Street Talk

Josh Barkan

Josh Barkan is the author of the short story collection Before Hiroshima and the novel Blind Speed, which was named a finalist for the 2009 Paterson Fiction Prize. He received a fellowship in fiction from the NEA in 2006. He has taught writing at Harvard, NYU, and Boston University, and is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Wichita State University.

A Call for True Multicultural Freedom to Write


We live in an era, more and more, of compartmentalization. On the Web, users hang out on chat groups with like-minded individuals, in micro communities—whether they are financial chat groups where people believe the economy is about to implode, or financial chat groups where the future looks only rosy; in left-wing chat groups that congregate around articles posted by the Daily Kos, Huffington Post, and friends, or right-wing chat groups that huddle around libertarian Tea Party conspiracy sites, where the government is accused of taking over the rights to gun ownership, or around the rantings of figures like Rush Limbaugh. Micro communities assemble around Japanese anime clubs, health trends, shopping communities for high-end fashion at cheap prices, gay dating Web sites, ultra-hetero Ivy League dating sites, etc. etc. This move towards micro communities is very satisfying in some ways—it means we can spend time with like-minded friends and find specialized information—but it is also characteristic of a narrowing of taste, of a job climate in which a person is expected to have a college degree precisely in the field they work in (no literature majors in business, without an MBA, please), of an era in which fiction writers are expected to write, primarily, about characters like themselves.

The mantra to “write about what you know” has, frequently, been interpreted as write about yourself. It is typical for the audience, at a fiction reading, to conflate the author with their protagonist. Often, in the Q&A session, after reading from a novel or story, an audience member will ask a question that indicates they believe you are the protagonist.

More generally, if an author who is white writes fiction with an African-American protagonist, it is frequently challenged whether the author has the license or knowledge to write about someone who is so different from him or herself. If a man who is not gay writes about a character who is gay, the same questioning of the legitimacy of the author often arises. The assumption is that gay authors should write about gay characters, white authors should write about white characters, African-Americans should write about African-American characters, Latinos should write about Latino characters, Asians should write about Asian characters, the working class should write about working class characters, etc. Micro communities in taste and job specialization have transferred over to micro communities in literature, where authority is vested in or taken away from an author according to what is deemed appropriate material to write about.

Given the history of abuse by a dominant white culture, or by a dominant hetero culture, etc., it is understandable why the groups that have been treated so badly have rebelled against misrepresentations of their own group, or of the omission, frequently, of characters from their group. White authors, often, failed to write, for example, about non-white characters, and if they did so they might have focused on limited stereotypes (the servant, the slave, or characters that were “entertaining” in a patronizing, black-face kind of way).

I fear, however, that in the effort to legitimately broaden the important diversity of voices globally and, especially, in the United States, where we live in an exciting, multicultural community, and in an effort to make sure people from each group speak for themselves, rather than being spoken for by “another,” that we have also compartmentalized our literature and narrowed the possibilities of what is considered acceptable art. Why, for example, shouldn’t a white author have an Asian protagonist in his or her work? Why shouldn’t someone who is straight have a gay protagonist? Why shouldn’t someone who is Jewish write about a protagonist who is Buddhist?

I ask this because I remember, vividly, when I put up a novella of mine called “Before Hiroshima,” at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, that the teacher of the course (a famous writer who I will not name) dismissed the work entirely saying, “You cannot write a first person narrative about a Japanese man if you aren’t Japanese.” Never mind that, later, the novella was published and included in a collection of stories that garnered a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.  The work was dismissed not for its flaws or strengths, but because I was a white American, and the protagonist was not. (I wonder what the workshop instructor, who is white, would have said about the writing of Kazuo Ishiguro when he wrote about a white butler in The Remains of the Day.)

In my writing, because of my upbringing living in places like Kenya, Tanzania, and India, and because of my feeling that the most fascinating part of being a citizen of the United States is that we live in a multicultural society, I have always mixed characters from different origins. Frequently, I have American characters living and traveling abroad in my fiction. Or, if the work is set in the United States, as in my novel Blind Speed, I created a character who is a lovable redneck hunter from Massachusetts, a Jamaican male nurse, and another character who is an Indian guru at a health retreat in Iowa, and so forth. Since we live in a multicultural country, and in a global environment where diverse groups and nationalities are mixing together, more and more, it seems essential to me for us to capture, all together, this diversity in a single text of fiction. I am writing this in Mexico, where my wife, who is Mexican, and I live during the summers. All of my cousins have married people from different countries, as well. The stories of the collection I am currently working on include American and Mexican characters caught in the violence of Mexico.

My call is for writers to feel completely open to write about whatever characters they want. Naturally, they should be aware of their biases, as much as possible, and of their limited knowledge when writing about the “other,” and they should be aware of how different groups have suffered historically, but this should not tie anyone’s hands as to what and about whom they should write. The only litmus test should be whether an author can write convincingly about a character.  If they can make a character feel alive, and authentic, then they should have the full right to write about such a character. And not only should they have the right and sanction of the literary community and of critics, but if we want to truly capture the multicultural society we live in, then such a diversity of characters will need to be drawn upon in single texts. We should not retreat into micro-groups of literature. Instead, we should represent the constant mix of groups, all around us, that makes living in the United States one of the most culturally special places to live in the world.