Creating Multi-Ethnic Characters and Landscapes in American Crime Fiction… (Alt. Title: Can Crime Fiction in America Be Post-Racial?)… A True Story
“What are you?” Growing up in small town New Jersey in the 1990s, I stared down that question on a near-weekly basis. Parents, teachers, strangers at the mall—all would ask shortly after requesting my first name. “Catherine” didn’t reveal enough about me. It was too generically biblical. Every land to ever encounter a missionary doled out the moniker like a Christmas fruitcake. The name defied easy categorization. And, back then–as like now–seemingly everyone needed racial classification.
I’d often answer, “American. Born in Queens.” My stock response invariably frustrated my interrogator. Here I was, a plain-old Catherine, with olive-skin and dark curls that, incongruously, could not speak Spanish. My straight nose, which hooks when I smile, had been keeping plastic surgeons employed across cultures since the invention of rhinoplasty. And, now, I was telling someone—attempting in as PC-a-way as possible to figure out my race—that I’d been born in one of the most diverse cities in America. “No, but what are you? Are you Black or White?” My usual follow-up sounded even more insolent. “Both.” The answer had the virtue of being true. Nearly all my paternal relatives trace their history back to Europe, specifically Ireland. My maternal ethnicity is more complex. A Jamaican-born US immigrant, my mom is primarily the descendant of West Africans brought to work sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. Her ancestors mixed with Carib Indians, originally hailing from South America, Desi diaspora, and European indentured servants. There are members of my mom’s family with skin the deep brown of a carob pod and others as fair as ground nutmeg. Everyone is American, either U.S. born or naturalized. And everyone is considered Black. I was and am proud of my racial heritage and all the people that had to exist to, eventually, make me. And I was (and am) always happy to share my family history. What I didn’t want to do in answering the what are you question was to adopt someone else’s idea of me based on their concept of what it meant to be Black or White American. Back in the 90s, I was particularly sensitive to the stereotypes associated with being Black or White. Many of them had come from popular movies and music videos, which often reduced ethnic characters to caricatures. Jamaicans were all pot smoking Rastas. Black people were, by and large, good at sports and poor at academics. White people were the inverse. Blah blah blah… bull crap. To me, my family members weren’t statistics or representatives of a particular racial group. They were individuals. And, individually, they’d always bucked the flawed assumptions most often made about their respective races. To this day, the family member best at math is a Black cousin on my mom’s side that went on to get an advanced engineering degree at Columbia University. The family members best at sports are my half-Irish, half-Jewish cousins on my dad’s side that started on a Division I baseball team and collegiate basketball team, respectively. My mother—the Jamaican-born Black woman—never smoked pot until my father—the 1970s White hippie—gave her a joint. Saying “both” was my way of asserting the truth and simultaneously refusing to be defined by another’s idea of Blackness or Whiteness. Few wanted to hear my answer, though. Once a teacher told me in front of my entire class that saying “everything” was unacceptable. “This is America,” she said. “In America, you have to choose. Are you White or are you Black? Pick one.” “I’m both. I’m— “Well, what will you write on the SAT? There’s no checking all that apply.” After hearing this line of thought so often I acquiesced for a long time and began self-identifying as only Black. I thought the category was most likely to include me. America’s history of discriminating and enslaving people with any African ancestry meant that folks with less Sub-Saharan blood than myself were classified as Black. Therefore, to my thinking, I clearly belonged in the Black category. As a Black woman, I wrote Black characters. When I penned my first book, Dark Turns (Crooked Lane Books, Sept. 2015), I made my protagonist a Black American ballerina. One of the antagonists was a White American student. There was a Hispanic American ballerina in the book. Just as I had been told that I had to identify with Black or White, I felt that my main character had to share my racial background in order to be believable. Everyone else had to be in a neat box. As I matured, both in my writing and personally, I began to reject the idea that I couldn’t check all the racial boxes that applied to me. I moved to a diverse, suburb of Manhattan where many of the families near me were also mixed race, either because the couples married outside of their racial group or because the adults themselves were multi-racial. Living among so many multicultural families, I realized that I, too, could claim my varied heritage. And, if I could, why not my characters? Why couldn’t I create multi-racial