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White author writes novel with mainly African-American characters

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I'm also a white writer who (almost inadvertently) wrote a book about slavery from the black perspective. I had finished a couple of genre books and was researching the Great Dismal Swamp, where I live, for a possible science fiction story. I came upon the 1843 narrative of the life of Moses Grandy and was fascinated. I was also disappointed when I checked around the school system where I work and few teachers, black or white, had ever heard of this local historical figure.

My original idea was to write a mid-grade novel that could be used to teach during black history month, thinking it would be beneficial if our children had a local black hero to celebrate. I asked some of my teacher friends if they'd like to collaborate, but they declined. I also asked if it was okay for a white to write such a story and they urged me to do it. I began the mid-grade novel, but I got swept up by it, researching for 6 years. It turned into a 135,000 word epic, exploring how culture, religion, politics, economics, etc. allowed slavery to occur when all were supposed to be treated equally. I think I succeeded and am immodest enough to say that I think I "captured the moment."

As a white yankee whose ancestry was mostly Canadian, I was shocked by some of what I learned of abolitionist hypocrisy, such as northern abolitionist churches buying and selling cotton. I learned that Rhode Island, which had given blacks the right to vote, rescinded that right as soon as there were enough African-Americans in their state to actually influence the outcome of an election. I learned that the Quakers originally allowed slavery and there was a big controversy in that religion before it was banned. It was hammered home to me that those who might say, "I'm from the north, MY ancestors never condoned slavery," is living in fantasy land. Any white who did not fight for abolition was guilty of condoning it. I now actively work to promote racial equality, including attending seminars, reading to children, etc.

My latest book, published last week, was about a native Chamorro boy in the Marianas Islands during WW2. Another character was a park ranger, another an explosives expert, neither of which profession I've ever done. I even wrote a book about gender switch (sort of fantasy romance with tongue in cheek) that explored sexual equality and acceptance of sexual practices, written because I have a gay daughter, who I'm proud was brave enough to "come out" at age 16, and works for women's affairs (one of her majors).

My slavery book was not targetted toward African American readers. My romance was not intended for transgenders (one of whom called me a hack). I don't write for any specific audience, I write about what fascinates me and have never written in the same gender twice.

I only just learned about this forum from a fellow writer. So now that I've spouted off, I'll go find your "new member" thread and introduce myself. Glad to be here.

John Bushore

http://www.johnbushore.com

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Hi John,

You wrote: "I don't write for any specific audience, I write about what fascinates me and have never written in the same gender twice."

For some reason...I think I like that.

Hey have you ever read any of the Slave Narratives? I read one of the volumes recently and was surprised to "hear" the stories of some of the ex-slaves...how they viewed the time period and how they viewed themselves. I think the dialogue needs to open up more in the schools about this very real part of all of our history. Glad to hear that you're involved w/seminars and reading to the children. Nice to meet you.

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Hi John,

You wrote: "I don't write for any specific audience, I write about what fascinates me and have never written in the same gender twice."

For some reason...I think I like that.

Hey have you ever read any of the Slave Narratives? I read one of the volumes recently and was surprised to "hear" the stories of some of the ex-slaves...how they viewed the time period and how they viewed themselves. I think the dialogue needs to open up more in the schools about this very real part of all of our history. Glad to hear that you're involved w/seminars and reading to the children. Nice to meet you.

Writergirl, I led John here from another writer's forum. I asked if anyone wrote for an African American audience and was immediately attacked. The person went so far as to say, and I quote through cut, copy and paste his words in blue. I'll bold the really offensive parts...

anyway, i don't much like what i've read of authors 'targeting' ethnic markets. i'm pretty 'whatever' about it because i'm white and as such their existence is pretty irrelevant to me. but i like to think even if i was black i wouldn't go near those sections of bookstores. why not? well, because i don't like thinking of people in groups (i actually consider that quite racist, regardless of the good intentions behind it). also i don't think that in 21st century america with a black president, we should be in the business of encouraging the kind of patronizing, post-colonialist, affirmative-action crap that so often is counter-productive and divisive.

also, and call me cynical, but i think such 'genres' can actually be pretty bad for fiction in general. they manipulate publishing houses into diverting precious resources into markets that are baseless and artificial (what racist crap goes into deciding what makes an AFRICAN-AMERICAN book anyway? does it have to be set in the ghetto? does it have to star lil'kim? does everyone eat fried chicken? give me a break, its such a fundamentally racist concept), thereby encouraging negative stereotypes and giving less-talented writers preference on the basis of their subject matter. write a good book about slavery and i'll buy it. write a mediocre book and i won't, no matter how you market it.

