I’m Indian. Can I Write Black Characters?
In retrospect, it seems incredible I didn’t anticipate the questions.
My seventh novel, “Everybody’s Son” — about an affluent white couple, their adopted black son, and his search for identity and reconciliation with his past — came to me in a flash of inspiration. I wrote the story in a white heat, in about four months.
So I was unprepared for what interviewers I spoke to about the book asked me: Why, and how, had I chosen to write from the perspective of an African-American protagonist? I hadn’t expected this line of inquiry to come up because, although race and racial identity are central preoccupations of the book, I saw Anton not just as a black character, but as a singular, distinctive character born of my imagination and efforts.
I soon realized I had been naïve. While I might define myself as an American writer, I grew up in India. That means, to many, I’ll always be an Indian-American writer, with all the freight that the hyphen carries.
The assumption by agents, editors and readers was that I would continue writing novels featuring Indian characters or set in India — as I did in my first six novels — even though I have not lived there for over 30 years.
But I’ve always thought about it this way: If men can write about women and science fiction writers can write about space aliens, surely I can write about someone from a different race. And I have spent my entire adult life in the United States. Why shouldn’t I write about that most American of topics — race and race relations?
The debate about whether writers should create worlds and characters based in cultures other than their own is an important one. At its core, pushback in this area serves as a corrective to centuries of colonialism, stereotypical portrayals and racist caricatures. But I worry about how we balance pertinent questions about appropriation with the creative freedom to push boundaries and take risks that are essential to good writing.
To add another wrinkle to this debate, I have never been asked about the appropriateness of creating white American characters, as I did in an earlier novel, “The Weight of Heaven.” Of course, this probably has to do with our country’s ignoble history of racism and racist stereotypes, especially about African-Americans. There’s justifiably less concern about misrepresentation of white Americans.
In my career, the skeptical questions about my decision to write black characters have been balanced by the emails I’ve received from black women. Another novel, “The Story Hour,” is about the friendship between an African-American therapist and an Indian immigrant. The therapist, Maggie, is a well-adjusted professional in a loving marriage. Black women wrote to thank me for this. Often I had tears in my eyes when I read their notes. How low is the bar, how badly do we portray black women in this country, I’d think, that readers feel compelled to thank me for a single fair fictional depiction?
The black woman who is my protagonist’s birth mother in “Everybody’s Son” is very different. She’s addicted to crack and leaves her son locked up in a hot apartment while she goes searching for drugs. If that is all that you know about the book, you’d think that this Indian-American writer was indulging in poisonous stereotypes about black women. But there is also the white father, who epitomizes white privilege and uses his power to get what he wants. In fact, one of the things I wanted to explore is the limits of white liberal piety.
Literature is about empathy. If I have done my job well, the reader will understand the forces working against my protagonist’s mother and how, despite her one terrible mistake, she is still the person her son believes her to be — a good parent.
I operate in an industry where I have been told to my face that a publishing house won’t look at my book because they “already have an Indian-American writer.” I have made my peace with the fact that I have to defer to the publisher’s expertise about the realities of the marketplace. But to limit myself to write books only about India is to condemn me to tell the same stories. And that kind of pigeonholing is a creative death.
So, I will continue to tell the stories that I am called upon to tell. I know I’ll spend many more interviews explaining the characters I create, and that this tension contains its own revealing, dramatic and painful story about our culture and history.
The New York Times
September 14, 2017