Writers Don't Come from Nowhere
by Linda Rodriguez
(a previously published blog)
I’m a poet and novelist of Cherokee heritage who writes about a Cherokee protagonist and also reviews books, so people send me just about every novel written that has a major Indigenous character in it. A terrifying number of them are romances with generic spray-tanned hunks on the cover, love interests who are half-Cherokee, half-Navajo, half-Sioux, or just plain half-Indian (these authors don’t seem to know any other of the 500+ tribes exist) and written without the least tiny bit of knowledge of any of these different cultures.
I also get contacted repeatedly by people who want me to give them a crash course in being Cherokee (or even just Native) because they’ve decided to make the protagonists of their books, or even a whole series, Cherokee (or just Native). These are people who know nothing about the Cherokee, not even the most basic information, and apparently have no Cherokee friends or acquaintances. My attitude toward them, I’m afraid, is not much more sympathetic than toward the authors wanting reviews for their books with “Native” characters. Basically, these folks are saying to me, “I want an ‘exotic Indian’ protagonist and the Cherokee are the most famous tribe, so I’ll choose them, but I have no real interest in the culture or knowing anyone in it. I’m too lazy to do any research on the most documented tribe in American history (the Cherokee were over 90% literate in their own written language and had a bilingual newspaper long before the Removal in the 1830s), so please do my research for me—and maybe I’ll use it or maybe I’ll just do what I want to do, whether it’s true to the culture or not, while putting your name down as the ‘expert’ I consulted. Because I clearly don’t give a real damn.”
Still, as an editor friend of mine once said, “Writers don’t come from nowhere.” He’s absolutely correct in saying that, and it speaks to a constant problem I see with manuscripts. Among other things I do to make what is laughingly called a living, I screen manuscripts for several national book contests, evaluate manuscripts for several university or small presses, and review fellowship application packets for two artist residencies. One of the problems I constantly encounter when reading slush pile or contest entries or fellowship application manuscripts is the writer who seems to come from nowhere and to exist in no particular space in the world.
Unfortunately, I read a lot of manuscripts with good technique but no life, and with no roots, history, or culture to feed them, they’re not likely to ever develop any. These writers are trying to be universal, I suppose, but they haven’t learned the lesson that the specific and particular embody the universal and make it come to life.
Everyone comes from somewhere. Perhaps from an urban slum, perhaps from a pristine upscale suburb, perhaps from an up-and-down series of foster homes, perhaps from great wealth or poverty or anything in between. Everyone comes from some place, some culture, some family. Somewhere where people talk and think a certain way and hold certain expectations. Too many otherwise good manuscripts, however, exist in limbo, in a cultural vacuum.
I suspect, in part, this has become so prevalent because writers think their own backgrounds are not interesting or “exotic” enough. It seems to me that America has a paradoxical relationship with difference. We fear and hate the different, the Other, but we also exoticize it, investing it with greater interest and excitement than ourselves. These attitudes are actually two sides of the same coin since exoticizing the Other renders it even more foreign and Other and thus worthy of fear and hate. The result for writers, however, is that many writers feel their own backgrounds can never match the interest of the Other.
One evening at a lively, crowded Latino Writers Collective event, a young woman was talking with two of us. This young woman lamented that she had no culture to draw on for her creative work and wished she were Latino or Native American or Middle Eastern since that would give her cultural richness to write about.
As I questioned her, however, I found that her father had come from Norway as a young child with his parents and her mother’s father emigrated as an adult from the Ukraine—two places rich with history, art, culture—but she knew nothing about them, had pretty much scorned them. I recommended she learn about where and what she came from instead of wishing she were someone else, someone “exotic.” These cultures and the upper Midwestern place in which she’d grown up were her donnée, her given.
Roots isn’t just a miniseries. Ancestral culture is something we all have, whether we know it or not. It’s a little easier for those of us who can’t escape it because of the faces, eyes, and hair in our mirrors or the names or accents that set us apart from the mainstream. For us, it becomes one of our obsessions because difference per se is an obsession with most Americans. And because, too often, difference equals less than to a number of Americans. This fact, underlined by radio and television daily, leaves us scribbling away to try and show that our people, our cultures, our languages are rich and beautiful and not less than anyone else’s.
We all have our own specific roots, though, every one of us. And even if we’ve fought hard to escape from them, they leave a lasting impact on us, on the way we use language, and on our worldview. Witness F. Scott Fitzgerald who returned to the status of the once-poor outsider futilely trying to enter the ranks of wealthy society and win the rich girl of his dreams for his greatest work, The Great Gatsby. If Fitzgerald had tried instead to write from the viewpoint of someone born to that wealthy stratum of society, think what his novel would have lost. If we try to whitewash our roots out of existence so we’ll fit in better with the homogenized culture around us, we’ll inevitably shortchange our work.
Increasingly in America, many people pass as homogenized, middle-class, white/Anglo Americans (though many doing that are not really Anglo-Saxon, such as my friend of the Norwegian-Ukrainian background). It’s almost always easier that way—leave behind the non-Anglo-Saxon background, the poor or working-class background. Leave behind the chance of ethnic slur (there’s one for just about every non-English background). Leave behind the chance of socioeconomic slur (poor white trash, trailer trash, redneck, anyone?). But I believe the decision to leave our histories behind is a mistake. When we do this, we rob ourselves of riches we can use to make our writing come alive.
The two most powerful aspects of writing that has a unique voice, writing that comes alive, are detail—the detail that only you would have noticed and invested with emotion—and obsession. The best writers write from their obsessions, and obsessions start in childhood and adolescence. They start back there in our family histories and the cultures in which we grew up.
I know. I know. It sounds like the old “write what you know” stuff, doesn’t it? I don’t mean to set limits, however. If you find yourself obsessed with some other culture in which you didn’t grow up—the way John Steinbeck did with the Okies of the Dust Bowl—throw yourself into that culture. Live with it and learn it. Steinbeck “embedded” himself with the Okies as they trekked from Oklahoma to California and as they tried to live in California. That’s the way he was able to write The Grapes of Wrath with such powerful authenticity. Writers who ignore their own roots often try to write from the viewpoint of someone very different from their own experience—without bothering to learn much about that community. When you read their work, you can tell immediately that they have no real basis in that character’s world. It rings false, and that’s always a death knell for any writer, whether poet, writer of fiction or nonfiction.
If you’re going to write from inside a character from a different culture, spend real time in that culture with its people. Talk with them, but more importantly, listen to them. Ask questions. Learn the culture. I guess it is the old command of “write what you know,” after all, or rather, what you have taken the time to learn about.
My advice is to root yourself as a writer. Go back to your own origins. Mine your memories, seeking those emotion-freighted, telling details and your own obsessions. Learn about your own history and culture—all of it if you’re a mix of more than one, as most of us are. Remember the language and idiom of your earliest family. And if you want to write about cultures and people foreign to your experience, root yourselves just as deeply in those also.
Find your roots as a writer, and I believe you will find your voice. Isn’t that what we all look for when we read—a unique and distinctive voice that allows us to see the world in a way that’s slightly different from the way anyone else does? What’s the old adage about giving your children roots and wings? Well, give your writing roots, and you’ll give it a chance to take flight.