Lately, I’ve been trying to get back into creative writing, and in the course of that, I’ve found myself digging up old short stories and poems from my high school Writer’s Craft class. There’s one short play I wrote, in particular, about a girl and her strained relationship with her absent father, who is trying to re-enter her life after his departure following the death of her piano prodigy of a younger brother. So I’m reading this back, cringing at all the clichés I made excessive use of, and there’s one thing I realize. The family I wrote about is white. Now, that may not seem like a big deal, but let me explain why it is.
I’ve been writing stories from as far back as I can remember. I’ve always toyed with the idea of writing a book someday, and so I’ve created many a character and story in my mind. However, for some reason, most of the characters I invented were white. Don’t misunderstand me; there’s nothing necessarily wrong with people of one race trying to write in the voice of another. It allows for exchange and creativity and all that, but the problem lies in the fact that it wasn’t a conscious decision. I’d just assumed that if I wrote a story, the protagonist would have to be a young white female, living in a nondescript American town, despite the fact that the only state I’ve been to in America is Texas. And nobody wants to read about Texas. (No offense, Texas.) Now that I’m older and have taken enough history and vaguely philosophy-related courses, I can understand that this isn’t normal. I’m a black Nigerian female, and I’ve spent the majority of my life in Lagos. Why wouldn’t my immediate go-to be a character to whom I can relate? The answer I came up with is something that will probably surprise nobody: The white man.
Now obviously, I’m a little facetious with this statement, but there is some truth behind it. I grew up reading Gossip Girl, The Baby-Sitters Club, Judy Blume, etc. A common theme in most YA literature you could find in the early 2000s is that most protagonists were white. Straight away you would be presented with descriptions of their pale skin and coloured eyes. Occasionally you would get a black best friend, or neighbour, who had “chocolate” or “caramel” skin and “shiny brown eyes.” But if we’re honest, everyone wanted to be a Kristy, and nobody wanted to be a Jessi. (If you read the series and can’t remember who that is then you’ve proved my point.) Classic literature held no reprieve, and modern literature had failed me. It then makes sense that when I tried my hand at writing, I too would wax poetic about variations of blond hair and freckled skin. It got to the point where writing a black character seemed something “other.” I had to wonder if there was some slang I should be using. How much of their cultural background do I have to include? Does this character fit into the narrative, and wouldn’t it just be easier to make everyone white? This train of thought is the reason I’m able to understand writers who lack diversity in their writing. It’s just so easy to write what you know, and at that point, I’d heard the stories of so many Chloes and Jennifers that this became what I knew.
A turning point came with the first time I picked up a book by an African author. And I mean picked up, not the half-hearted sparks notes skimming of Things Fall Apart I’d forced myself to do to meet a reading requirement. The book was Purple Hibiscus, and the author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was a gift from my mother for doing reasonably well for the semester, and I’m sure she just thought it was a book I didn’t already own and would enjoy. However, reading that book opened me up to a new world. Not only was she a black writer, writing about black people, but she was also a Nigerian author, writing about Nigerians. There was no mention of slavery, immense poverty, or whiteness and it was still interesting. This truth was shocking to my fourteen-year-old self, as it had never entered my realm of possibility that Africans were capable of writing literature that didn’t espouse on some grand struggle. These characters were existing in a narrative that was so warm and familiar to me. I found myself identifying with these descriptions of places and people who I’d passed on the street, but who had never made it into the stories constructed in my head. For the first time, I realized that there was nothing “other” about black characters and that in trying to replicate the work of people I admired, I’d unknowingly boxed myself into a space that was entirely unnatural. I had inadvertently stereotyped not only blackness but also whiteness as being something that adhered to some formula and regulation. In finding my voice as a black Nigerian female, I was able to write in a way that didn’t smack of desperation and need to conform, and to me, this was beautiful.
In 2015, there is probably more diversity in literature than there has ever been in any other point of history. Authors now make a conscious effort to be more inclusive of diversity and accommodate different voices in their literature. Since the time of reading Purple Hibiscus, I’ve been lucky enough to access novels penned not only by black authors but authors of all ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps my comfort in writing as a white voice is a remnant of the lack of diversity in literature I experienced growing up, but the fact that I’m now able to look back at my older work and question this seems to be a step in the right direction. I’d like to think that this diversity in modern literature is creating societies where young black girls trying to write don’t have to rack their brains trying to imagine what it feels like to get a sunburn.