There’s something about the way it smells

This is a tricky for me. I don’t really believe, at least intellectually, that white people can’t create black protagonists. At least Anderson did make the black character the protagonist and not the two dimensional best friend. Had it been Hollywood they would have found some way to make a white protagonist a slave at the center of the story. I think it is as you say, D______, it is how Anderson creates this character of color that is important. What motivates the creation and how does Anderson weave Octavian into the world of his assumptions? Does the character have integrity or is he more projection. I’m thinking these are questions any writer has to ask if she is going to give birth to an autonomous work, what any artist has to ask for that matter – how can we artists/writers facilitate the growth of a character/work who/that defines itself, who/that grows beyond who we are?

I’ve definitely read examples of white authors who’ve done this. Years ago I read a novel by Michael Dorris, who was married to Louise Erdrich, and adopted two American Indian kids, who I think had fetal alcohol syndrome. I remember how deeply distressed I was when I found out he’d committed suicide. The novel of his I love is called Yellow Raft in Blue Water, which tells the story of three generations of American Indian Woman. The novel begins with the teenage daughter who is half Indian, half black and I can’t remember if each section was the voice of the woman or just her perspective, I think it was first person. Anyway, the second section was her mother’s story and the third her grandmother’s. Just thinking about it, and I read this years ago, brings a whole mix of emotions. I think what was so amazing about this novel, what Dorris was able to do, was that – I’m having a hard time putting it into words – but reading the first section about the daughter so poignantly and sensitvey presented her life – teenager, mixed race, American Indian, alone, living on a reservation, poor – that she fully came to life.  We also know her mother and grandmother filtered through who she is in this first section. While I was reading this section I assumed I knew the mother and grandmother. It was only when I read the Mother’s section that I realized how much of the character I did not know from the first section. By the time I got through the grandmother’s section I felt so fully and deeply connected to these characters and the fullness and sadness of their lives. I think that’s why even though I can’t remember the details of the story, the feelings I had are still so vividly present.

I suspect I wouldn’t have the same experience reading The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. But, I don’t really know. I decided to sniff around the book instead and see if I could figure out whether Anderson did create a character and work that grew beyond him. Here’s an NPR interview with him on New & Notes – Unfortunately, Farai Chideya didn’t ask how he prepared to write a black character from such a different era.

” When asked in that interview about this variety of subject matter, Anderson responded that it comes from “{r}estlessness and over-enthusiasm, I guess. I tend to get fixated on subjects serially, and I often write about them to exorcise my interest. I also believe firmly in forcing yourself to do things you think you can’t do, things you’ve never done before. The world is a dazzlingly varied place — why should we assent to limiting ourselves? Better to try and to fail . . .”

He does answer that question here somewhat.

7-Imp: Did you feel at all awkward about writing a story from the point of view of an African American slave? If so, then how did you deal with it?

M.T.: This issue actually delayed the writing of the book by five months. During that time, I thought a lot about the issue, talked it over with others. Concerned about the very real dangers of cooption, for almost half a year I writhed around trying to make up a new plot, trying to change who the narrator was . . . But it didn’t work. I kept coming back to Octavian himself. I knew him intensely. In many ways, I knew him better than I knew the narrators of my earlier books. I didn’t want to tell someone else’s story; his very idiosyncratic life was the one I wanted to narrate. And I didn’t want to water down the history: I knew that I wanted my character in the center of this storm, in the middle of this contestation of what independent identity meant.

In the end, all I can really say in my defense is that my commitment to these characters was total, encompassing these five years I’ve worked on the project, in which time it has become all-consuming. It’s for the reader to decide whether I was successful in producing these characters credibly. If I haven’t told the story well and with sufficient empathy, then I had no right to tell it.

What I wonder about is why only consider changing the plot and not how you might prepare to write a black character – by talking, interviewing black people, black writers who’ve written about slavery – Edward P. Jones could’ve been an amazing resource, for example. So I wonder if the character was already set before taking into consideration of what being black in the U.S. might mean, how the institution of slavery did and does continue to influence all of our understanding of what it means to be black. As I listened to this interview and read the interview I took these excerpts from I find myself asking if it really matters that Octavian is black? I can only really answer this question by reading the book, but there’s something about the way it smells.

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

M.T.: Variety, solitude, and the alien.


~ by evansmousike on August 9, 2008.

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