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Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
One issue I like to address with my writing students is the vague identity adjective — or, when a student identifies a character as, say, “the black guy.” I also often come across “the white guy” or “the Jewish girl,” or “the gay guy,” or “the redneck guy,” or “the Asian girl,” etc. The student is using race or ethnicity as an identifier, without any other specific details to bring this character to life. The writer assumes that this simple adjective will give us all we need to know about a character.
Once, I had a student who was quite smart, vocal in class, and turned in a story that was otherwise rather well-written. But he did describe one character at a party as “the Jewish guy” and left it at that. I asked him, in a conference, what kind of Jewish guy this particular Jewish guy was.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
I said there were lots of types of Jewish guys. What region was he from? Was he from Brooklyn, say, or Beverly Hills? Was he religious or secular? Was he attached to his Jewish identity or did he want to hide from it? What did he look like? What were his interests?
The student squirmed, uncomfortable.
“There’s not just one type of Jewish guy,” I said, carefully.
He looked confused.
I think of that conversation now, after the Trayvon Martin trial and the language associated with it. Did George Zimmerman merely see Trayvon Martin as the “black guy”? Why did he allow his thinking to settle around this vicious stereotype, the criminal? Why did he choose to make this generalization about him, rather than seeing him as, say, the guy carrying Skittles? George Zimmerman did not perceive Trayvon Martin as a whole person, but as a vague and virulent stereotype that he chose to believe. How does vague, imprecise thinking about a person lead to disaster?
One of the great privileges of being a writer is the opportunity to see the world as specific—to embrace the complex universe that is each character. To just call a character “the black guy” or the “the Jewish guy” is problematic because it really tells us nothing about the person. The vague description depends on a reader’s assumptions of what these words mean. I believe much biased thought actually evolves from this imprecision, because it is about the mental ease of a label. It is easier to try to label a person or group than to wrap your mind around the dizzying variation that resides in each human. But as writers, that is our duty.
This is what I call the morality of specific language — finding the details unique to this character that can make him or her alive and surprising to the reader. For example, the great first line in Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” — “The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses.” This action reveals the entire dynamic between Neil and Brenda — that he, a “Jewish guy” from working-class Newark, is supposed to hold the glasses for Brenda, the wealthier “Jewish girl” from Short Hills, in their very first interaction. We learn about the characters through description and actions: “Mr Patimkin was, tall, strong, ungrammatical, and a ferocious eater. When he attacked his salad — after drenching it in bottled French dressing — the veins swelled under the heavy skin of his forearm.” We see exactly who Mr. Patimkin is.
Or in Susan Orlean’s memoir “The Orchid Thief,” John Laroche is instantly himself from the opening: “John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games.” Laroche, in lesser hands, could be described as a “weird Florida guy,” but Orlean instantly gives him a unique physical presence, differentiating him from anyone else.
Or look at the way specific description opens up the character in James Alan McPherson’s story “Why I Like Country Music. ” This story explores the reason why the narrator, an African-American man who grew up in South Carolina, loves country music, the music, from his community’s point of view, of the Klan. He connects his affection for the music to a square dance at his school where he danced with Gweneth Lawson, a girl visiting from the North. He says, “Though I might have loved her partly because she was a Northerner, I loved her more because of the world of colors that seemed to be suspended about her head. I loved her glowing forehead and I loved her bright, dark brown eyes; I loved the black braids, the red and blue and sometimes yellow and pink ribbons; I loved the way the deep, rich brown of her neck melted into the pink or white cloth of her Peter Pan collar; loved the lemony vapor on which she floated and from which, on occasion, she seemed to be inviting me to be buoyed up, up, up into her happy world; I loved the way she caused my heart to tumble whenever, during a restless moment, she seemed about to turn her head in my direction; I loved her more, though torturously, on the many occasions when she did not turn. Because I was a shy boy, I loved the way I could love her silently, at least six hours a day, without ever having to disclose my love.”
We can also learn specific details about our characters through their dialogue. In Alice Walker’s story “Everyday Use,” which explores conflicts within an African-American family and the complexities of ethnic identity in the 1960s, the daughter Dee returns from college to her rural hometown. But now Dee has a new name.
“No, Mama,” she says. “Not ‘Dee,’ Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!”
With this one line, Walker shows us the dynamics of this particular family — that Dee wants to adopt a new name, that she is interested in her African roots; the story explores how this decision plays out with her mother and sister Maggie.
And, finally, there is the inestimable power of a character’s specific thought. There is the grand, compelling opening of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe, nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
The pure, honest, precise power of this statement speaks for itself.
A writer needs to remember — you are not exploring a “white guy” or “Latino girl,” you are exploring this particular person. And to go beyond this shorthand requires thought. What is this character’s history? What does he/she look like? What actions define him/her? What does this character love, hate, want? How can you make this character defy stereotype, teach us something new?
In real life, on the news, in conversation, it is painful to hear individuals reduced to vague identifying adjectives, for it reveals thinking that is unclear and ultimately menacing to another person. To use specific language, to really think about our characters, is not just good writing, but a moral duty. With the right descriptions, with the details that wake up the reader, writers can, perhaps, help them see past labels, and let go of their assumptions. We can, in our way, shine a light into the wide variety of people who walk the streets beside us. If this light can reveal all of a person’s strange, glorious uniqueness, perhaps we, as readers, as people, may be able to actually see each other. Not as “the black guy” but as a person. Trayvon.
Karen E. Bender is a novelist, author of "Like Normal People" and "A Town of Empty Rooms," which was recently published by Counterpoint Press. You can visit her at karenebender.com.More Karen E. Bender.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
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