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Identity politics – the new writer’s block


OSCAR is in trouble again. The Academy voted the Best Picture to be Green Book, a story about the friendship between a white bouncer who becomes a bodyguard and an African American classical pianist. It immediately caused controversy, not least with indignant American film director Spike Lee, who attempted to storm out of the 91st Academy Awards in protest. The problem? According to a BBC report, the film ‘perpetuates the “white saviour” trope that can be found in so many films about bigotry and intolerance’. This is apparently because, although the black musician character is pivotal to the story, the protagonist is essentially the white character whose friendship makes him ‘wise up to his own racial prejudices’.

It’s hard to see what’s not to like about anyone having to confront and grow beyond their own prejudice, whether that mindset is about race, ethnicity, class or age. Or perhaps this is more about certain kinds of characters not being allowed to evolve and become enlightened. Is a particular kind of white male not allowed to grow into a better human being? It would seem so (or maybe it is a particular kind of white woman, illustrated a couple of days ago by MP David Lammy’s claim that celebrities such as the presenter Stacey Dooley who do charity work in Africa are ‘white saviours’ perpetuating harmful colonial ideas).  Anyway, Green Book has found itself widely criticised by those in the industry who consider themselves ‘woke’. Already, it has been dismissively reviewed in a UK national newspaper as a ‘trite, nostalgic, white-centred tale’ in an article that was headed ‘Green Book’s Oscar shows Hollywood still doesn’t get race’.

I have yet to see the film, so have still to make up my mind whether it deserved its triumph in Los Angeles. The point is, though, that the controversy highlights how it is increasingly the case that there are restrictions on what stories are allowed to be told, by whom, in whose narrative voice and allowing for whose character growth. Not long ago, it was reported that Anthony Horowitz, the best-selling author of teenage fiction, had been dissuaded from including a black character in one of his novels. Horowitz reflected that there was a ‘chain of thought’ in America that it was ‘inappropriate’ for white writers to try to create black characters, something he described as ‘dangerous territory’. It certainly is. It is territory that has the makings of a dystopian story about segregation and division and alienation. Isn’t it the point of literature, of stories, that we at least try to imagine the stories of others, what it’s like to be somebody else? Can a writer no longer give a voice to whoever he or she chooses? Describe the journey of whoever he or she chooses?

It seems we are sleepwalking into a place where identity politics is starting to curb artistic and creative freedoms. The job of the writer, the storyteller, is simply to imagine, to ask the question ‘what if?’ as the starting point for their tale. What they imagine is entirely their business. They are free to tell us whatever story they want (well, up to a point: there is a line of thought that stories choose writers but that’s, as it were, another story) and their only responsibility after that is to create characters and situations that feel truthful, honest and authentic. Some filmgoers will decide that Green Book does not fulfil that responsibility. These are not the grounds, however, on which the film has been attacked.

The point is that nothing is off limits for the writer. If we are to begin censoring in this way, stipulating that a white writer must leave well alone in creating a story about a person of colour (who may or may not be central to the story), and vice versa with black writers, then where will it end? Is there not a moral imperative for writers to do what they feel able to do in crossing racial lines? Or any other lines for that matter? Gender lines, sexual orientation lines, social class lines, generational lines? How’s that for intersectionality? Writers of the world, imagine away, whoever you are and whatever your background. Craft, technique, research where necessary. Just make it good.

As a final note, a quick scan of my own bookshelves threw up these titles which are felt by at least some people to have been estimable works. They are by writers who were working in a world that had not yet lurched into the new nervousness, the new kind of closed-minded, anti-story, anti-imagination censorship. The particular ‘appropriation’ – racial, gender or otherwise – is provided in brackets.

J M Coetzee: The Life and Times of Michael K (impoverished black man with cleft lip); J M Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello (Australian woman writer); Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird (nuff said); Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (narrator has Asperger syndrome); Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go (young woman narrator); George Eliot: Silas Marner (central character is a working-class man); Martin Amis: Night Train (narrator is female detective); Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (narrator is a sea captain); Paul Sayer: The Comforts of Madness (unvoiced monologue by a speechless, catatonic hospital patient); Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome (male narrator, as well as the rural poor male eponymous character); William Boyd: Brazzaville Beach (narrator is a female ecologist); Ian McEwan: Nutshell (narrator is a foetus with occasional anxiety about being aborted).

Worth checking out also Carson McCullers for the range of characters she created: a Jewish, gay deaf man; a dwarf; a black Marxist doctor and his adult children; and a number of role-defying white girls with great dreams. 

She went wherever she pleased. Imagine that.

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Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn, a former journalist, teacher and full time mother, currently tutors teenagers in English and French.

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