Foreign Bodies

My current naturist fiction work-in-progress is a novel set in the 17th-century Caribbean, a setting that my research has shown me to be not unlike a massive mixing bowl of peoples and cultures. Among the characters I’ve been creating, there are several who are indigenous to the Caribbean, others born in Africa, still more born in Europe, and a couple who are originally from Asia. I’m proud of this diversity, and doing my best to write it as well as I possibly can.

On that note, I happened across this article a couple days ago, “Who Gave You the Right to Tell That Story?” The writer, Lila Shapiro, discusses the pitfalls for authors who write characters of backgrounds very different from their own. After mentioning some recent controversies surrounding cultural representation and appropriation in contemporary novels, Shapiro sums up: “The conversation is often depicted in the media as a binary: On one side are those who argue that only writers from marginalized backgrounds should tell stories about people who share their cultural histories — a course correction for an industry that is overwhelmingly white — while on the other are those who say this wish amounts to censorship.” Her article is followed by brief commentaries on such experiences by ten contemporary writers, who describe the challenges in writing older or younger characters, characters of different races, religions, or capabilities, etc.

In any case, as my fellow host Robert wrote just last week in his post, “Writing What You Know,” “The characters need to be real with believable personalities. And, that can only happen when the author writes what is known because of having lived with and related to other humans in various activities and situations.” 

Truly there is a great responsibility in hewing as closely as possible to lived experience, as well as to using speculation and imagination with the greatest possible attention to detail and to context. To the case at hand, I include below a passage from an exchange between Captain Barlo and Eddie Fife, two of the main characters in this novel-in-progress of mine. The captain is a native speaker of Yoruba, not English. Does he speak English too well in this passage? Perhaps, although the reader later learns how it is that he came to speak English with such control. But another answer to that question is, You can’t please everyone. And yet another answer is, I don’t care, I need him to speak very well, and he’s my character, so there!

Davy King (model) – concept art for Captain Barlo


Captain Barlo began to walk away, and Eddie noticed for the first time the long scar running almost vertical along his back, a deep mark that must have been left by a whip. Eddie dared attempt to detain him with a question.

“Captain, where are we?”

He replied without turning around. “In the middle of the sea.”

Eddie sighed. “Aye, Captain.”

Then the captain spun on his heel. “Do you have a particular reason to know where we are, more precisely?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Then let me tell you where we are, more generally. I shall locate you, since you seem in need of… orientation. Here in the great bowl of this sea we come to mix – we, the wayward peoples of other lands, all tossed and washed together in this same basin. And we are blessed to mingle here, where there is nothing so fresh as the fish, the fruit, the flowers. Here in the Caribbean, the ill-fitting nationalities and religions of old–the strictures and restrictions of all kinds–they wear thin, and threadbare, and fall off like old breeches. Here, Fife, you can be free, in ways that I suspect you have not known to exist. Freedom, Fife! Will you understand? This New World…this is freedom.”


I’m happy to cede the last word on this matter of creating diverse characters to the celebrated contemporary writer Zadie Smith, with whose recent statement, in her essay “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” I find myself much in agreement: “For years now, in the pages of my novels, ‘I’ have been both adult and child, male and female, black, brown, and white, gay and straight, funny and tragic, liberal and conservative, religious and godless, not to mention alive and dead. All the voices within me have had an airing, and though I never achieved the sense of contentment I saw in that cartoon [a caricature of Charles Dickens happily surrounded by his literary characters], over time I have striven to feel less shame about my compulsive interest in the lives of others and the multiple voices in my head.”

3 thoughts on “Foreign Bodies”

  1. Take the attitude that it is arrogant and presumptious to write as “the other” to the (logical?) extreme, and the only acceptable writing would be fictionalised or non-fictionalised autobiography. No (future-set) SF, no fantasy, no historical fiction. (And vastly less biography!) EM Forster would have written only Maurice. Virginia Woolf could not have written Orlando. We would not have the (applicable?) quote: Lord, what fools these mortals be!

    IMO it’s not only legitimate to attempt to present the experience of the other, it is essential to a healthy body of literature. A good writer will research to assist in making the character(s) convincing and self-consistent, often giving readers insights and information they would never have gathered otherwise.

    Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

    1. Thanks for voicing this opinion, Tim. I completely agree! The author must try the best she or he can to bring diverse characters to life, but ultimately the readers decide if an author’s representation of characters – any characters – rings true.

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