists and tourists as beneath them and how an English woman or person could never be guilty of leading on or provoking a person who at the time, would have been called a savage or native in a derogatory way. Note: at the time. To me, this is the crux of the issue. Looking at when, where and by whom the book is written and the cultural, social and environmental factors that contributed to their worldview.  This is an important part of literary thought for me: considering the author behind the text, rather than just the words on the page that might offend a few people and therefore be deemed “inappropriate” for all. I ask you this: if you were to take every “questionable” book from times when racist ideas were prevalent at different times in history, and change these books so that they did not offend by removing offensive language and not allowing these ideas to be discussed, how would future authors develop a sense of knowing their own worldview when they consider what has happened in the past?


Because if we do this, we lose out on a rich history of how the world and ideologies of discrimination and how we see ourselves have developed. But I digress a little. Yes, the majority of books that we can obtain and read usually have a main character the same gender, race, and cultural background as the author. This is okay. If an author sees this as working, then they can do it. However, I have read books by female authors with male protagonists, such as Harry Potter, though it was set in the same country and with a protagonist the same race as the author, the differentiation of gender proves that a woman can write a male character effectively in a primary role. To take this one step further, I introduce Scottish author Alexander McCall-Smith, author of many series. His initial series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, not only has a female character but also is set in Botswana, with a black protagonist, Mma Precious Ramotswe. This is something I love, not because of what he has done but because it is set in Africa, and because I feel at home in these books. My point in including this that a white male doesn’t have to write a white male living his in own nation to be a wonderful and popular and widely read author. I realise these books are recent examples from the last twenty years but perhaps when these books came out, and in McCall’s case, I think are still being written, perhaps the time was right for these daring feats of literature. And I am glad they were published. I’m glad we have examples like this to look to and say, “It can be done. I don’t have to be a part of that group by birth to write about them.” All it takes is a little research and understanding of differences. Is that not why adults are able to write for children? We have an understanding of them and can on many levels relate to them.


Undoubtedly it has taken decades, perhaps even centuries of literature to come to an understanding of each other in this way. I suppose we could trace misunderstandings of different cultural groups back to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Despite the Greek states having similar religion and ethnicity, they still fought each other. If prejudice is to be combatted perhaps literature is the place to do it, and showing that authors of all nationalities and cultures can write about different groups of people from a variety of nations positively, then progress could be made towards a world free of prejudicial thoughts. Yet also understanding literature written for the audience of the time it was written in was key to see where things can be changed and improved upon. I fully support an endeavour like this and hope one day that I can do it in nice way. 

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