On character race

by look i have opinions

From Lillian Li’s essay “Why Write Characters of Color?”:

“I’m currently working on a novel about a Chinese restaurant, and the biggest event, a fire, was originally added in as a placeholder, until I could find a better catalyst for the plot. Over a year later, this fire has become a load-bearing pillar for my novel; to replace it would be to rewrite the entire project. But the reason this fire is so integral is because I asked the question, at some point in the writing process, of why this story needed a fire. […] If I had never questioned my decision to include the fire, the event would have stood out, like a lump of flour unincorporated into the narrative gravy. The readers would be stuck asking the question for me, the arbitrariness of the fire distracting them until it had seized their attention entirely.

“When American writers arbitrarily decide the race of their characters, and then ignore the question of race, they are courting the same conundrum, even if they phrase it a different way. We often hear this baleful refrain, ‘Why can’t a character just be black, or Asian, or Hispanic? A white character can just be white, after all.'”

It’s a provocative essay, worth reading in full. I find it a little discouraging as a white writer, because I’m intimidated by writing characters significantly different from myself. But I think I also see the great potential Li is pointing towards—creative potential and potential for social change.

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