Back in 2013, when I was writing about literature for The Huffington Post, I did a piece about female-written novels that star male characters and male-written novels that star female characters. I’d like to expand on that today by discussing novels with other author/character dichotomies: those by writers who create protagonists of another race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, etc.
The question remains: Can novelists write well about people who differ from them in a significant way? The answer is yes, of course. Not always as well as authors who are what their characters are, and there’s some risk of stereotyping and “cultural appropriation,” but writers who are not what their characters are can use their imagination, do research, channel their personal knowledge of people they know who are unlike them, and so on. (Heck, human emotions are human emotions.) Plus novelists can also include characters who are in the author’s “group.” Still, writers who’ve “lived” what they write can understandably have an edge — and more of a “right” to the subject matter.
I thought about all this while reading Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover, which I also mentioned in last week’s post. Allende is of Chilean descent, and most of her novels prominently feature Latina characters. But this particular book primarily focuses on Americans of Japanese and Eastern European ancestry.
The sort-of flip side of that is John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. Steinbeck was white, and that novel (his first major success) includes a number of Mexican-American characters.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by the white Harriet Beecher Stowe includes several crucial African-American characters — such as the titular Tom as well as Eliza and George Harris.
Among the works of African-American writer James Baldwin is Giovanni’s Room, which focuses on white characters. But there’s also an authorial similarity: the novel has a gay theme, and Baldwin was gay.
Willa Cather was also gay, even as the relationships in those Cather novels that contained marital/romantic elements were heterosexual — as was the case with My Antonia. But there’s gay subtext in some of her books if a reader looks closely enough; for instance, the Jim Burden character enamored with Antonia could be a reversed-gender stand-in for Cather. (Pictured atop this blog post is a seated Cather with her domestic partner Edith Lewis.)
As mentioned earlier, some authors kind of split the difference. African-American novelist Octavia Butler’s Kindred, by way of example, stars a 20th-century black woman (Dana) who’s married to a white man (Kevin) when the involuntary time-traveling to the Antebellum South begins.
And the part-black Alexandre Dumas focused on white characters in virtually all his novels — including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers — but changed things up with Georges and its black protagonist.
Getting back to ethnicity, there’s J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert — a novel by a white French author starring the Moroccan woman Lalla.
Some religious crossovers? George Eliot, a Christian, included three major Jewish characters in Daniel Deronda while also featuring several prominent Christian characters. The short historical novel Hadji Murat by sort-of-Christian Leo Tolstoy stars the 19th-century Muslim leader of the book’s title. And White Teeth by British author Zadie Smith, who has described herself as not very religious, co-stars the fairly devout character of Samad.
We can widen this discussion even further with disabled authors writing about not-disabled characters and vice versa. For instance, Daniel Keyes created special-needs protagonist Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, and Lisa Genova has penned Still Alice and several other novels starring characters faced with devastating neurological challenges.
Novels you’ve read that fit this topic?
The great Vancouver-based podcaster Rebecca Budd (aka “Clanmother”), who often comments here, interviewed me again about books. She asked how I get ideas for this blog, how people choose which books to read, how to find time to read, whether to finish a book one doesn’t like, the state of reading in this era of digital devices and shorter attention spans, etc. All in less than 15 minutes! 🙂 (One of my podcast answers includes praise of this blog’s commenters. 🙂 )
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about topics such as another broken developer promise — is here.