She Probably Meant Well; Or, Writing Other Cultures

It turned out to be an odd bit of serendipity that I read The Good Earth the same week that Lionel Shriver caused a controversy in the literary world with her speech to the Brisbane Writers Festival. (A sombrero was notoriously involved. Yasmin Abdel-Magied wrote about why she walked out.) The main point of Shriver’s speech was to argue that if one takes the extreme point of view that only people of a certain gender, ethnicity, or culture can write about that gender, ethnicity, or culture, what is a white writer to do if they want diverse characters?

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The 1937 film version of The Good Earth is notorious because nearly all of the speaking parts went to white actors. Here are O-lan and Wang Lung, as depicted by an actor born in Germany (Luise Rainer) and one born in Poland (Paul Muni).

Reading The Good Earth had me thinking deeply about whether it’s possible for people of one culture to write about people accurately. While Buck did a lot of reading about China’s history, culture, language, and so on and spent a lot of time in the country, I have serious questions about her representations of Chinese people. Setting aside the issue of whether or not Chinese men behaved like Wang Lung, I’m left wondering if Buck missed the nuances of why Wang Lung did and thought what he did. Is her harsh depiction of the farmer racist because he has few, if any, redeeming features and we don’t know his motivations most of the time.

I have similar questions when white writers have black or brown major characters in their novels. Are their characters accurate? Are there details missing that would help readers fully understand those characters? These questions and the fears they raise might lead writers down Shriver’s ad absurdum logic. At one point in her speech, Shriver said that if writers can only write characters they have firsthand knowledge of, “all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina” (New York Times).

Ad absurdum arguments should never be taken seriously, though I do think that authors should do a lot of research before attempting to write about people from other walks of life. Research isn’t enough, however. In a recent essay for LitHub, Brandon Taylor argues that the trick to writing diversely is empathy. Taylor writes:

Writing requires you to enter into the lives of other people, to imagine circumstances as varied, as mundane, as painful, as beautiful, and as alive as your own. It means graciously and generously allowing for the existence of other minds as bright as quiet as loud as sullen as vivacious as your own might be, or more so. It means seeing the humanity of your characters. If you’re having a difficult time accessing the lives of people who are unlike you, then your work is not yet done.

Taylor gives me hope that all authors can write diversely if they want to. They just have to put in the work to make sure that all of their characters are fully realized—which, to be frank, they should be doing anyway.

I suppose, in this light, one of my problems with The Good Earth (one of many, many problems I have with the book) is that I didn’t feel a lot of empathy. Instead, The Good Earth felt like a tragedy dressed up to look like turn of the twentieth century China. Without the setting, the plot and a lot of characters could have been something Thomas Hardy cooked up in his depressed, overly nostalgic brain.

In the end, I have no answers to these big questions. All I have are questions leading to more questions…and a few rants.

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