by Laurel S. Peterson
Thank you MotiveMeansOpportunity and Kait Carson for hosting me. I’m honored to be here.
I’m white. Let’s start there. But my first mystery novel, Shadow Notes, contains a black police chief from New Orleans who has moved north after Hurricane Katrina to work in a small Connecticut town. In some quarters of the literary community, I would be criticized sharply for writing a character outside my race. If you’re curious about the controversy, you can read about what happened when Lionel Shriver said writers should be able to write about anyone they choose. I’ve included the link at the bottom of this post.
I understand the criticism from a woman’s point of view, rather than a racial one; that is, in most of the novels I read growing up men portrayed what they thought a woman would think and act like. In that context, it’s clear why some might be tired of inaccurate representations of female or black or many other kinds of experience—and why it would feel as though white writers were taking ownership of experience that was not theirs to claim.
So why write a black man—and why put him in a position of otherness? One of the amazing things about being a writer is that it gives me a chance to imagine myself in bodies and minds not my own. Even now, as I write this, I’m sure I’m making mistakes. But I want to understand. I want to be involved in that conversation. I want to push myself outside of what’s comfortable because compassion demands it of me. Choosing to write a black man means I have to try to understand how a black man might feel and respond when negotiating his place in a new community, in a position of power, with a new woman and her family. How do those feelings compare with what he left in New Orleans? What does he miss? What does he love? What does he desire? Where are the commonalities and where the divergences? This is not representative of how every black man feels. No one thing is representative of how every black man feels, in the same way that my white characters don’t represent how every white person feels.
In her powerful book Citizen, Claudia Rankine talks about someone cutting in line in front of her at the drugstore. When the cashier tells him Rankine was next, he says, “Oh my God, I didn’t see you,” which seemed to mean, I didn’t see you because you are black and we don’t see blackness in our culture. In a New York Times arts section interview with Teyonah Parris titled “A Fight for Visibility for all Shades of Black,” the opening paragraph reads in part: “Do you know what every dark-skin girl thinks when she sees only light-skin girls in magazines? …They think their dark skin has made them invisible.”
We’ve come off a summer filled with violence against the black community—or maybe I should say yet more violence against the black community, since making someone invisible is a form of that violence. My students of color tell me how “other” they feel. I believe it’s critical for all human beings to have voice, and to feel that their voices and their needs matter in our global and local communities.
So maybe I wrote a black character to help me see. Maybe I wrote a black character because black people are part of our community, and the novel wouldn’t be representative without their presence and voices. Maybe I wrote a black character so that the I-Thou divide might disappear a little more in me. I hope I did a reasonable job. I hope to do a better job next time because I will have listened for longer. And I would hope that any author would try to represent compassionately and accurately whatever experience she feels is important in her story.
I would love to hear what you think a writer’s responsibility is in representing those who are not like him or her—in race, in gender, in sexuality. Thanks for joining me in the conversation.
by Laurel S. Peterson
Clara Montague’s mother Constance never liked—or listened—to her but now they have to get along or they will both end up dead. Clara suspects she and her mother share intuitive powers, but Constance always denied it. When Clara was twenty, she dreamed her father would have a heart attack. Constance claimed she was hysterical. Then he died.
Furious, Clara leaves for fifteen years, but when she dreams Constance is in danger, she returns home. Then, Constance’s therapist is murdered and Constance is arrested.
Starting to explore her mother’s past, Clara discovers books on trauma, and then there’s a second murder. Can Clara find the connection between the murders and her mother’s past that will save her mother and finally heal their relationship?
Laurel Peterson is on Twitter: @laurelwriter49; on Facebook and LinkedIn; and at www.laurelpeterson.com.
Her book, Shadow Notes, is available at Barking Rain Press: http://barkingrainpress.org/shadow-notes/ or at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Notes-Montague-Mystery-Mysteries/dp/1941295452.