At the recent Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, MI, I had to tweak a presentation I've given over the past several years. A previous version focused on empowering writers with questions related to race, culture, and power to ask of ourselves and our stories. The Festival brings together writers and readers, so I presented "Ten Tips To See 'Below the Waterline' of Stories," hoping that they might be useful while reading another person's story as well as in the revision of one's own work.
My goal is for us to SEE themes related to race, culture, and power with our conscious minds. Fiction is powerful, as propagandists know, and a "single story" of a group of people (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently argued) transmitted "below the waterline" can be dangerous.
TEN TIPS FOR READERS AND WRITERS:
1. Look for an older magical negro or noble savage.
2. Notice a smart/good peer from a marginalized group who serves as a foil for a flawed hero.
3. Check the cover or illustrations for misrepresentations of exoticization or whitewashing.
4. Ask when and how race is defined, if at all.
5. Notice if the setting, plot, and characters are in charge of the casting (because they must be.)
6. Pay attention to how beauty is defined (i.e, straight, silky hair; big, wide eyes, etc.)
7. Check for a “single story" that identifies a community or person on the margins of power.
8. Notice the presence of bridge characters.
9. Ask who has the power to bring about change and who has the power to be changed.
10. Question the storyteller’s (your) authenticity, privilege, and power, but not for the purposes of setting up an arbitrary apartheid system about who can tell the story.
For me, none of these lead to a deal-breaker when it comes to a book. In fact, I hate censorship. I want to encourage us to see the powerful act of storytelling through slightly different eyes. It's helpful to consider the perspective from the margins, and to comprehend that the privilege of power (whether derived from class, nationality, education, accent, ethnicity, etc.) often enables us not to see.