Set in the ghetto and eating fried chicken? and this guy is accusing me of stereotyping and being a racist? This person then went on to say...

Originally Posted by Ditchviewpost-right.png

Racist? Is targeting the young audience with an endless parade of vampires not the same thing? You write what a certain group of people may want to read. Romance appeals mainly to women, technical writing appeals more to men. History buffs will seek out relevant parts of our past, divers like reading about diving, it is just another genre.

nope, because none of those other audiences are defined by race. a 'black person' is not the same as a 'diver'. divers are all united by a specific common interests and passion...diving. is the suggestion that black people have specific common interests? that really sounds quite racist to me. like i say, i give it a pass because it doesn't infringe upon my existence, largely because i am white, but i know if i was black i'd probably find it pretty patronizing.

And...most black folks i know couldn't care less about slavery.

So, for openers, he denied that there was any such thing as black literature or any use or appeal for it. He then said he was white so blacks existence was "pretty much irrelevant to me", than asked what crap went into deciding what makes an African American book anyway, all the while, shouting that I was a racist. It's amazing to me just how clueless some people can be. I left the link to this website so that he could indeed see that many people are interested and write for this genre, but I seriously doubt that such a shallow mind can grasp the fact that African Americans are interested in their contribution to our history and their particular struggles with slavery and prejudice that still exists. Funny, those who scream "racist" are usually the biggest racists themselves, or at the least, insecure about their own true feelings of those of other races. I'm not white, I'm a Spaniard and I'm so much darker than my wife I consider us an interracial couple and have told her so.

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Hey have you ever read any of the Slave Narratives? I read one of the volumes recently and was surprised to "hear" the stories of some of the ex-slaves...how they viewed the time period and how they viewed themselves. I think the dialogue needs to open up more in the schools about this very real part of all of our history. Glad to hear that you're involved w/seminars and reading to the children. Nice to meet you.

I think I've read all the slave narratives and much more - like I said, 6 years research. My favorite source is http://docsouth.unc.edu/ where the University of North Carolina has digitalized many old documents and made them available online. For anyone who loves history, it's a treasure trove. I've also, over nearly 40 years, visited nearly every plantation house, slave quarters, etc. that are open to the public.

In my humble opinion, too many people focus on the Civil War without reading the prior history leading up to it. Besides my own book (blush, ahem), I recommend The Waterman's Song by David Cecelski of UNC. http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-5112.html I don't know the author, but I picked up a copy in the Museum of the Albemarle, in Elizabeth City, NC, and was fascinated by some of the history revealed. You'll probably be surprised how much African Americans were involved in early maritime affairs.

Take care,

JohnB

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JohnB, I've never been a history buff but my interests are changing as I get older. So I may find myself reading more & doing my own research these days...then again, maybe not...there's only so much I can take...sometimes it is a bit overwhelming for me to read about what my ancestors went through.

@Felipe, I won't even go too much into the comments made by the other guy from the other site...I dunno...for some reason I just don't feel like picking those comments apart - on the one hand I could say "I know what he's trying to say" and on the other I could say "he's a jerk for saying this that or the other" but at the end of the day, I don't care enough. Maybe someone else would like to dive into that mess.

I'll be honest. I'll be the first to say that the dialogue needs to open up, but I'm also somewhat standoffish when it comes to talking to non black strangers about race relations. The problem for me comes in not feeling that "family" connection --- then I tend to get paranoid about hidden agendas when other people are in the room.

I don't want to end up like Dave Schappell ----> He thought it was okay to say any and everything and even make black jokes in front of mixed company and then he ended up getting his feelings hurt when white ppl started laughing at him instead of with him.

