Thursday, August 07, 2008

Am I the Obama of Fiction?

I've always been confused about what a writing voice is. Until now. Lori Tharp (Kinky Gazpacho) posted a kind review of Orange Mint and Honey, and is one of the umpteen people who've noted that my characters could have been any race. I've heard very often that the story is "universal."

At first, I was perplexed by these type of responses. Why was it worth noting that a book with black characters was universal? Wasn't that a given? Then, I was a little angry and I wondered if racism didn't play a part. But then black readers started to tell me the same thing. So I went back to perplexed. I still don't know why this should be deemed so unusual. Do you think it is?

This is my world view. This is my life. There are all different kinds of people in it and while I definitely acknowledge and honor differences between my African American, Latino, & white family members and friends, mostly we're pretty much alike. Finally, coming from Flyover Country pays off! Because that is how my voice was formed. In Omaha, I lived on the same block with and went to school with white, Native American, Hispanic, Asian and black kids. My family has every kind of color in it.

Now I understand that voice isn't necessarily about the words we choose or the topics we cover, but how our own experiences and opinions inform our work. I'm glad people have found something they feel is unique in my writing. It's nice to know I have something to bring to the table. But just like Obama isn't the only articulate, accomplished, do-right black man in America or the only the one from a biracial family, I'm not the only writer out here writing about about black folks in a way that's "universal." If that's what you like, keep reading and keep looking around because there's plenty, plenty more where that came from.

And if you're confused about your voice, keep writing. You might not know what's special or interesting about your voice until your readers tell you.

11 comments:

Gina Black said...

I can't say enough nice things about your book. I really enjoyed reading a story about people from another race who I could identify with. I've always believed there isn't much distance between races (only as much as we want to put there) but still, the African American life isn't always accessible to me, no matter how interesting I find it or curious about it I am. I enjoyed not feeling like an outsider as I read your story.

I think one of the issues is that people end up homogenizing the races instead of universalizing the human experience and you hit the second on the head. That's so much more valuable because we aren't all the same, but that doesn't mean our issues aren't the same and that as humans we don't all cry when we're hurt and laugh when we're happy.

JC Martin said...

We each have a different writing voice. But you are right there are quite a few universal writing voices out there. We have to take the time to find them and appreciate them the way we readers appreciate you.

Carleen Brice said...

Gina, Thanks for pointing out the distinction between homogenizing and universalizing. That gives me lots of food for thought.

JC, Thanks for weighing in!

Larramie said...

Like you, Carleen, I have never given this subject a thought. Or, perhaps, that's not true. Every so often my mind drifts back to OM&H, remembering the refreshingly smart, fleshed-out characters, a clever cameo by Nina and a realistic yet positive storyline. In other words, your novel was truly genuine.

Carleen Brice said...

I should have also said in this post how flattered I am by these comments! Y'all make a girl blush!

Travis Erwin said...

I think writing my blog has made me better identify my writing voice and I'm from flyover country as well so I found your novel not only universal but the characters were almost familiar as they seems like people I know or what at the very least would want to know.

It was that real quality that hooked me and made me care for them, but Oliver is still my favorite.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the universality of your novel, of course it is universal, as is The Color Purple, Native Son, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and The Accidental Tourist. In the last, Macon Leary is a man who wants to do nothing differently today from what he did yesterday, hates foreign places, and has been emotionally gutted by the death of his son. He is a white man living in Baltimore, but he could be any kind of man or woman living in any kind of place. Human emotions and experiences are repeated again and again, millions and millions of times, throughout history and humanity.

And I am not a person who is anthropologically sentimental. To me, Homo sapiens have a cruel and savage record in this galaxy. However, I have been lucky enough to travel, and all over the world I have seen ambitious young men, bookish older women, womanizing men, hard-bitten women, innocent little children etc., etc.

I am not a scientist, but I think it has to do with the closed hereditary environment that defines a single species. Humans are less varied genetically than many other species.

Not only are people alike, they are alike in sharing the illusion that they are not alike. Goodness. It is like a bunch of mirrors. It is an eternity of the skunk calling his twin a stinker. It is hopeful and hopeless: people are united in their great pettiness as well as their great potential.

When I was a kid, I did not think that being black would make me different; I hoped that being better would make me different. However, as I get older I see that I have the same human qualities as so many people, only differently arranged and over--or under-emphasized. This is truly the same boat. If I were sailing on a bigger and better one, I'd be a happy so-and-so. But oh well . . .

Janet

Shauna Roberts said...

Cultures may differ and people who grew up in them may thus react differently (for example, growing up in a repressed German culture made it hard for me to "get" a college roommate who grew up in Italian South Philly, and vice versa). But humans all have the same emotions and share the same crucial experiences of growing up, choosing a future, feeling joy and grief, looking for love, growing older, etc. I'm hard pressed to think of a book that isn't universal.

Carleen Brice said...

Travis, If your novel is anything like your blog, you've got a hit!

Janet, We are all in the same boat. Let's just hope we learn to row together to keep this thing afloat.

Shauna, That's how I feel too.

Sassy Sistah said...

She says it better than I could...

"I wondered why some people were called white and some called colored when there were so many colors and you couldn't tell where one left off and the other began. Some folks were Aunt Pauline's color--strawberries and cream--and some were like licorice. Some were cream chocolate and some were dark chocolate. Some were caramel and some were peanut butter. Some were like molasses taffy after it has been pulled awhile and some were like gingerbread. I'd heard somebody say colored people were like a flower garden but I thought they were more like good things to eat."

--Pauli Murray, Proud Shoes

Sustenance Scout said...

All I know: every reader in my book club LOVES OM&H and can't wait to meet you Tuesday night, Carleen! Kudos on writing a book that speaks to the heart of what truly matters. K.