The Hunger Games, Rue, and Ethnicity

The kerfuffle surrounding the shortsighted, racist tweets about Rue, Thresh, and Cinna in The Hunger Games makes me wonder about race/ethnicity in my own work. I try to populate my novels and short stories with characters as diverse as the people who exist in my real life (which, living in a metropolitan area with a spouse who works in for an international corporation that draws global talent, is pretty damned diverse). However, I do not tend to make it a feature of the story (just like my life). Other than for verisimilitude of setting, if this or that character is Black or Asian or Caucasian is irrelevant (IMO) unless it furthers the story (unlikely–since I don’t write those kinds of stories),or tells me something I need to know about the character or their relationship with others (possible). I don’t really like spending a lot of time filling in descriptive details about a character’s appearance because A) it bores me to do it and B) I’d like to let the reader fill in those blanks with personal referents so they feel more attached to the characters. But B) is the real problem, isn’t it?

As a reader, unless I’m told otherwise, either overtly or through hints, I know I often simply imagine characters who resemble me because that is my closest frame of reference.1 That’s a consequence not only of personal identity, but also of privilege, I know. But how do I, as a white writer, make the race of a character clear without also making it an issue or treating it inauthentically? Well, I tend to do it just like Suzanne Collins did in The Hunger Games: I drop a short, easily missed, reference to complexion or hairstyle and barrel right on past. Thus, I suppose I might be setting a particular kind of reader up for surprise or disappointment when they learn later that the character he or she was rooting for is not white. But to be honest, if that kind of reader is disappointed or feels less empathy toward a character in a novel because they’re not exactly like him or her, I don’t really care. Sure, I’d like to appeal to as great an audience as possible, but I’m aware that as a result of writing horror I’ve already lost the interest of a giant swath of the reading public. Losing the faith of a few more who can’t empathize as well with a black kid as opposed to a white one doesn’t feel like much of a loss to me. It’s not really those readers I’m worried about.

The reader I’m concerned with is the one for whom the tale would have been enriched by having a character in an active role be a person of color, or handicapped, or gay, or anything other than a white, cisgendered male.2 I’m concerned that because I was too timid to do that character’s appearance or identity justice and tip-toed around a touchy subject someone didn’t have as rich an experience as if they’d known. Where is that line? What do you think? At what point does the description of a character become intrusive and detract from your experience with a story?

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1 I’m reading Andrew Vachss’ “That’s How I Roll” presently, and I have to keep reminding myself that the main character is white, not black. I don’t know why this is. I think it has to do with my association with the slang title, how I first heard it, and the person I would imagine using it as framing device for their story.

2 Appropriate to setting, of course. It’s not likely that a bunch of drag queens are going to be hanging out in a rowdy cowboy bar in rural Idaho, I imagine. Or would they? Hmmm. I might need to think about that one.

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~ by poǝןɔɐɯ uǝʞɔɐɹq on 03/04/2012.

One Response to “The Hunger Games, Rue, and Ethnicity”

  1. “Thus, I suppose I might be setting a particular kind of reader up for surprise or disappointment when they learn later that the character he or she was rooting for is not white.” –i liked this most of the entry. as for the rest of the entry (as you’ve asked, “What do you think?” to the reader) felt like paralyzing overthinking… particularly this part: “anything other than a white, cisgendered male”– you’ve got enough writers across the globe, and those in other publically scrutinized fields like it, worrying themselves sick over such things. nothing wrong with being a white male or speaking from that very perspective if it suits the work. no need to reply to this just my lame two cents. peace!

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