I had the idea for this post a while ago, after reading a few articles about whether white writers have the “right” to write from the perspective of a black main character–see The Confessions of Nat Turner and The Help. Both books have been both widely admired and scathingly criticized for their respective authors handling of the “white author/black protagonist” problem. I have also read a number of blog posts and articles encouraging authors of YA fiction to diversify their books, including characters that reflect the mosaic of our nation. Justine Larbalestier, a white author and blogger, is so committed to this purpose that none of her main characters are white.
I agree that this is important, as long as it’s organic and feels natural. (As opposed to every non-white character being beautiful and/or noble.) And, I agree that the world American teens live in is not monochromatic; YA authors therefore need to show diversity in their work. As a non-white writer, I have the advantage here; white is not my default, I experience the world through a non-white lens. So, why is the protagonist of my first YA novel white?
I think when an author is black, we expect the protagonists to be black, the story line to deal with black themes. As a biracial author, shouldn’t I deal with racial identity somehow?
The fact is, I do and I have—in this blog, in the adult books I’ve yet to complete, as well as the adult novel I spent six years writing and three years submitting. Birch Wood Doll, which sits in my hard drive, awaiting a big revision, a WIP I refer to as The “Eddie” story, involving a guy with dissociative identity disorder, and Big, Black Woman Mad, the one I’m determined to finish a draft of by year’s end, all have protagonists who are mixed-race. The characters cope in various ways with being non-white in mostly white ballet companies, universities or families. What does it mean, for example, that your white birth mother chose to parent your white half-sibling, but placed you for adoption? These adult characters wear their races like coats that don’t quite fit.
For Second Company, however, my focus—like that of this blog—is on body image and identity, just not racial identity. Yes, there are non-white characters in Second Company. For example: Lynette, whose story is coming in a sequel. She gives a few hints that she’s struggled with difference as the only black girl in NYBT II, but Lynette is fortunate to have the ideal ballet body. She has therefore escaped the mistreatment her best friend, the novel’s female protagonist, Livia, suffers because of her weight.
Second Company started with my wish to write about the experience of being a member of an elite society—the ballet world—who barely fits in because of some difference. This was me back in 1989, when I joined Boston Ballet II, Boston Ballet’s own “second company.” How was I different from the rest of BB II?
*I had graduated from a four year college (I was keeping it secret, because back then, college was considered the death knell for an aspiring ballerina; ballet companies wanted you at seventeen, so they could mold you, intellectually as well as physically.)
*I was over twenty-one and lying about it. (Really, twenty-one was way too old not to be in a first company. I claimed I was nineteen and mostly pulled it off.)
*I was black (okay—biracial, with a fairly European body type, but still, the only woman of color in BB II. The one Greek girl who’d had a tan when the contract started had lost it by Nutcracker season.)
*I had real boobs. (In a world where a girl with a b-cup was considered top-heavy, I was a C-D. This disqualified me from being considered thin. I had a petite-enough frame; most costumes fit me with no problem, but people usually expressed uncensored surprise that I could get into small sizes. At 5’3” and 101 lbs., I was considered chunky.) Oh, I have a photograph:
So—for review—I was “old,” over-educated, dark and curvaceous. Which of these differences do I write about now? Well, all of them, I think—just not all at once.
My adult novel, Birch Wood Doll was swamped with too much subject matter—biracial identity, eating disorders, the clash of socioeconomic classes, the collision of the dance and academic worlds. In Second Company, which I intend to be part of a series, I’ll take the issues one or two at a time. Livia may be white—Irish and Italian American–but she’s short and curvy-to-zaftig in a reed-thin ballet company. (Her twin brother Oliver, also white, is gay, dealing with homophobic Dad’s efforts to stop him from dancing.)
The ballet world isn’t—let’s face it—especially diverse. In a corps de ballet, the girls are supposed to look fairly interchangeable on stage. Standing out isn’t encouraged, but skin color is less likely to be held against you than weight, which is supposedly in your control. You are not judged for having dark skin (ok—we were all cautioned not to get tan before Swan Lake, and I will write a post about that one day). But gain weight and all bets are off.
There may be racism in the ballet world, but it’s quiet—an assumption here, a hushed comment there. Weightism, on the other hand, buttism, boobism, shortism—that stuff is expressed loudly, welcomed and condoned by those in charge. This is the difference I chose to tackle in my first YA book.