Well, probably you don’t, but that’s why we should talk about it. I know I’ve mentioned it at some point, but for as long as The Mechanic has existed, the titular character was an African-American woman named Sasha. I recently decided to revise the book for Sasha to be a white woman with a new name.
I wanted Sasha to be an African American because it’s important that my fiction be representative of reality. Not all of us are cis-gender heterosexual white people, and neither is good literature. To me, Sasha has been black from the moment I first thought of her. Regrettably, it was only recently I stopped to ask myself why I’d imagined her this way.
Once I’d finished the first draft of The Mechanic I knew I would need people of color to read it and to pay attention to their feedback. I also knew that if I was lucky enough to ever be interviewed about this book, the conversation would include my decision to write a novel whose central character is black when I so clearly am not.
Before asking any person of color to read The Mechanic, I read So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo, which is great even if you’re not struggling to write characters of color. Oluo’s book gave me ideas for improving The Mechanic, and I felt confident about moving forward. Not long after that, I asked a person of color to read The Mechanic. I knew this person from school, was confident they would provide frank feedback, and I genuinely thought it was a story they’d enjoy. In my request, I included a synopsis and an offer to pay them a dollar per page for their time. They respectfully said no, expressing concern over “reading about rape and assault – especially violence against black bodies.”
My initial reaction was, “Don’t you want to see how I’ve handled this as an artist!?” which is the wrong response and thankfully remained unsaid. It wasn’t until my friend declined to read The Mechanic that I was honest with myself about why I’d written Sasha as an African American; she’s an inherently angry character, and I didn’t think readers would believe that level of anger in a white character. This is racist and plays on the stereotype of an angry black woman, for which there is no excuse.
Using race to render characters more believable is dangerously lazy. Once I realized this I knew I had to remove Sasha in favor of a white character. This will ultimately serve the story far better, forcing me to write effective characters regardless of race. The book will certainly be different, but it will also be much better.
I am still passionate about writing compelling characters of all races, and it was difficult to realize I’m not yet a strong enough writer to do so. Good intentions don’t mean shit if it leads to bad, offensive writing.
Sorry to get so heavy after last month’s whimsy, but my only other idea for this newsletter was to send an inflammatory email full of “would” statements, and then send a follow-up correcting all of them to “wouldn’t” statements. I’m not sure that’s any less depressing, to be honest.
To end on a cheerful note, here’s a song I really enjoy by Wild Pink, whose new record came out today.