An Interview in Black and White
Everything in this article is important. The questions and answers make up a dance between a white author interviewing an author of color. The discussion is privilege in publishing. What is asked and how answers are interpreted are as interesting as the answers themselves.
I was particularly caught by this exchange:
Daniel José Older’s urban fantasy novel Half-Resurrection Blues has been called “Noir for the Now.”
You write, “Many of our gifts and challenges won’t be seen or recognized within a white cultural context. Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation – these are all layers of the non-white experience that rarely make it into mainstream literature, even when the characters look like us.”
I thought of this in connection with your urban fantasy novel Half-Resurrection Blues. It’s certainly working within the genre of ghost and paranormal thrillers. But there were moments when the fact that it was written by a writer who wasn’t white—and that it was about characters who weren’t white—was very clear. And those moments were great, at least to my mind, because they elevated the book above other similar books. Other books have cool monsters and cool worlds of the dead, but they don’t always comment on society. Did you set out to write a book about, as you say, “Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation”? Or is this simply an essential part of your work?
Daniel José Older
It feels natural to do it. It’s also what I know to be true. Write what’s true and then try to say something. Ultimately, it’s about asking books to multitask. You’ve got this entire book, and you can do a lot of things in it. When a book demands a lot from you, it asks you to step up to its level.
Blackness is part of who I am. I can neither put it on nor take it off.
What does that mean?
It means that all my experiences and responses to this world are shaped by my “race”, the history of the black race in this country, and the attitudes of the dominant culture about other “races” as well.
I am no more free of that, than any white person is free of white privilege (those rights issued by virtue of belonging to a group, which maintains dominance through exclusion and a white supremacist structure).
It means that I am also impacted by the pecking order in which white privilege is conferred on other people of color. Asians, though they face discrimination, do not do so at the same level as African Americans, Native Americans, and Latino’s.
A Vietnamese Professor and author wrote about a conversation he had on race with his family members. During that brief talk, African Americans were deemed unacceptable by elder members of the group. But it was the kids who named the problem facing African Americans in this country best, with this simple statement: “At least I’m not black.”
Interpreted – this says it all: I may experience racism, but never at the level that black people do. Further, I am glad not to be black as that affords me a level of comfort in this society that is superior to that afforded to black people, and I enjoy this position. Lastly, I will likely engage in anti-black racism as that helps me fit into the dominant society and helps to amplify that I am closer to white people than I am to black people. Distance is paramount.
The importance of this to our society is evident. The importance of this for writers, editors, and publishers is that white writers have no way of authentically capturing what it means to be black 100% of the time. Gifted authors may approximate a character in a specific set of circumstances, but the more they draw on that character the less authentic their responses will become. Fatigue will set in, confusion, unknown differences in the use of adaptations that black people have engaged in from their toddler years. You cannot fake that. You cannot create that. You can only approximate that.
For publishers this is enough, but for readers of color, it is increasingly dissatisfying. We read white. We want to read black and Latino and Asian and Native American. We want new voices, visions, and stories. We want to celebrate our own truths and the courage it takes to tell it. It is so much easier, even for us, to write white. An easier task to approximate what we have read, viewed, and had to interpret all our lives, than it is to write authentically black. First we have to stave off fear of rejection, then we have to disentangle our stories from the stereotypes & myths told about us by white culture, and then we get to be artist – a daunting task.