Last night I had the pleasure of attending a Q&A with Janet Mock. Mock is beautiful, eloquent, and gracious while discussing her life growing up mixed-race and trans in America. But this post isn’t about Mock, exactly. It’s about one thing that she said that struck me as a fiction writer. The experiences Mock details in her memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood she notes (with exclamation points in her voice) that though these are experiences that many trans youth face, these are not the only experiences, and hers are just some of several stories that could be told. Of note, Mock is the first trans woman of color to write a bestselling memoir, so in many ways it is easy to see how her story would be held up as the story. But it’s not. It can’t be, because life is much more nuanced than that.
This led me to fiction. I just finished Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, a fascinating novel that I encourage everyone to read. It won the NBA, so I don’t think you need too much convincing here. What most drew me to the text was what actually makes up the story: the larger story is in itself several smaller stories from the lives of people living in New York City at the time of the man who tight-rope walked between the Twin Towers. We hear from an Irishmen who has just moved to NYC to stay with his older brother, a man who has devoted himself to the Brotherhood and also made it his mission to help the several young women working in the sex trade in downtown Harlem. We hear from one of those workers, a black woman in her thirties. We hear from an Upper East Side woman who lost her son in the war, and from her husband, a county judge. We learn the story of a couple tangentially connected to the Irishman’s brother and another young prostitute. We hear from an older black woman living in Harlem whose three sons have also all died in the war. We see the tightrope walker doing his dance between the towers through the pedestrians who answer the payphone call of computer hackers in California. We hear from the grown up daughter of one the young prostitutes. Finally, we’re offered the perspective of the man who crossed the tightrope. All of these stories bump up against each other in one way or another, but are held together by the understanding that we are being offered a glimpse into the lives of people, many people, from various backgrounds and with various stories, while the news is of the man walking between the Towers.
In my own in-progress novel, I am doing something similar in telling the stories of three women, friends from the time they are young, all from Philadelphia. As these women grow up, we follow them through their own journeys as told to us by them and by others in their lives. We also learn of other characters related to these three, and how the stories of these characters affect the three women. The characters do not all look like me or sound like me, nor do they have the same story as me. They are white, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, straight, gay, old, young, sick, healthy, financially stable and not. One story, that of one of the main character’s brother, tells the story during a time when she self-identifies as a woman when in drag. This is based on the experiences I’ve had with a group of wonderful gay men during a stint as the only female bartender at an all-male gay club in Pittsburgh.
I’ve been told by some that this is not okay. That I cannot create stories around people of color, or gay men and women. That the stories I create would be viewed as the only story, and that it is not my place to be the voice of that story. Ben Lerner said something similar in an interview, when asked about his self-reflective (note: not self-indulgent, as the interviewer points out) nature of his story: “For me what’s really self-indulgent are the novelists, some white guy whose like ‘I’m going to write this book from the perspective of a six year-old Afghan girl,’ you know? That to me seems really self-indulgent compared to the idea of saying ‘I’m really going to inhabit the contradictions and possibilities of my position in the world.’ Even if the work is a work of fiction it’s a work that acknowledges and responds to those pressures.”
Which, okay, I can agree with, if we’re speaking pejoratively of “some white guy” writing the perspective of “a six-year-old Afghan girl.” I dare to say there are spaces to inhabit in between these extremes, and I think, as writers, as artists, we should be given some credit for exploring these spaces. I for one do not need to sit and think about the way I do every minuscule thing in life, the way I sleep, the way I eat, the things I buy, the way I present myself in the world, the reflective self-criticism I offer. I’d rather explore what I see in myself as very commonplace human things in the fictitious people I create, not all of them who are an exact representation of me.
If this were the case, that my fictional accounts of characters were considered the only story, I would whole-heartedly agree. I should not be the voice of the stories of a collective of people. (Um, no one should!) But just like Janet Mock would never prescribe her story to that of every trans person in America, the fiction stories I am creating (and let’s remember, these are fiction, this is a creation) could never be the stories of every young Puerto Rican woman, or a black male, or a mixed-race girl, or a gay cross-dressing man, or, to that end, an older, homeless white woman. In the same way, the stories of the white characters in my story are not the stories of every white person ever.
McCann couldn’t tell the stories of New Yorkers in the 1970s and have them all come from white male perspectives of the type with whom he identifies. Just as it would be an injustice for me to tell the stories of women growing up in a North Philadelphia neighborhood beginning at the end of the Eighties and have only white characters. That’s not a representation of Philadelphia then, nor is it now.
For clarity, I self-identify as a mostly straight, white feminist female. The characters in my story whose voices are most prominently heard are females, because when embarking on this journey my only truth was to tell the stories of women at all different age levels, from all different economic and racial backgrounds who have several different stories to tell. The stories I’m creating are certainly not the only stories, nor would I expect them to be read that way. These are characters who support a larger narrative and an overriding theme: that, at the heart of it, no matter our backgrounds, life tends to throw us all the same shit, and we’re all searching for the same familial comforts in life. Basically, we just want to get by, like everyone else.
But this isn’t to say we, as writers, do not have a responsibility. We cannot create characters who do not look like us, act like us, or talk like us, and turn them into some representation of a stereotype we heard along the way. We have the opportunity to create a new narrative, a humanizing one, and we need to be respectful of that ability and not take it for granted. We also need to be aware of the truth that the books being published and reviewed are still, in 2015, mostly those of white males, and second are white females, despite a growing mixed, largely female readership. As we continue on our writing journeys, we need to remember to write truthful stories but also fight for the space for all authorial voices to be heard. As Joan says, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Through the stories all of us create, may we find the truth at the center of it all: we’re all human.
Favorite lines from Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin
“She recognized the need for her mother to have been in love at least once.”
“Claire smiled and shrugged her shoulders. I could tell she wanted him to be someone better than what he was, that she must have married him for some good reason, and she wanted that reason to be on display, but it wasn’t, and he had dismissed me, and it was the last thing she wanted from him. Her cheeks were red.”
“Everything falls into the hands of music eventually. The only thing that ever rescued me was listening to a big voice. There are years accumulated in a sound.”