by e. lee caleca
I recently decided to do some traveling and the trip came in the form of bus ride from Nashville, TN to points west, taking a circuitous route through Kentucky to Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and finally California. I always plan to write wherever I am but Race Inclusion-Exclusion In Writing was an article that had never crossed my mind.
I don't carry my laptop with me when I travel. I don't take my Nikon either. The only reason I carry my phone is because I've forgotten how to be without it. I do take a spiral bound soft covered notebook with lined pages, the same type kids use in school, and several pens. This is how I write anything of length - more than a few pages.
I had boarded the Greyhound at the downtown station and was settling in for a few hours' ride to Paducah. I was early and was enjoying watching the activity on the platform when suddenly a woman screamed from inside the station. I could see clearly from the bus window into the large room straight through to the ticket counter. It seemed she had placed her baby, who was in a child carrier, on the counter and someone had swooped it up and run off. The room quickly turned to chaos as men and woman, young and old, took immediate action to prevent the thief from making it to the door. The baby, unaware of its predicament, slept on.
What followed was rather predictable, police took statements, the thief was hauled off in handcuffs, the woman rejoined her family and was comforted. Soon all was righted and the woman and her family, along with two African American families, boarded the bus and we were off.
Nothing brings people together more quickly than a crisis. This topic became the conversation for roughly two hours. I decided to join the fray with a few questions, my writer's mind curious as to how I could spin this into a tale. The woman, mother of the abducted baby and four other girls ages three through nine, said she had just put the carrier onto the counter when the thief, who must have been watching her, grabbed it.
The bus station was quiet at that time of day. The four girls were with their father at the snack machine. About ten people were gathered on the platform waiting for their luggage to be loaded. Two white women sat on a bench near the entrance clutching their purses in their laps and the usual array of homeless lolled in the parking lot. An Asian woman emptied the bags from the trash barrels and shuffled along humming and nodding her head to the travellers.
The father said he heard the scream, knew his wife's voice, and panicked because he had the other four girls and couldn't run to her. Her friends, the other two families also with children, were already out on the platform. In the ensuing chaos, he gathered the two younger girls in his arms and told the older two to hold on to him as he made his way through the sparse crowd. "It was pretty much over by the time I got across the room, thank God."
There are at least twenty-five people mentioned in this article yet all we know for sure is that two families were African American, two women were White, and one woman was Asian.
Perhaps the story could have gone something like this:
The room quickly turned to chaos. Two sun darkened young women ran for the door and barred the exit. They quickly removed the backpacks which were weighting them down and crouched forward on their sturdy legs into an attack position. A white haired gentleman of some years pushed his walking stick out in front of the thief as she ran, bumping her on the head. A welt rose quickly on the pasty flesh and the thief crumbled to her knees, one nail-bitten dirty hand rising to cover her face. The baby slept on as though it were a moonless night, like the color of her skin.
What followed was rather predictable. Two police officers arrived on the scene. Their uniforms were identical but each was as different from the other as the petals of a lotus. They moved in synchronicity, knowing their task. Officer Wendy Chan was about 5'4" with sleek black hair, pulled into a tight bun at the back of her head, exaggerating the natural slant of her coal eyes. In contrast, her partner was a bulky giant with short kinky hair bleached the color of corn and eyes like shimmering emeralds. They made a powerful presence.
The bus station was quiet that time of day. John had been at the snack machine with the girls. He was showing Nina, his nine year old, how to put money into the machine and choose the item she wanted. She was tall for her age, slim and wiry with feather light skin like her father. Her dark hair hung in unruly ringlets framing her delicate face as she lifted the quarters into the slot. Penny, Darcy, and Michaela sat on the bench occupied with their dolls, arranging and rearranging the blonde hair and fussing over who's doll was the prettiest. "I want my dolly's hair to be just like mine." Little Michaela straightened her smooth blond braids for the umpteenth time and pursed her full lips the way grownups do
He heard the scream and knew his wife's voice. He hurried to gather up the children but his mind seemed to move in slow motion. He saw the ragged woman running for the exit. He saw the girls at the door drop their backpacks and the cane coming up in an arc ending on the homeless women's head. As he moved across the room, he saw the tiny trash collector leap over the benches, roll across the floor, grab the baby carrier with one arm and stand, her free arm outstretched, its hand erect and fingers bent into a claw. He had seen the woman earlier, pulling black plastic bags from the trash barrels. She had been humming and shuffling about the room, nodding her head to travelers. It wasn't until he saw her fly over the seats that he noticed her feet. They were covered in black cloth, simply wrapped as a covering against the grimy floors of her workplace. He watched Miriam run to collect the infant. She stroked her sleeping cherub's face, the milky skin of her thin hand sharply contrasting the syrupy darkness of her baby's plump cheeks.
Can you tell from the second description anything more about the people in this scene? The two sun darkened girls at the exit were White. John, Miriam and the girls were all from South Africa and were all Black. The trash collector was Japanese, the white haired gentleman was Black, the cops were Chinese and Hawaiian, the homeless woman was White.
If this were a real story I would choose the important characters and flesh them out completely over the course of the story. Or this may have been an important scene on its own, in which case most of the characters should have been described in detail. I seem to have given the trash collector the most attention so she may have been the center of John's story.
Many writers unintentionally write from the perspective of their own race or nationality, using simple descriptions - like Black, White, Asian, Mexican - to give definition to a character of another culture leaving out the use of that same adjective or race tag to describe characters of their own race. To them it is a given.
Broaden Your Readers' Perspective
Example: "Three cops walked into the room. A tall, dark haired, brooding man, a wiry youngish detective, and a black woman."
I didn't say anything to describe the woman's type and I didn't say anything about the men's race. This is not fair to your readers. Don't assume your audience knows anything about you or your characters even if you plan to write a series. Give a fully fleshed out description or at least give equal weight to your descriptions. Character construction is something we learn how to do so practice with your own examples. If you had three Asians in a room, you would not be able to distinguish between them using the Asian label.
It may be difficult for people of different cultures to get 'into the head' of another culture. That comes with experience but surely we can all 'see' what is before our eyes.
As writers, it is our job to use words to convey what cannot be seen, to make felt through words what is seen and to bring about a sense of fulfillment and wholeness to the reader - a sense of wonderment, joy, and discovery through our craft.