It’s that time again, and Ali over at Worducopia has come up with a lot of different options for the latest Diversity Roll Call. This one caught my eye: “For authors: talk about gender in your writing–For example, what’s your experience been with crossing over to the other side? Do you shy away from it? What do you think of the suggestion of switching a protagonist’s gender for the sake of sales/boy appeal/gender equity?”
I’m working on the sequel to A Wish After Midnight right now, and when I first started the novel back in 2003, I knew I wanted it to be told from Judah’s point of view (hence the title, Judah’s Tale). Yet when I began writing chapters, I couldn’t assume Judah’s voice as easily as I could Genna’s; or, rather, I had a nagging doubt about Judah’s authenticity–was he believable as a character? Or was I creating an idealized version of a teenage boy–the boy I wish existed? I’m a feminist, and one of my primary goals is to end violence against women and children. I think one way to do that is to address the rage and underlying pain that so many men direct at others, and most of my writing tries to represent that reality in some way. Am I preaching? I don’t know–maybe. Do I care? Yes and no. I reviewed Tyrell a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about the book; not its content so much, but rather the author’s intent: why such unabashed realism? Should an artist represent the world that IS, or the world she wants to inhabit? Is there a way to do both? Tyrell, in my mind, needs an intervention but the novel didn’t leave me feeling hopeful that that would happen. And a world populated by boys like Tyrell isn’t a world I’d want to live in. Yet that IS the world I occupy…so what can literature DO about that fact?
I think boys–and girls–need models of alternate masculinities. This is an unfortunate (and problematic) analogy, but if we think of masculinity as a “brand,” then every day young people go out into the world ready to shop, and they choose to consume different “brands” of masculinity. Patriarchal masculinity is the most popular brand right now, and has been for thousands of years…as I pointed out in my review, Tyrell wants to be “the Man,” the patriarch, the protector and provider for those he loves. In return, he wants a girl who will “take care of him” sexually and domestically (braid his hair, cook his food). But does he KNOW there are other options? As I said in my review, he has no male role models in his life who are holding down a steady job. He has dropped out of school, and doesn’t seem to think of college as a way of lifting his family out of poverty. Largely because he needs that to happen NOW, and education is a long-term investment. Tyrell loves his seven-year old brother, but won’t hold his hand because he wants Troy to be “tough”–the most important survival skill for a young black male: don’t be “a punk.” All of this is REAL, but it still makes me cringe. I want my books to offer an alternative to that kind of masculinity, because if you don’t represent a different option, boys (and girls) won’t know it exists. And it’s hard to perform an identity you don’t know about. You can’t buy a brand that’s not on the rack.
I’ve been having an ongoing conversation lately about just what “ghetto” means. Is it a place? A mentality? This is a conversation I wrote into AWAM, but when I reread those parts of the book, I’m somewhat troubled by what I left unsaid. Today, in 2009, I prefer to talk about “the ‘hood” when referring to black urban communities. For me, the ‘hood is a hybrid, fluid space, whereas “the ghetto” seems fixed–both in terms of imagination, and actual boundaries. If the ghetto is a place, what are its borders? My sister visited me in Brooklyn once and declared, “You live in the straight-up-ghetto!” And I was pissed, of course, b/c I knew my building wasn’t great but felt she was wrong to characterize my entire neighborhood as a ghetto. After all, I lived half a block from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; Medgar Evers College and the Brooklyn Museum were a couple of blocks away. The ghetto, in my mind, was a place of physical and social degradation–empty lots, burned-out buildings, people only looking out for themselves. I lived in a community where most people got up every day and went to work; they did the best to love and protect their kids, and to look out for one another. Yes, there were drug dealers working out of our building, but they weren’t absolute villains; if it was late at night, the guys had their key ready to let you in, they never harassed me, and their “boss” once told me her daughter aspired to become a lawyer one day. It was not a perfect situation, but it was still a functional community. So what do we do about dysfunctional masculinity? Some would say Tyrell, and the thousands of actual boys like him, are simply products of their environment. My economist friend says these boys aren’t to blame because they don’t know anything other than what’s on their block; their world is limited and they’re doing the best they can. That doesn’t work for me. I think part of the problem is due to a failure of imagination…and that’s where ART comes in. Simply creating an alternate representation of masculinity isn’t going to end patriarchy. But it’s a start. Boys need to know it’s ok to express vulnerability and tenderness and fear…and they need to know they can find acceptance and support for being truly authentic, for being themselves and not acting like a tough guy all the time. A few readers have already declared their dislike of Judah, but that’s ok. That leaves me room to let him evolve in a realistic (yet optimistic) way; Rastafarianism is a patriarchal religion, so to be a different kind of man, Judah will have to go against the teachings of his faith…but sometimes that’s what it takes to be free.