Thursday, November 14, 2013

BEYOND Fiction: CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler...and the Issue of Race in Works by White Writers

I stayed up late last night to finish Julie Kibler’s intricately plotted debut novel, Calling Me Home. On one level, Calling Me Home (due out in paperback in January) tells the story of an elderly white woman who asks her black hair stylist and friend to drive her to a funeral in another state. During the lengthy road trip the main character’s full story is revealed via chapters that bring the reader back to the racism of the early 1940s. Chapters based in the present, meanwhile, reveal struggles the friend faces as a contemporary single mother, as well as incidents that occur as the unlikely pair travel through a series of Southern states.

While the back-and-forth nature of Calling Me Home immediately brought to mind a recent book that jumped from the 1930s to the 1970s and back again—Melanie Benjamin’s bestselling historical novel about the Lindberghs, The Aviator’s Wife, due out in paperback later this month—the fact that Julie Kibler, a white writer, had opted to tackle racism in her fiction reminded me of Susan Straight and her stunning novel, A Million Nightingales. The richly told story of a young slave and all she endures on and beyond a plantation in early 19th-century Louisiana, A Million Nightingales is just one of many books Susan Straight has written that not only feature characters of color but address issues of race head on.

In September 2012 on, journalist and author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, Tanner Colby asked the question: Can a White Author Write Black Characters? A white writer who specializes in writing about race, Tanner Colby examined at length the challenges faced by white authors such as Michael Chabon, whose Telegraph Avenue features a cast of black characters, and the long tradition of white writers bringing to life non-white characters. Such a history includes the likes of Melville, Stowe, Twain, Faulkner, and Harper Lee, he noted, though I would have also added Shirley Ann Grau, especially due to her 1964 classic The Keepers of the House.

Uproar in the late ’60s against the publication of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner seemed to put a hold on this practice. Apparently efforts to promote political correctness lasting into the 1990s discouraged many white authors from even considering entering such an emotionally charged arena as race. Luckily, some white writers insisted on doing just that. While Tanner Colby mentioned Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities as one example, I thought of Because it is Bitter and Because it is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates. Such titles remained few and far between for a while. At the same time, though, books by women featuring male protagonists (some of my favorites: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Lois Lowry’s The Giver,) and books by men featuring female protagonists (some of my favorites: William Haywood Henderson’s Augusta Locke, Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web) hardly raised eyebrows when they were published.

As Tanner Colby explained so well: “By the early 1990s, the idea of cultural ownership had metastasized into a fully articulated code of conduct [effectively, among other things] apportioning the right to tell certain stories to certain people.” But, Colby added, this “pushback of cultural ownership went too far. If you convince white people that they’re not qualified to tackle race, if you scare them away from the issue, if you give them the slightest excuse to ignore it, they will be more than happy to ignore it. For as long as you’ll let them.”

I find it encouraging to see on the market highly successful, internationally published titles such as Calling Me Home and A Million Nightingales by white writers willing to explore the many complex aspects of race, but I hope this is just the beginning. Ultimately all writers should feel free to write about characters of all backgrounds and issues of all types. As a writer and a reader, I consider this to be the job of a writer: to strive to reveal the truths that fuel our world, and our best stories, regardless of where they reside.


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