Will Self-Censorship Lead To Literary Apartheid? by Catherine Evans

Posted by Justine Solomons on 9 September 2021, in News

My first novel, The Wrong’un, is about a dysfunctional family with toxic secrets, and features mainly white characters. It’s not about race. My second novel, Jailbait, isn’t about race either; it’s about sexual consent and it features white, black and mixed-race characters. 

My central character is a fifteen-year-old mixed-race girl, Neveah (pronounced Nivay.) I have been overtly told by some that this is its main barrier to publication. ‘It’s a question of authenticity,’ said one agent. ‘If you’re not mixed race yourself, can you write authentically about someone who is?’ ‘Would it kill you to make her white?’ said one reader. ‘Maybe you can make her Spanish, or something.’

 

With a few strokes of my keyboard I could make Neveah white. But I love her as she is, and I’d feel like a sellout if I did. I’d be guilty of artistic cowardice. There should be no checks on creative freedom. We should all write about anything we please, and it’s readers who should decide whether we’ve done a good job or not. If I write a non-white character, my only job is to fully flesh them out and endow them with an authentic voice. In the interests of realism, my non-white characters do encounter racism, even from within their own families, but I don’t attempt to provide solutions for them. I’m telling a story, and I’m far more concerned with my characters’ universal struggles. 

Along with ghosts, aliens and vampires, our books and our screens should largely offer a fair representation of our lived reality. Ours is a multi-racial society, and a justified complaint from non-white people is that they are not realistically depicted on screen. Not surprisingly, they’re fed up with seeing themselves cast as drug dealers, prostitutes, criminals or gang members. They don’t want to be the eternal victim, either. They want to see characters in all their human complexity: having adventures, wrestling with moral dilemmas, coping with crises, navigating relationships and nuanced family dynamics, making mistakes, solving problems, getting themselves out of scrapes and dealing with all the diverse challenges that form our shared human experience. How will this happen if white writers are only allowed to write white characters? 

Some of my non-white characters are deeply flawed. Some of my white characters are, too. People are people all over the world, and the colour of your skin doesn’t give you a free pass to sainthood. 

Who is calling for this literary apartheid? I suspect a tiny but vocal minority.  Do we want our fictional landscape to be distorted by rigidly restricting authors to portraying only their own demographic? The biggest danger is that we play along, and out of a misguided fear of causing offence or provoking controversy, we self-censor ourselves. Or in my case, I whitewash Neveah. This is sinister, dangerous, patronising, and even worse, will make for truly boring fiction. The age-old advice to authors is to write what you know. Eff that… I say write what you love. Your readers will love it too if you do it with empathy, wit and understanding.

What do you think? Please add your comments below

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Catherine Evans is  the author of The Wrong'un, published by Unbound in 2018. Trustee of Chipping Norton Literary Festival, and organiser of ChipLitFest Short Story competition. Editor of fictionjunkies.com, a website which publishes short stories of all genres by authors from around the world.

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5 Comments

Kate S

I totally agree with you, write about what you love. What a very wrong concept to only write white main characters if you’re white! I wonder if a black writer wrote about a white main character if they’d be told the same, thing… they’d probably be congratulated by their publisher!

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Anji Clarke

As a mixed race person I have long avoided race issues because I them too upsetting but they are becoming harder to avoid.

I take your point, Catherine. To make the character in your imagination white seems disrespectful to the character and their mixed ethnicity.

Free speech goes both ways though. I would stand by your right to write what you like but I would also stand by others’ rights to criticise it. Others’ right to criticise it might mean that publishers make different decisions about what they will now publish – out of fear of criticism – but I think that’s okay. They might not always make the ‘right’ decisions but that’s a function of a small number of people being gatekeepers. At least we now have self-publishing so voices do get heard.

As someone who used to be an agent struggling in vain to get a predominately white London centric industry to consider some very authentic writing from a Nigerian writer but having it turned down because it probably didn’t reflect how white middle class people saw people of colour I feel my client suffered the inverse problem: her black female character seemed not to be victimy enough for their liking. So instead of changing the colour they wanted to change the character of people of colour. I guess social mores were in this case working the other way. Anyway some good news about this client: more than a decade later an adaptation of the novel I referred to will be released as a Netflix film 1 October.

So although some people get a bit shouty on social media I don’t accept we’re experiencing a ‘literary apartheid’. It’s just that people who hitherto didn’t have voices now have voices and there is years and years of resentment. It’s usually too polarised and strident for my liking – but that’s social media for you. Perhaps they are shouting everyone else down. But perhaps they shout some uncomfortable truths.

But I’d be interested to read your novel and I hope that your wishes for it are realised.

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Catherine Evans

Dear Anji – thank you so much for your very thoughtful reply. I completely agree with your point about free speech. Anyone who takes the trouble to read a book has every right to criticise not only the writing and the story, but the characters, and the treatment of the characters too.

I don’t think we’re experiencing literary apartheid either (I liked the drama of the phrase!), but we will get there if white writers have to whitewash our characters and if black writers are only allowed to write about victimhood. Self-censorship is such a slippery slope, because ideas are nipped in the bud even before they get to be criticised. The chief pleasure of reading (and writing!) fiction is living vicariously through the characters, and the more diverse and different their experiences, the better.

The experience of your Nigerian client must have been incredibly frustrating, and must happen all too frequently. If I were a black female, I would get extremely fed up with the constant portrayal of victimhood. I’m delighted to hear about her eventual success. What’s the name of the film?

Thank you so much for your good wishes. I’d be delighted to message you privately.

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