Interview with our Race as Context Panelists

We’re so excited to wrap up our 2020-2021 speaker series with a unique conversation between Alex Sato, Gabriel Campbell, Jhon Valdes Klinger, and Kim Shuck, moderated by member Ellen McBarnette. This diverse and talented group of writers and poets will share their perspectives on race as context, and inspire discussion and exploration for others. We sent them some questions and their answers were so fantastic we really would rather bind them up and publish them as a book. Below are just a few of the highlights.

Questions from speaker chair Cristina Deptula of Authors Large & Small.

Race is context, all writing comes from an author and all authors come from their own backgrounds. Be aware that your context influences your output.

Ellen McBarnette

Ellen McBarnette is a CWC Berkeley member and active in the Afrosurrealist Writers Workshop of Oakland and the Women’s National Book Association SF Branch. She participates in several critique groups in the Bay. Her short story, “Negrita” will appear in Midnight and Indigo in October 2021.She lives in Hayward with her partner Ben and their cat Java. Learn more about Ellen at about.me/ellenmcbarnette.

Yes. There are no boundaries in art, but there are genre conventions. For each genre, we see things as filtered through your eyes. If you’re white, then your experiences are going to be filtered through those eyes. Are the conversations my writing is provoking centered in whiteness? Are they centered in one experience because that is all you know?

We need to ask , how are our experiences changing the perspective, whose perspective is not being observed? How can I integrate other perspectives?

Jhon Valdes Klinger

Jhon Valdes Klinger is an Afro-Latinx writer born in Colombia and raised in New York. He holds an MFA from The New School. His work has been published in the 12 Street Journal, Ipstori App, Monsters of the Bronx, and most recently, in Acentos Review. He lives in Berkeley, where he teaches writing.

That their Black friends and acquaintances need to help them here: It is up to writers to educate themselves.

Also, that this is about being ‘sensitive.” It is not, it is about being aware. If you are not aware you are missing critically important aspects of what you are conveying, good writing is controlling your craft, not writing unaware. Not understanding race as a writer is like choosing to be an oil painter while not aware one is color blind. Be aware.

Ellen McBarnette

A common misconception people have about writing racially inclusive work is that they have to write about racial oppression. It makes sense: race doesn’t exist as a concept separate from its oppressive role. It was literally invented to stratify society. So when you think, “I’m going to write about race,” the common go-to is to write about racial hierarchy and how it warps people, relationships, and societies. While that’s important work to do, it’s also important to envision a society free of racial hierarchies so we all know what we’re aiming for as a society and as individuals and so that people who experience racial oppression have areas of their life where they can escape it for a time.

Gabriel Campbell

Gabriel Campbell graduated with a minor in Creative Writing. He has completed his first novel, Love, Legends, and Legacies, Book One of The Keita Daze and is seeking representation. He is a member of several Bay Area writing groups, including the Afrosurrealist Writers Workshop, Cyborg Central and Bay Area Young Writers. He lives in Oakland.

Didactic writing has never been my preferred way of writing. I don’t write race–– I write people, informed by their experiences, from race to the way they love. I don’t write morals–– I write situations and let every part of my characters navigate and investigate the situation. I am not sure how you can write an experience that you haven’t had naturally. I write from experiences I’ve witnessed by the people that inspire my characters; for example, I can write a white character because I have members of my community that I love, who I’ve lived with, who have supported me, and loved me back, that are white. I’ve had white people hurt me to the core. I’ve had them mend me back together. Empathy towards the people I love comes naturally. To write, for example–– a black character–– you need to have black love in your life. Black love needs to part your communities. Research is essential, but it will never beat real experiences and genuine love.

How are you uplifting the communities that you want to write about? How diverse are your communities? What voices are you listening to when writing? If your experience doesn’t suffice, then should you be telling that story? If there is someone more capable or equipped to give that story love, more capable of giving those characters the love and compassion, even our villains, that they deserve–– Stand back and let someone else write that story.

