Writers on Writing #78: Luke M. Jones
Writing across Lines
I remember hearing an anecdote about an anthropologist who lived briefly in an isolated Gypsy community in Romania. She'd claimed that these Gypsies had never heard of World War II or the Holocaust which claimed thousands of their race. This had apparently caused a flap in the academic community over whether she'd really gained their trust to the point where they'd discuss such things with her.
There has been a lot of talk lately about writing first person or close third person across race and gender lines. Mary Anne Mohanraj has written several astounding blog posts on it, which I highly recommend. Among the books which first inspired me to take writing seriously at all is Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, a lovely short story collection which follows a variety of Vietnamese immigrants who are coming to terms with life in the United States. I knew, when I started to write, that I too wanted to cross lines.
Let me preempt any questions by saying that I am a white gay male, so in, one respect, I am a minority (a single-degree minority, if you will), but I don't think this makes me any more or less qualified to cross lines. I found that, at first, I didn't often do it well—except for gay to straight. I could write a straight white male character, and I could write gay-ish characters (I was closeted at the time so my characters were rarely out either). But, for some reason, was particularly terrified to write female characters. I have to admit that my earlier ones where often vapid stereotypes who focused too much on their looks or their bodies or on how men felt about them. For some reason, I had more success crossing racial and ethnic lines—black Southerners, Mexicans, Haitian Americans—though even that felt a bit uncomfortable at times. I found that I initially wrote many of characters as myself, just a version of me that were experiencing things I hadn't experienced. One story, for example, focused on a young illegal immigrant from Mexico who had a temperament and personality remarkable like my own, and who seemed to make many of the same observations about life that I did at his age.
As I wrote my thesis collection for my MFA at Emerson College, which was intended to be a collection highlighting the diversity that can be found within the borders of the United States, it didn't escape my notice that my collection was dominated by male characters. I had only one story focusing on a woman, and the story followed her descent into the mental chaos of schizophrenia—certainly a topic worth exploring, but not something that would be empowering or celebratory. One of the points I wanted my thesis to underscore was my belief that anyone could be anything, that each individual had a fundamental right to self-definition. But every time I tried to inhabit a woman's perspective, I imagined it to be completely alien to my own.
It probably didn't help that most of the literature I'd read and revered as a teen and in my early twenties was the work of male authors. I was at a friend's birthday party one time and the girl sitting beside me asked me to name the authors I liked. I rattled off a list: Victor Hugo, John Steinbeck, T. H. White. “They're all men,” she replied. “Are there any women authors you admire?” “Lois Lowry?” I said hesitantly. Since then, I can say that I've discovered a wealth of female authors that have moved and astounded me, from Alice Hoffman to Virginia Woolf. I think this has had huge impact on my ability to write women.
When I'd begun assembling my thesis in earnest, my first attempt to balance it was to change the gender of a precocious young boy in an Appalachian-tinted coming of age story. My female friends who had read the earlier male version embraced the change. One of the (older male) professors reviewing my thesis didn't. “Did you originally write this character as a boy?” he asked me. I nodded. “Well, I think you should change it back” he continued. “You can tell when you read it. This is definitely a young boy. A young girl wouldn't behave like that.”
I don't want to enumerate points about gender and race that others have made far more eloquently than I ever will. However, I think, beside all the obvious things that the professor I mentioned got wrong, is something a little less obvious: It isn't as much about how we behave as it's what we experience. I will never experience the degree of cultural body shaming that women experience regularly. I never attended a poorly staffed, neglected school where bullying and violence prevailed. I will never fully understand that experience. Unless I travel outside the United States, I won't know what it's like to look at magazine—or at the faces people taking a walk in a wealthy area—and not see my race represented. But I do know what it's like to be angry or have my feelings hurt, or any number of similar experiences that sound trite because we don't have words that truly encapsulate them. And aren't those among the things a writer is supposed to wrestle with?
During my time at Emerson, I started Words Apart, a student literary journal focused on the meeting place between art and social issues. When we voted on a theme for our third issue, my stomach turned to lead. Our team, mostly young women, had chosen Multicultural Feminism and I was to helm the issue as editor-in-chief. The longer I thought about it, however, I realized that there were many women of all colors that I admired and wanted to feature, in part because they were saying things I wanted to say, and putting experiences into words that conveyed things remarkably like things I've experienced. We were very lucky to have Mary Anne Mohanraj and the actor Robbie McCauley agree to interviews. I assigned a feature about 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman and was able to solicit a terrific new translation of Mexican luminary Sor Juana de la Cruz's epigrams. In the end, we had assembled an issue I am still very proud of.
I've now written multiple pieces with women protagonists who seem like people I would admire in real life, though I'm in the middle of only my second piece to use a female first-person point of view. It's not that these women have some magic mix of strength and vulnerability that make them feel to me successful characters, but rather that they're actively experiencing, probing, interpreting and creating themselves and their environments, just as I am. Does that make me an armchair anthropologist? I don't think so. It's not that they've invited me into their worlds, but, rather, that I've invited them into mine.
Luke M. Jones recently graduated from Emerson College's Creative Writing MFA Program, where he founded Words Apart. He has written for Kirkus Reviews and his creative work has been featured or is forthcoming in Slush Pile Magazine, Niche, Boundaries and The Knicknackery.