Writing gypsies

This is a reaction of a sort to this story by Lisa Mantchev. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and do so, then briefly peruse the comments.

The comments section is the really interesting thing. (Unlike most of the commenters there, I didn’t like the story itself that much–it was cute but not all that memorable, and I couldn’t figure out what the point was of making the horrible, spiteful little girl grow up into a horrible, spiteful adult.) The entire argument in the comment thread revolved around whether the story was racist for including the idea of “peddlers” (i.e. gypsies or Romani) buying a child. There were a few commenters of Romani ancestry complaining that it was, along with a group of like-minded supporters. Across the aisle were others that thought the story was fine and leapt to its defense with a variety of arguments. Some of these arguments were pretty stupid (“it’s a free country!”), while some were legitimate (“nothing in the story suggests that the peddlers are gypsies”).

It’s this last argument that I’m interested in pursuing. Nothing identifies the peddlers as gypsies except for the fact that they’re peddlers, and the child-buying is not what the story was about. The author herself appears in the comments and explains the explicit efforts she made to dissociate the peddlers from the stereotypes about Romani. This seems like a good-faith attempt to avoid perpetuating destructive stereotypes without gutting the story, so my sympathies lie with the author. What else is she supposed to do?

“Don’t write stories about selling children,” one commenter suggested with a straight face. This makes an extraordinary claim about the responsibilities of an author when dealing with racial stereotypes: the author can never mention them or even use things that resemble them at all unless specifically to repudiate them. The appearance of any character or situation that smacks of stereotype is automatically disallowed.

I find this alarming, and not just because it limits the sorts of stories that authors are “allowed” to tell. The real problem is that this discourages authors from using non-mainstream non-privileged characters at all. In this case the author explicitly tried to remove the racial implications, and still fell under the opprobrium of the offended. What option is there but to avoid the non-mainstream entirely? I don’t just say this hypothetically: I’ve had stories that I wanted to write, but hesitated because I was afraid of potentially racist interpretations. The solution is often to make the character white, or male, or mainstream, because at least no one can then accuse you of stereotype.

This hardly seems like a victory. For anyone.

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6 Comments

  1. ““Don’t write stories about selling children,” one commenter suggested with a straight face. This makes an extraordinary claim about the responsibilities of an author when dealing with racial stereotypes: the author can never mention them or even use things that resemble them at all unless specifically to repudiate them. The appearance of any character or situation that smacks of stereotype is automatically disallowed.”

    Well, duh. Put aside for a moment the fact that the stereotype she was referencing was racist. Put that aside, and instead think of this as a writer, as a real writer, as someone who goes out and writes and gets paid for a living and can think of their own work in a critical way.

    Stereotypes are cliches. Cliches, in writing, are bad. They are bad, bad, bad. Do you like cliches? Don’t you cringe when you hear them? Ignore the racist subtexts, then, if it pleases you, don’t write stereotypes because they are weak writing.

  2. Good point. How much does it apply in this case, though? Mantchev’s use of the peddler archetype did not make for bad writing, but it did offend. I think there are plenty of similar cases, where the stereotype is not necessarily bad writing.

  3. “I’ve had stories that I wanted to write, but hesitated because I was afraid of potentially racist interpretations. The solution is often to make the character white, or male, or mainstream, because at least no one can then accuse you of stereotype.”

    Make the character multidimensional and do some research. Look, I’m not Canadian and I’m not white but I moved to Canada. If I write Canadian characters I try to make them into complex, full beings. I’m a complex, full being. If my character is from the eastside of Vancouver its going to be different than someone from the Queen Charlote Islands. Would you write someone from Seattle the same as a Bostonian?

    Stereotypes skim the surface. Solid characters are palpable. You know their favorite colour, their favorite song, where they grew up, all those little details are there.

  4. Silvia: That is indeed what I try to do.

    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s a good thing for writers to think about the social implications of their stories. On the other hand, I cannot help but feel that too much thinking about this makes my stories more timid and, paradoxically, more conventional.

  5. Yes, it’s good to think about the implications about what you write and, no, I don’t think that necessarily means you will be more conventional.

    If you do your homework right and your characters are real and multidimensional I think you’ll be able to tell the story you want to tell.

    With that said, if you do stick your foot in your mouth (like we all do) its best to listen and try to understand what’s going on. People who say “it’s just a freaking story” or “lighten up” are not listening. Dismissing someone’s concerns like that is not very cool. Tempest Bradford explains it well in The Privilege of Politeness: “When someone is accused of racism/prejudice and they don’t want to address the concern or even think about it, well then the POC accusing is too loud, too angry. But that ignores the fact that we have every right to be loud and angry.”

    Don’t be afraid to write stories that relate to other cultures/races/religions. Do research the culture/race/religion (because the more details you have, the more real something becomes). Do build a complex character. And if something happens and people raise a concern, listen. You have the right to disagree or not. I think the problem comes when the answer to something like this is “chill, it’s just a story.” That is denigrating to the story, the writer and the people reading it.

    I for one would love to see you do a story about some culture that doesn’t get written about much. Maybe you could create a character from Mexico since I’m from there? 😉

    Good luck with your writing btw.

  6. I agree with you. I think that these days the only way not to offend anyone is not to make writing public at all. If that’s true, why bother writing for the public at all? I believe that fiction is the proper place to explore these ideas, and human nature in general. I don’t believe that the story in question was intended to be racist or offensive. I do see Paul’s reasoning for seeing it as offensive. But as an intelligent human I think there’s a point where you have to not let other people’s stupidity or ignorance have power over you by offending you. The author was not trying to offend people (which is why she tried to set the story outside of the Romany relation) which does count for something. (Especially compared to many beginner stories I’ve read which blatantly use abuse, race, sexism etc as the end all to defining characters.)

    I saw the peddlers as rescuers, not as criminals. The girl’s family was uncaring and possibly abusing and if the peddlers are in any way Rom they are the ones that came in and rescued her. The paying is not a reflection on the payers, but on the parents, who only seem to want to profit off their child, either with her good behavior, or literal money. Yeah, the rescue doesn’t end as planned.

    I feel that writers should make an effort to not offend, but in the end it should not impair their story.

    Another commenter pointed out that the Rom commonly adopted unwanted or abandoned children and the prejudices of the time morphed that into stealing or buying. (Given the average person’s greed I can see how a parent might try to profit off a Rom’s willingness to take an unwanted child by charging for it. Again, a reflection on the parent, not the obviously loving and open-hearted Rom.) So since you know the truth of the situation why give power to some ignorant person’s opinion by getting offended at their assumption? Correct them, but don’t give them that power over you because ultimate, does their opinion really matter to your life?

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