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Sometimes, Is it Just a Black Thing???

 

I had someone very well respected in publishing take a look at my self-published novel: My Name is Butterfly.

 

The person gave her honest review of the story and some of what she said I've heard from other people in the industry who have read my previous books as well as every day people who just like to read. What I've found is this: While white people enjoy my stories, they often complain about the language my characters use to express themselves, the sex scenes and the violence.

 

And while I cannot be accused of utilizing foul language, sex or violence gratuitously - I rarely hear this complaint from readers who share the same cultural background as I do.

 

 So it got me to wondering if in some instances when we do not understand one another, could it be because it's a black thing? Have black people been predisposed to so much violence (both physical and verbal) that when we read it (or in my case when I write it) we barely flinch?

 

 Does it have to do with how we were raised? I came from a home that did not censor my reading material or what I watched on television. I raised my daughter that way and my sister is raising her children in the same way.

 

 I won't say that we weren't chased out of the room when grown folks were talking - but maybe we weren't chased out of the room as often and most kids. My parents had a volatile relationship. They fought and argued right in front of us.

 

The only thing that happened behind closed doors was their sex. And we knew what sex was - our grandmother talked about sex with the same enthusiasm that your grandmother discussed needlepoint or cookie recipes.

 

 Nothing was hidden. And death...well death was and still is a significant part of life. My sister tells a story of heading off to school one morning and coming across a dead body on the sidewalk. She was about twelve or thirteen years old. She stepped around it and continued on to school. Her thought at that moment: "The man is dead. There is nothing I can do about it and I can't be late to school."

 

We are a matter of fact type of family and I think in many respects that black people are a matter of fact type of people. This is not to say that we are not passionate - we are, history demonstrates that.

 

But we do have an It is what it is attitude -- until well, it isn't. Now where my writing is concerned - I've been known to pilot my reader through heartbreak and despair, stripping them down to their emotional hide. I think you "feel" the most when you're exposed and vulnerable.

 

I don't pull punches and I don't whitewash - it's not my style and I'm not sorry for it. An author friend of mine tells me that I have a: Gayle Jones streak in me...and I guess I do. Maybe the impatience I feel in my own life leaks into my writing.

 

I can't stand books that are filled with fluff and muck in order to reach some publisher contracted page count. Fillers that not only weigh down the story, but takes away from it. It's hard for me to stick with those types of books - and I feel bad about that because they're probably really excellent stories that I will never know because it was just too difficult for me to see the forest for the trees... I think in most of my novels I take the reader directly to the forest and offer up the trees as back-story.

 

 There is an immediacy that has followed me like a specter my entire life and I wonder if it has to do with my ancestors or because of the near fatal car accident I was involved in or because of the Mayan Calendar...(<<<--LOL)

 

But seriously, tell me readers how much of what you read has to do with how you were raised and how you live now and writer's how much of what you write relates to your upbringing and present lifestyle?  I don't know if I've made any sense here. I've got a lot of stuff swirling in my head and I don't even know if the title of this post is accurate - but it is what it is.

 

 All of what I've said ends with this: I've made my novel: My Name is Butterfly available for .99 cents until the end of May. You can download from AmazonB&N and on your other reading devices from Smashwords. The best way to describe the story is: Chris Cleave's "Little Bee" meets Sapphire's "Push."

 

 The story centers on the practice of ritual servitude in Ghana and how this practice destroys and then reshapes the Tsikata family. The person I mentioned earlier in the post said this about the subject matter: 


"You've also chosen a subject that is nearly impossible for most American readers to fully understand--writing about the long-term results of Trokosi is a little like writing about a five-year old who undergoes a cliterectomy, with most other Africans accepting this unspeakably awful cultural practice."

 

 

In light of this and because I'm really curious to hear the thoughts from readers - American and otherwise - I’ve dropped the price of the e-book from $6.99 to .99cents. It's an experiment of sorts that I think in the end will either propel me to make some changes to the story or keep it as it is. I appreciate your participation in the experiment and please do spread the word!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Bernice L. McFadden
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    Comments
    15 Comment count
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    How we are raised shapes our attitudes

    I read your post with great interest. In 1994, I saw a movie called Pulp Fiction, one of the most offensive movies ever. Why was I offended? It was violent and had bad language, and it glorified crime and drug use. But what offended me was the incessant use of the N word. Samuel L. Jackson said in a recent interview that blacks use the N word all the time. What's up with that?

    If constant use of offensive language is real life, that doesn't mean an author is obligated to use it in her storytelling. Bowel movements and vomiting are real life, too, and I resent the recent trend in TV and movies graphically showing these body functions (and others).  I'm not about censorship, just good taste. Constant use of the N word (a word my conservative white parents forbade me to use) turns me off.

    So you are absolutely correct. How we are raised does affect our attitudes toward all forms of entertainment. I believe in free speech, but not at the expense of offending people. I have many black friends and colleagues, and I'd never let anyone get away with using the N word to them. If they want to use it with each other, that's not my business. But they know better than to use it in front of me!

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    how much of what you read has to do with how you were raised

    I like to read interesting books that are devoid of vulgar language. I hate it in real life and was not raised with them.

