“Are your characters white?”
I looked up at my good friend who had just posed the question and who had just read one of my stories. “Why do you ask?” I replied.
“Well, they seem white. How they speak, how they seem. I was just curious.”
I explained that I rarely thought about race in my fiction; it was why characters in my stories had brown hair or brown eyes, which anyone can have. As far as their speech, my characters were me, and spoke like me. So…
Backstory #1: I was born in West Africa, where I primarily spoke English (with a mix of Twi; I like to call it Twinglish), which obviously didn’t change when I moved to the States at the age of 8. I never had an accent. Growing up, I heard more than once that I spoke “like a white girl”, which saddened me. It was sad that perceived articulation in speech was tied to race and not simply cadence. But that’s entirely another post, which we shall discuss. Anyway, fast forward to my fiction: apparently, my characters’ diction and dialogue also shared my history with speech.
Backstory #2: in the beginning, not describing race in my fiction was actually never a concrete choice I made. I just never thought about it. When I was young and hiding in library stacks and far away from recess, the books I read certainly weren’t about girls that looked like me. Sure, many of the stories I loved provided an emotional mirror; I devoured stories about girls who weren’t popular, were lonely, sarcastic and smart, so on. But physically? No, there were very, very few tales about brown girls. Nevertheless, for me, a story was a story. When I began writing, I barely considered the physical attributes of the characters I wrote about. I was more interested in their stories. As I grew as a writer, and as a person, however, I consciously avoided describing physical attributes. The reason was the same: focus on the story, not what they look like. Me as a reader, me as a writer. I wanted my reader to share my interest in the story.
But time goes by. We grow, we evolve. And I had a writer’s epiphany one day, y’all: why wasn’t I remembering that race and ethnicity were part of these people’s worlds that I was creating? Because those things were certainly a part of mine. Which led to my next thought: why wasn’t I writing more about “what I knew”? Yes, my previous characters and creations were borne from me, but I was now nursing a new hunger to see a lot of my personal worldview in my own written fiction. Because before that, story was it and solely it. Plot, structure, etc. But now, I wanted more from myself as both a writer and subsequently, as a reader. A new mirror.
Following the epiphany, I wrote a short story about a Ghanaian woman raised in Accra, now living abroad, and her struggle with the knowledge that a potential friend she met was bleaching her skin. It was the most personal story I’d ever written. I mined my own worldview; my background, my native language, my own feelings about skin color and race. I was so proud of that story because, for the first time, the very first time, something I wrote felt authentically mine. Before, I was writing like that 9 year-old reader. Plot-driven, only narrative-focused. With that short story, I felt like I was writing like myself.
Back to the conversation with my friend: at that time, my response was what you read above and we moved on. I was slightly perplexed by the “how they speak” bit, but I’d long learned that the interpretation of my work belongs to the reader, whatever it may be. These days, I write what I feel, about people I’ve been, am, and know, and they speak however I want them to speak. One of my favorite authors, Chimamanda Adichie, said it best at a reading: as a writer, write for yourself first. Happy to say that I fully am.
Second to that, my highest hope is that a fellow brown woman finds her mirror in me.