characters? Moreover, why not create ethnic characters that, like myself, would be influenced by their cultural heritage but not defined by a racial identity? In my second thriller, The Widower’s Wife (Crooked Lane Books, Aug. 2016), my main character is a bi-racial Brazilian American whose undocumented parents are deported. Her culture, gender, and race influence her–and impact how some secondary characters relate to her–but the most salient part of her backstory is that her parents were taken away. That is what creates her primary motivation to keep her family together at all costs. In my latest suspense novel, Lies She Told (Crooked Lane Books, Sept. 2017), my primary character makes clear her amorphous ethnic identity and my supporting cast hails from a variety of multi-ethnic backgrounds as well. There’s a British transplant to America of African descent, a freckled Ginger-haired woman based on a high school acquaintance of Jewish and African American descent, and a Trinidadian American. The cast is diverse because they live in a diverse city and my fiction reflects the world that I know. In some sense, they are all post-racial because their racial identity is less relevant to their story than their jobs, their personal histories, the state of their marriages and their mental health… There are some that would argue no minority character can be post-racial, particularly in crime fiction given the unequal application of law based on wealth and perceptions of race. Moreover, critics might say, race is still a defining characteristic in American society today. To have multi-ethnic characters that don’t “choose one” or don’t relate to their world constantly aware of their racial identity is somehow disingenuous. To these critics, I’d say that I write from my experience, not ignorance. I agree there need to be stories that address racism (past and present) and the legacy of racism. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing is a beautiful and current example of literature that does this. But, I would also say that there needs to be American stories where the cast is ethnically diverse and multi-ethnic without the story being about their ethnicity–especially today. And I think that American writers of all ethnicities and races should endeavor to include some diversity in their stories to accurately reflect what America looks like. It’s not as segregated as our art often indicates. And it’s definitely not as segregated as some segments of the population would like. In the past couple years, I’ve become painfully aware of the ongoing backlash against multiculturalism in America and concerned about the renewed racial tribalism that I see in 2018. After years of feeling comfortable identifying as multiracial, I hear the echo of calls to “choose one” in political rhetoric that refers to individual Americans by their perceived races before identifying them by first name. And I see a demand to check one box when watching video of White nationalists waving flags from a time when miscegenation was illegal. Recently, I read that White nationalists were using DNA tests from 23andMe to prove the “purity” of their Caucasian ancestry. Some posters on message boards envisioned a world where nationality would be determined by such tests. As my own little protest against this idea, I recently sent off a vial of my saliva to 23andMe. According to the company, my DNA is from five continents. There’s Irish, Caribbean, British, Sub-Saharan African, and South East Asian, with likely some East Asian and American Indian thrown in a long time ago. I shared the results wherever I could on social media along with three hash tags: #multiracial #American #me. I have a diverse family. I live in a multicultural, multiethnic area. And I ardently believe that I can reflect that experience in my work. Moreover, I believe that I can create ethnic and multi-ethnic characters that know their backgrounds without it being the most important thing about them or how they relate to the world. Sometimes, I will write a scene in which a character’s ethnic and racial heritage becomes relevant to the way they are being treated by another character. Just as, sometimes, in my own life, my ethnicity (or the question of what I am) becomes particularly relevant. More often, though, my characters’ races simply influence what they look like as the move through their story, more concerned with, say, the possibility that their neighbor is a murderer. I hope that, by writing American characters from diverse heritages and having them all interact, I can encourage a broader idea of what it means to be American. There are so many hyphenated-Americans now that, perhaps, we should all stop hyphenating. Moreover, some of us have too many hyphens to possibly do it. I don’t need to check one box. And I believe that, as a writer, I can develop relatable American characters that defy easy racial classification and any corresponding stereotypes. The people in my books are individuals. They have cultural backgrounds and they are influenced by them. But they are also just themselves. And I think that, in 2018, I can leave them be.