Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Not an Issue? - Joan Lennon

My first YA novel is teetering on the brink of becoming A REAL BOOK, but for me, as for all writers (I'm guessing), the story and everyone in it have been real from the very beginning.  
Silver Skin is a scifi/historical fiction inspired by the Stone Age village of Skara Brae on Orkney.  There are 3 main characters: Rab, from the far future, and Cait and Voy from the Stone Age.  When it was (wisely) suggested that Rab was coming across as too young, I didn't/couldn't write a different, older character.  I just aged Rab.  I imagined what he would have experienced in the x number of years that would pass to get him to the right age.  He's still Rab, just older.  How could he be anyone else?

Why am I telling you this?  Because, as Silver Skin's publication date approaches, I'm becoming aware of "issues" ... 

For example, I'm officially white, though in reality I'm pinky-yellow with occasional unfortunate flushes of beetroot.  Does this mean I can/should/must only write about pinky-yellow people with the occasional unfortunate beetrooty sidekick?  This is a legitimate question and we won't be finding the definitive answer to it any time soon.*  But the situation I find myself in isn't one I consciously sought.  I blame my characters.  I blame the story.  

Rab is black.  (He's also male, which I'm not, but that's another hornets' nest altogether).  He could have been any colour under the sun because he is from the far future. when "human colouring and characteristics had been jumbled together for so long that any couple could produce a child of any appearance.  Nobody stuck out because everybody looked different."  But he walked into my brain black and I saw no good reason to bleach him.  

Cait is taller and paler-haired than the people she lives with.  

Voy, the Old Woman, has arthritis-crippled hands.  

The bulk of the story is set in Neolithic Orkney, at the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age, which was a time of major climate change.  Rab's future world has been shaped by climate change too.

But this is not a book about being black, or about having a tall blonde heroine, or about disability, or about climate change.  Those things are just in there, because they have to be, for this story to be this story.

Or am I being naive?  Is every book about the issues?  As writers and as readers, what do you think?  

* I've pulled up just a few of the excellent ABBA posts on the issue of issues for you to re-visit:

(publication date 16 June 2015)

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.


Catherine Johnson said...

It's about doing things well, not not doing them, As writers we constantly try on other people's bodies, feelings, experiences for size and write about them. We shouldn't be limited. Silver Skin sounds great!

Susan Price said...

Joan, my review copy of Silver Skin hasn't arrived yet, and I am so looking forward to it.

But this issue of 'a white writer can't write from a black pov' is a very knotty problem.

I understand why some take this stand - the historical, social, psychological implications of being born black in this world are tangled and complex, and how can someone born outside all that possibly understand it? The concern is a real one, and I don't dismiss it.

But I would argue that, in trying, and maybe even failing or only partially succeeding, the white writer and others, of all races and genders, might learn something. That's why we invent characters and try to understand them, after all - to try and develop empathy.

I sympathise with the 'white should not presume to write black' position, but always think that it's one that surrenders to apartheid - different races are so completely different and it's so impossible for them to understand each other, that they must be kept strictly separated, even in fiction.

And reverse it: the historical, social, psychological implications of being born white in this world are equally tangled and complex - so it follows that no writer who isn't 'white' can be suffered to create a white character.

No one who isn't an elderly, arthritic Stone Age woman can be suffered to write from that pov because no one from the 21st Century can possibly understand it. And so on. End of fiction.

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for comments - interesting and helpful!

Linda Strachan said...

Is it just that the 'issues' are not so much at the front of a writer's mind as the story is?
But the readers,(but more often with children's books it is the adults not the target readers) who look for the 'issues' in a book and drag them out and examine them until they become more important than the story.
Anyone else recall being in school and having a teacher tell you what 'the writer was thinking or trying to say when they wrote this'? How often is that their own interpretation and nothing at all to do with what the writer was thinking?
Sometimes, as you say, Joan, it is just how the character comes into your head, how they appear when they walk into the story.
If we as writers spent so much time worrying about 'issues' we would completely lose the story and it would lose its power. Looking forward to reading Silver Skin!

Stroppy Author said...

Some books are about 'issues' but that doesn't mean that all stories that feature people of different races, abilities, genders, etc are about issues. I write with a question in mind, which is not what I would call an issue. It might be something like 'would it be good or bad to live forever?' or 'what, if anything, makes humans special?' That kind of issue is interesting and applicable to everyone, whatever their age, colour, gender, etc. I'd rather read and write about the things that affect all people, and if an 'issue' is foregrounded, I think we look for how what4ever is behind it applies to us. The feeling of isolation that comes from being bullied, for instance, is something everyone can identify with, whether or not they have been bullied, because they will have felt isolated in some way or another. I think good stories are about how we are the same, not how we are different.

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks, Linda and Stroppy - and here's another interesting post on the question of issues by Liz Kessler:

Gill Arbuthnott said...

I don't see the colour of Rab's skin here as any more of an issue than the colour of his hair or eyes. After all, you're not trying to tell a historical story of a black slave from the southern USA. The fact that he's of the future is surely the thing that makes him most unknowable to any of us, not his physical characteristics. You've done a wonderful job of imagining yourself into all of your characters' skins; black, pinky-grey with beetroot AND silver.