As a matter of fact, I'm probably going to go delete a comment I made on another post here, all because I don't want white ppl see me laughing at a certain thing. I know that sounds nuts, and I could go further into explaining why...but again, I'm being honest...and truthfully speaking - I won't explain bc at the end of the day, you probably wouldn't understand. <_<

I think that if more of us could volunteer at schools we would see how unnatural all of these race issues are...when you hang out with little first graders, you'll see that they play together with no problems whatsoever. At my son's school there are white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, Indian kids, everybody...and ALL the kids play...

It's not until they get older that you see the separation...and that's because they learn it from somewhere. It's the saddest thing to watch. My youngest is 6 and hasn't had to learn it yet...but I can remember when my older kids learned it...one by one...as they got older, some incident would happen --- some terrible thing occurred that forced me to explain to them..."son, the reason that happened to you is because in this effed up world we live in, you are at the bottom of the barrel, automatically...why? because you have that beautiful dark black skin."

okay, i'm done. i've said too much & i am not in the mood to get emotional today...especially not in front of mixed company.

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I don't write for any specific audience, I write about what fascinates me and have never written in the same gender twice.

JohnB I meant to ask you a question and I forgot just that quickly.

So I like the fact that you don't write for a specific audience, etc etc. I like it because it shows that you aren't afraid to use your creativity. I love creative writing and wish I were a little better at it. (Planning to go back to school for it to see where I'm missing the mark.)

EVERY time I try to write about something that is far removed from my experience, I stumble and fall and end up right back to what I know or what I've experienced. As a result, my fiction ends up being founded too strongly in fact. And that's not what I've been trying to do. I always end up seeing myself, my friends, my family in my ficticious characters, even though that was never my intent. I admire the fact that you can use your creativity and research to build all types of stories.

My question is this: how do you feel about your books once they are finished? Do you have any type of attachment to the characters?

For me, I find myself very attached to my books, because of the inadvertant personal touches. Most of them I will never publish because I don't want to hear anybody's comments or feedback. (And the proof is in the pudding bc I've only published one & I'm struggling with the decision to put a second one out there.) It's like they (the stories & the characters) are too close to home.

So I was just curious about what it would be like to write a story from a purely "fascinated" point of view...do all the research, put it together, go through all those steps...do you end up with a love child book? Or is it just another story?

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Okay, I called in sick today and don't feel up to anything else, so I'll reply in depth.

Twenty years ago, I was a shy geek with an idea for a sci-fi novel, life developing around a hydrothermal vent in a deep cave. I loved the idea, but soon learned that, although I knew how to write, I didn't know how to write fiction. After several years of trying, I joined a writers group. Although primarily interested in novels, I began to write short stories and poetry to develop my skills. After a few years of that, I began submitting to on-line magazines and anthologies. After editors began accepting my submissions, winning a few minor awards, and receiving fan e-mails, my shyness began to leave. I think the exercise of coming up for short story ideas is what developed my creativity for original ideas.

Other than Moses Grandy (who is NOT my creation), I never developed a fondness for any characters, until my latest novel, NECESSARY EVIL. Tadtaotao (Tad) is an orphaned native boy living in a leper colony on the tiny island of Tinian in World War II.

In the Chamorro culture, orphans are exceedingly rare, because the clan is all important and a child will have his extended family. It weighs heavily on Tad. He's not very likable, his emotions are kept deep inside, along with his beliefs, and he doesn't trust anyone or anything other than his adoptive mother. How could he trust, being shunned all his life for living with lepers, witnessing the cruelties of his Japanese overlords, and seeing the Americans kill by burning people alive with flamethrowers and firebombs--including horrifically killing his adoptive mother?

