Writing To and Against Stereotypes

This past year, I’ve tried to read fiction from as many PoC writers as I can. I’ve enjoyed not only getting to discover authors I hadn’t read before, but also hearing stories written from perspectives that I hadn’t seen much of often in fiction. This endeavour was partially motivated by me hearing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about ‘the danger of a single story’ (check it out here: definitely worth a listen). In it she talks about how single narratives, particularly narratives about certain groups of people, can shape how people see that group and how that group sees itself. A big part of reading writers of colour for me then is trying to hear other stories that challenge those dominant narratives, and bring in other voices.

That goal has lead to some interesting questions arising for me when I read stories written by people of colour that seem to affirm those dominant narratives instead of oppose them. When I read stories written by Chinese authors that emphasize the importance of ‘filial duty’ for their characters, or fiction by African American authors that seem to draw on archetypes of drug-using young black men, I can’t help but feel uneasy at how these stories can be used, waved around as ‘proof’ that these stereotypes and archetypes are real. It becomes even more difficult when those stories are clearly drawn from the author’s personal experience. There is obviously no claiming that that person’s experience is inauthentic or invalid, but how are we supposed to approach it if it seems to uphold a particular type of story that others are working to tear down?

Jesmyn Ward, author of the incredible and heartbreaking memoir ‘Men We Reaped’, in which her memories of growing up Black and poor in the American South are framed by stories of the deaths of young Black men she knew and loved, talks about just that struggle in an interview with The Rumpus. When asked about balancing truth-telling with perpetuating stereotypes, she says:

“It worries me a lot, and it worries me in everything that I do. […] When I look at the young men’s lives, if they’re reduced to the worst thing they’ve done, then it’s easy for them to become a stereotype. I keep running into that with newspaper articles that are very short. They’ll read, “Rog, a cocaine addict…” “And so-and-so who sold crack.” It makes me angry. […] I also had to figure out how much of the truth do I tell, how do I make the truth as balanced as I possibly can? How do I make these people as complicated and as human and as unique and as multifaceted as I possibly can? For me, that was the way I attempted to counteract some of that criticism.”

Ward makes the point that even when stories or characters seem to take the general shape of common stereotypes, they can be complicated and refined and contradicted in their telling, reaffirming the individual humanness that stereotypes on their own do away with. In that way, stories that seem to be affirming these stereotypes can actually work to bring them down. But is that enough? When these misconceptions and stereotypes are so pervasive, when there is the danger, as Ward herself seems to acknowledge, of readers simply seeing their own beliefs affirmed, it enough to disturb them from within or do we need to be presenting alternative narratives that explicitly oppose them?

Of course, the truth to this is that those two options shouldn’t be mutually exclusive: there should be space in fiction of any media for all kinds of stories from all kinds of voices, those that seem to uphold dominant narratives, those that question them, and those that outright oppose them. The fact that stereotypes are our reference point for stories from PoC writers is itself symptomatic of the limited voices that are currently available: we never need to ask if a story of a white male detective is playing into overly broad conceptions of white men, because we’re given so many other options that tell us that the white male experience is varied and multidimensional and complicated. We don’t get that range for other groups of people, and until we do the few voices that do manage to get out there are going to have to perform this balancing act between affirming and challenging, between being authentic and being purposeful in thinking about how their work shapes their audience’s perceptions of entire groups of people.

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