Under other skins

Writers can do justice to characters outside their own identities. Here’s how.

Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for Broad Street Review.
Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for Broad Street Review.

When I heard that Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestseller The Help spotlighted Black maids in white households in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, I hoped to read in their dialogue the rich language of my childhood. My own mother, Cleoria, and her sister, Coletha, Black women from rural Virginia, gossiped in words as tasty as sin fried in bacon fat.

I credit Stockett for putting Black working-class characters front and center. However, Stockett sometimes filled the women’s mouths with words that stressed their lack of education and ignored the salt and sass of Black working-class speech. In the matter of language, Stockett sometimes made clowns of the women.

Stockett, an outsider, shrank the maids’ humanity by playing their lines for laughs. Why did she portray Black women in the first place?

Prickly moments

Last summer, I joined a workshop of a dozen emerging fiction writers at Stony Brook Southampton, which pushed me to consider again the why and how of creating characters from groups other than one’s own. My fellow students included Jill, a 30-something Protestant woman who’d written a short story about the death of a close friend, a Jewish woman. The writing and pacing were superb, we all agreed. Then Sharon, a Jewish writer, spoke up:

“Why is that character Jewish?” Sharon asked.

“Because she was in real life,” Jill answered. “We were best friends.”

“I don’t see why she needs to be Jewish,” Sharon said.

That exchange came early in the workshop. We hadn’t established enough safety for Jill to say more about why she’d made the character Jewish or for Sharon to explain her objection. Did Sharon find an anti-Semitic element in the story that I, raised Episcopalian, overlooked? Did Jill feel that changing the character’s religion would betray her dead friend or change the story?

The issues raised in those prickly moments remained dangling, but the discussion bore fruit for me. It deepened my resolve not to strait-jacket myself by creating only characters like me, but to bring my creativity to wherever I feels it’s called. That said, I want clarity about why I take the risk of portraying people unlike me and how best to achieve it.

Silences I saw

In a novel I’m writing based on Black history in Philadelphia, I’ve created a deaf fugitive from slavery. An article I wrote about how a New Jersey dance instructor who teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing children may have planted that seed. Or Jake, the fugitive, may have taken shape from my parents telling me to be quiet if I had nothing nice to say. Those admonishments left realms of anger and sadness unspoken. Or maybe it was my great-grandmother, Rose Ware (1851-1964), who was born into bondage. Did she stir me to consider her silences, all the words she swallowed to survive until freedom came? Those feelings, I believe, morphed into Jake.

Knowing only a thimbleful about deafness, I attended events at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. I also had unstinting help from Jack R. Gannon, Ph.D., author, educator, and, at the time I met him, assistant to the president of Gallaudet University, which serves deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Jack gave me a reading list, spoke with me through an interpreter, and emailed me comments about my chapters. He helped me inhabit Jake’s skin and reveal his humanity.

Finding Blue-J’s voice

Story structure and a hospital hierarchy led my friend Mark Lyons of Mt. Airy, a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council the Arts, to jump the lines of race and class. “He Sure Do Want to Fly,” a story from Lyons’s 2014 collection Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines, takes place in the Rancho, a now-demolished California facility for people paralyzed by accidents or illness, where Lyons worked in his twenties. Blue-J, the story’s Black protagonist, checks patients’ catheters.

“Almost all of the patients at the Rancho were bed-bound, and I needed someone to connect them, to weave their lives together,” Lyons said of creating Blue-J. “Also, the hospital was organized on racial lines. The professional staff was white while orderlies, transporters, maintenance, and cath-men were almost all Black. I wanted to reflect that stratification, and in a sense honor the Black folks who really kept the place going and had a more personal relationship with the patients.”

Lyons made the daring leap of putting Blue-J’s voice in Black English. “To be sure I got it right, I researched the linguistic origins of AAVE—African American Vernacular English— and discovered the rich and consistent rules of grammar, syntax, and dropped consonants. So Blue-J’s entire voice is in the vernacular. Pure music. I worked hard to create an authentic voice and not a caricature.” Lyons’ respect and work paid off: he nailed convincing speech.

Entering other lives

The late Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) stands out among authors who create characters of other ethnicities. Hillerman, a New Mexico journalist of European ancestry, gained renown for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels, where the officers combine modern techniques with Navajo philosophy to solve crimes. “I want to write an entertaining book,” Hillerman once told an interviewer, “and I’d like people to see the strength and dignity of a culture I admire.”

Hillerman’s many awards include one in 1987 for being a “Special Friend of the Dineh [Navajos]” for his “accurate and sensitive portrayal” of their traditional culture. It seems the pinnacle of presenting peoples other than one’s own in all their human complexity.

We write and read to enter other lives, to slip into someone else’s skin. I want to write in a way that honors characters different from me and lets readers embrace them in all their humanity.

Want more? Read Anndee Hochman's companion essay, "Rendering lives that aren't yours."

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