Jhon Valdes Klinger

Oppressed people do have an agenda: to secure our freedom. And to be an ally to oppressed peoples is to take on that agenda as your own because you understand that, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

So we all have a right, if not a moral duty, to have an agenda, and when ‘having an agenda’ is leveled at us as an accusation…well, that’s an easy way to spot a bigot. Usually what the person saying it means is, “stop making me think about your oppression, how it affects your life, and my role in it.” At extreme levels they’re saying, “stop making me think of you as a human being,” such as when people say things like, “it’s ok to be gay, but do you have to be obvious about it?”

So, having an agenda doesn’t get in the way of developing a story. An agenda is just a message you want to leave the readers with or an experience you want them to have. It’s just one of your themes. And figuring out how to balance your theme with all of the other elements of your story is just another writing challenge.

Gabriel Campbell

The word ‘just’ is doing a lot of work here; it always seems to. The word ‘just’ would make the grandest marvels of creation seem small: “it’s just a nebula,” “it’s just a baby talking for the first time,” “it’s just a story.”

The truth is, there is nothing small about human lives or experiences, and stories are how we share those experiences with one another. Some stories are meant to be light hearted and leave those hearing/reading/seeing them feeling optimistic and joyful. Some stories are more heavy and explore more complex emotions. But every story is about human experience, and every writer is trying to communicate something of their own experience to other human beings. What’s small about that?

I would say it’s no more or less important than writing about any other issue that shapes our lives. Racial hierarchies are noxious systems that have, and continue, to degrade the lives of billions of human beings over the past 500 years. There have always been people spread across times and cultures that have been trying to undo these systems since they were first implemented… join the fight. It’s important to write about racial issues because it is a way of reclaiming our own humanity.

Gabriel Campbell

Do your research, like with any other subject matter. You would not write from the perspective of a police officer without researching that perspective. Do not assume familiarity based on TV shows or other cultural exposure. And do not expect your BIPOC friends to be of assistance on this. If they are your friends, they are not likely objective enough to point out what you are getting wrong.

Ellen McBarnette

Separate out that group’s cultural identity from their oppression. For example, Black people in America have some distinct cultural experiences like valuing opening conversations with emotional/social check-ins (how have you been?) before getting to the topic of the conversation. If you don’t do that, you may be considered rude or uncaring.

White writers (or any writer from a privileged group trying to write about an oppressed group) tend to conflate the two…If you’re a member of a privileged group trying to write about an oppressed group, I would suggest you DON’T write about the experience of oppression. You are likely to get it wrong, offend people, and perpetuate that oppression. But, with research and openness, you can probably write about another group’s culture in a respectful way.

That said, if you want to tackle oppression, do so from your own experience. I think one of the mistakes White writers make is thinking they have no role in racism. That’s part of how our racial hierarchy works: the victims of it are the ones who are most visible. But we aren’t oppressing ourselves. There is a wealth of stories that haven’t been written about what it’s like to be an oppressor, and I would love to see more stories about that. More stories by White people about White people wrestling with their own racial identities and how they are impacting the lives of their fellow human beings. One of the most beautiful songs in our cultural canon, ‘Amazing Grace’ was written by a slaver about the experience of being a slaver and realizing how it had degraded and debased his own soul. It shows how powerful stories from oppressors about being oppressors can be. After all, those are human experiences too.

Gabriel Campbell

Read Toni Morrison’s entire collection. Please pay particular attention to her omission of certain characters. Pay attention to the lenses she uses to tell her stories. Please pay attention to where she focuses the reader’s attention. Toni Morrison did an excellent job making sure that the conversations about race were not centered on whiteness. Ask yourself how are you diverting your reader’s attention?

Also, watch this:

Jhon Valdes Klinger

Thanks to Ellen McBarnette, Gabriel Campbell and Jhon Valdez Klinger for giving such thorough answers to our questions. We are so excited to have them on the panel this Sunday, where they’ll be joined by Kim Shuck and Alex Soto. Come ask your own questions at this Sunday’s panel (members come early so you don’t miss your chance to vote in the next board)!

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