As for creativity, here's how this novel came about. I wanted to dedicate a book to my father, a WWII vet. I was stationed in the Marianas Islands back in the 60's, when rusting tanks and landing craft were all over the place. Tinian is the island that was used for launching the Hiroshima mission. My idea: What if a native boy stowed away on the Enola Gay for the first atomic bombing? My point of view: a perspective of the brutality of WWII from the perspective of a neutral, someone who didn't "have a dog in the fight." My theme: A coming of age novel, or bildungsroman My plot: unraveling the mystery of a secret squadron on the island, with a subplot of Tad's condition in life. My mission: RESEARCH - The islands, their culture, their foodstuffs, B29 bombers, Manhattan Project, the Chamoru and Japanese languages, the Tinian invasion. So, you can see, creativity is a continuing process, building idea upon idea, researching threads to the finish, and weaving it all together in a coherent gripping story. For some reason, I'm good at that last part, sort of like I'm very good at crossword puzzles and word games. (Wheel of Fortune? Quit watching--too easy) Some people can throw footballs or make baskets, etc., writing just comes naturally to me. But don't discount the time I spent with short stories, working at my craft.

inadvertent personal touches? I don't think so. Reminds me of one of my writing group members, an English Lit Prof. He said once,

"John, one of the things I like about your writing is your inadvertent humor." I could have strangled him because I WORK at that humor. But yes, I treasure my novels, even the genre stuff. Only another writer would notice the work that goes into setting up an entire novel for that one climactic scene. Only I know the "lightbulb" moments when I came up with a new twist that improved a novel.

Yes, I read for children, and dressed as a pirate at that. But I don't read my own stuff, even though I've written children's books, stories, and poems. I read Dr. Seuss and other classics. Can you imagine the fun of reading "Arrgh, I do not like green eggs and ham, me maties?" I'm not a teacher, I work with computers, so I'm in all the schools. It is so obvious that racism is acquired, along with many other traits. The elementary kids don't have a bit of it, the Middle schoolers are getting into it, and the high schoolers exhibit racism -- or not. I see less and less of it over the years. And for every "thug" there's a "gentleman." For every racist, there's a kind and gentle soul who sees others for what they hold within. I see dozens of kids everyday and, I assure you, the battle against racism (and other ism's) isn't lost. Our kids and grandkids will have the internet's vast arena at their fingertips. Some will use it to see what the latest pop-culture icon is up to, but others will gain knowledge and knowledge is the bane of racism.

I started off to write sci-fi, but soon learned I had a "voice." When it's my turn to leave, I want to be remembered for trying to make a difference. My last three novels have been about sexual intolerance, culture that encourages slavery, and man's inhumanity to man. But my current project is horror, with no redeeming literacy value whatsoever, as a sequel to an earlier work.

I don't hesitate to discuss race and culture (which is more divisive than race, sometimes) with any person of any race. I'll try to discuss reasonably and rationally and am willing to give examples of why I believe as I do. If your beliefs are different than mine, but are based on reason, I might change my mind. In 64 years, I'm proud to say I've changed my mind thousands of times. I never thought about race relations in depth until I came across Moses Grandy's narrative and began researching the local history of slavery. It awakened me to the fact that an author can influence opinions. Most people won't read a dry, ancient narrative, but might be swayed by that same story when told in a way that engages and gives them something to think about, without being preachy.

I just published Necessary Evil last week. I was too late. I dedicated it to my father-in-law, who passed away last November, and to my father, who is in the final stages of Alzheimer's and probably won't last the month. I was the only one who ever discussed their WWII experiences with them and I wish I could do so again. So, of course I hold this novel dear and I urge you not to worry about putting your past in your writing, put your future in there, too.

Okay, I'm getting off the soapbox. Take care,

JohnB

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Thanks for sharing your story. I really appreciate it. Writing is something I love to do, but at the same time I don't always want to share it once I'm done. I think that's terrible...What is the point in having this stuff sitting on my computer?...especially when I know deep down that there is something I am trying to say...there is a point I am trying to get across even beneath all the folds of the "laughs" and the "drama"...there is always some thing that bothered me enough to drive me to start writing about it.

I think my biggest problem is that I'm afraid of offending someone or afraid of writing stuff that isn't mainstream...my viewpoints go against the grain and even my friends and family can only take so much of me & my thought process...so I begin to wonder: what if I get slammed in reviews? Ugh! No! Don't want to hear it...If somebody says something bad about "my baby" (my book), I'm gonna be pissed! So I would stash it in the computer & start over...writing something different, trying to be more creative, trying to keep the "personal" out of it so that maybe I can publish it without fear and maybe even make a lil money. Yeah, make some money - there's a thought!

