It took me over 15 years to complete Against the Grain, my debut novel about how a small act of desegregation ripples through a community during 1962-64. I had been writing the novel in my head for decades longer. This was not writer’s block — more the opposite, I had a lot to say and needed to find the right structure for it. I was also looking for something like “permission,” that it was OK for me, a white writer, to explore a topic beyond my experience, and use the point of view of a Black person. From the beginning, I asked myself and others if I had the “right” to write this story and use a young Black girl’s perspective. Some said “yes.” Some said “yes, but only if you …” A few said, “hell, no!” Some advised I make the girl bi-racial, write from the perspective of her white friend, or another white character, someone more like myself.
I wanted to expand the view of this town, time and politics beyond my own experience and viewpoint. I wanted to more deeply engage all the questions and possibilities around religion, racism, classism, sex, boys and men, protest — all the questions I had when I was a teenager that no one would talk about. Toni Morrison said to her Princeton students, “Please don’t tell me about your little life — is there nothing larger? More important?” Yes. There is.
We know the events of the last decade that raised the stakes. I did not plan that my novel would land now at a time of social reckoning over racism, but nor does it seem accidental.
I understood that some felt strongly that I do not have the right to represent the life of a minority/identity group/race/oppressed population I’m not a part of. That I must not benefit from the telling of a story about an oppressed group. That the playing field is not even. That I am hopelessly privileged and must stand back for others. And the decline of time spent reading books hurts us all and hurts some disproportionately. I have chosen to think about what my responsibilities are in this matter rather than what my rights are. Here are some of the actions I took:
I professionally engaged African American editors/writers/readers to evaluate my project.
I questioned my motives, my decisions, and listened to others.
I widely read others’ approach to this issue.
I acknowledge with respect and compassion the barriers that exist to publishing success.
I do what I can to promote reading and publishing. (I am part of a national work group that is trying to offer new models of success to independent booksellers.)
I educate myself and keep abreast on the inequities different groups face to succeed in life, as well as publishing.
When invited, I share the stage and extend the spotlight to others.
I try to not be a white savior.
I was willing to change and re-write.
I know my limits. And yes, I have limits.
After many drafts, I chose a structure that allowed six points of view. The story of 1962-64 unfolded through the eyes of the young Black girl and her father, but also four others, white people who also had a stake in the girl’s actions.
I abandoned my search for permission and sought only the approval of my own conscience. In my heart of hearts, I know I did the necessary work to honor the imaginary lives I created for all my characters, and I wrote the book I wanted to write.