You see, you may work at humor & disagree with the Prof who said that your humor was inadvertant, but I can tell you that my personal touches are something I strive to get rid of, and yet they keep showing up. I'm not kidding about that or trying to be cute. Being cutesy or pretentious isn't my style. I say what I mean and it is what it is. I've been trying to write a totally made up, strictly-from-the-depths-of-my-imagination novel. But I guess at the end of the day, art imitates life & vice versa so maybe there's just no way around the reality seeping into the books. Or maybe my imagination just sucks. Hmmm, there's another thought! But like I said, I'm hoping to get some insight into what I may be missing by taking some classes. We'll see. The worst that can happen is nothing. So whatever.

"Necessary Evil" with little Tad sounds interesting. The way you describe how you built the story and found a way to weave all of the elements together was great. Even people who don't usually read war books will probably find it interesting, because of the little boy.

I can relate to you when you talk about reading to the little ones. I read to my son's class and I help them with their reading skills as well. They don't even know I'm a writer. lol. They just know that I'm a lot of fun and love to see me walk through the doors. It's great...actually it's the highlight of my week.

You wrote: "When it's my turn to leave, I want to be remembered for trying to make a difference."

This is something I'm only recently starting to relate to. I never thought I would feel that way. I used to be a party girl and all I cared about was superficial *ish*. Some things changed in my personal life that I won't bother to go into, but let's just say I started to see things differently. And now I do wonder what I could do to make a difference, even if it's just a small one. That's when I started volunteering at the school, you know...baby steps. :wub:

As you know by now, the race topics are still something I'm not comfortable talking about with any and everybody. In time that might change. I'm open minded, but I'm cautious. I suppose time will tell. But like you, I have changed my mind over the years about many things, and I always appreciate a rational point of view.

You wrote: "So, of course I hold this novel dear and I urge you not to worry about putting your past in your writing, put your future in there, too."

Thank you very much for this piece of advice. You hold your novel near and dear and you put it out there because you had something to say, something to share. I'm going to let go of my fears and do the same. Fear is counterproductive anyway. I tell my kids that all the time. So at the end of the day, Mom needs to take her own advice. ;) Enjoy your day off!

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I know what you mean about bad reviews. I entered "...and Remember that I Am a Man." in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award two years ago. The first two reviews I got were good and I advanced to the quarter finals. Then the book was slammed by a reviewer and rejected. The reviewer didn't even critique the novel, she said I had no right to be telling Moses Grandy's story, basically. I guess she thought I'd ripped the story off, and gave me no credit for the three years I took writing it to be true to the original story as I could. BUT I didn't let it bother me (much). That's her opinion and she's welcome to it. But I have enough confidence as a writer to know when I've done well or not. And I expected I'd get some flak for being white and writing black history. another BUT History isn't black or white - it's black and white. I did all that research to show how society worked at that time, why Moses Grandy was forced to endure such horrible treatment. It can't be justified, but it happened, and it should not be swept under the rug.

Thanks for all your nice comments. Take care,

JohnB

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The post that started this was just stupid. And I don't mean ignorant racist stupid. It's just dumb. You cares what your race is? As a writer, you should know: write real characters and a real story and put it out there. Period. The only time a person gets in trouble by writing about a race other than their own is when they write bad characters. So be a good writer and you shouldn't have a problem. Basically, you'll find out how African-Americans feel about your writing when they read your work. If you suck, you'll hear about it. And being in advertising, I can tell you that starting a controversial conversation with your product at the center is not smart. Relate to people. Converse with people. Don't shock them into starting a conversation full of land mines. That makes me wonder how good you are as a writer when you can't relate well to actual people.

I guess the only thing I found offensive was wondering if we're stupid enough to get in an uproar about you being white.

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Hi BiauncaWilliams,

I'm sorry you feel that way about my original post. I used to feel as you do, that race shouldn't matter. We were probably both raised in an environment where to ask about race was a prelude to discriminating based on race. And, of course, that still exists. But I've come to understand that our race is an intrinsic part of who we are. Understanding our own background, and that of our friends, readers, book characters, and yes, book authors is part of understanding people. I see that as a good thing.

John

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The second edition of Braver Deeds is now available. In has a great new cover, improved maps and some text updates.

For a free sample as well as purchase information, please visit: BraverDeeds.com

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