    There are certain actions that are a part of our lives and we can't run from them. In fact, we must capture them in writing eg. sex, violence, murder, guns, etc but we mustn't get too graphical doing such. Portraying them within a certain acceptable confine will entertain a large number of people, myself included but beyond that boundary, it turns vulgar and turns off a lot of people, myself included.

    It all boils down to what each of us term as decent and vulgar. For me, you don't need to become vulgar to tell a good story or write a bestseller.

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    I completely agree with you,

    I completely agree with you, I have always thought that if and when I use vulgar language it is because I have no intelligent word for the place instead, or that I am not able to control my emotions and therefore use profanity to get across the mood I am in, which I don't like because I think that one of the main reasons why we are down here is to be at peace in the mind and control those emotions.

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    It's a money thing

    I grew up an immigrant and then child of divorce so as soon as my family made some money it all went away in the divorce battle. I grew up poor. I had to work for the money to buy anything other than food from the time I was 12 years old. The world of poor people is more violent, more angry, less therapeutically adjusted than that of people with money. More people with money happen to be white. More people who are poor happen to be black, brown or immigrants.

    Good taste is also the result of an abundance of resources. People who are strapped for their basic needs are angry, sad, depressed, readily provoked and generally exhibit all the characteristics of a mammal under stress.

    It's not a black thing, a Latino thing, a Jewish thing. It's a money thing.

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    I had to get out of my own way when I started to write

    Many moons ago I had a hard time not writing: About me.  Everything I wrote showed the ghost of my father and mother. So, I wrote a memoir. I threw my disappointments, fears, losses and eroticism into it. Then, I was done. I had to go somewhere else to peel away the me behind the curtain; my childhood and past lives were to become shadows of a person I know  and not everything I write about. So, while I still show up and want to tell my story my researched characters frequently tell me to take a hike and get a life of my own. :)

    Kareena Maxwell, Author

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    Is it a Black thing?

     

    I do agree also that how we grew up shapes our lives and values. However, my mother was very ole' school and we weren't privy to any adult discussions, heated or otherwise. I understand that perhaps some people have become desensitized to violence but it still affects me very much. I too am an African American author, and I don't think unnecessary violence, language or sexual content is a pass just so one is able to get their point across. There are other venues and I choose not to use this path to tell any of my stories. I'm not speaking from an individual who has been unscathed by life, very much so I've experienced violence in some of the worst ways. But there is other ways of "keepin' it real" and still grab the reader’s attention. I screen what I view and read very carefully because I am offended by graphic violence and language. In my opinion, this is the filler that you speak of. I believe that "fluff" as you've stated is a real substance and sometimes people relate better to a gentler approach than a hard one. 

     

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    Our Environment and Lifestyle Influence our Tastes

    I'm sure that who we are as writers has a lot to do with how we were raised by our parents but our experiences through life, our environment, culture, ethnicity and friends all contribute.

    For example, I'm a Caucasian and I grew up in a home where my mother was extremely regions while my father was an alcoholic (he quit drinking in his 50s and didn't touch a drop up to his death at 79) and he did not believe in religion or God.

    My older half brother ran with motorcycle gangs, was not religious, was into drugs, was illiterate, drank alcohol heavily, smoked, and spent about 15 years of his life in jail. He died at 64 a broken man. My older half sister is his exact opposite and is in her 80s now.

    Both my mother and father were avid readers but never graduated from high school.  My mother, on the other hand, would burn books that had sex scenes in them. My father never burned a book.

    At 19, after I graduated from high school, I joined the US Marines and ended up in Vietnam (the war started when I was in boot camp). When I returned from Vietnam in 1966, I drank heavily for the next fouteen years--then quit.

    My family and all of these experiences helped mold my beliefs and the types of books/art I enjoy, which explains why one of my favorite authors is James Lee Burke, who writes violent, disturbing, gritty novels. My favorite character of Burke's is Dave Robicheaux, a detective working near New Orleans who is also a Vietnam Veteran.  In addition, he struggles to stay sober because he is an alcoholic and tends to snap easily and become very violent.

    Graphic sex scenes, profanity and brutal violence in novels does not bother me as long as they fit the plot and are not there just to attract attention. In fact, I prefer books that tend to portray life as it really is instead of a sanitized fantasy world.  Thank you for writing on this topic.

     

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    I could ask, is it a Caribbean thing?

     

    I do believe our culture (our upbringing being a part of it) has a lot to do with how we respond to art. There are personal idiosyncracies, of course, things one person is uncomfortable with that sets her apart from her culture and upbringing…but as a general rule I’d say it’s on target. That said, as both reader and writer, I strongly believe that if you’re able to draw the reader into the world of the character, through use of detail, sense of place, well drawn characters and well rendered atmosphere (what you might call “fluff and muck”), you can make the reader forget that they’re out of their comfort zone or maybe even embrace it. For me, violence, language etc. is not an issue (though like Cheryl I could do without the details of what goes on in the bathroom) as long as it’s in service to the story and not merely gratuitous.  I don’t flinch from telling the truth in the world of the story but I try to give it context as well. Someone asked me recently about response to my new book Oh Gad! from non Caribbean readers…I’m still waiting to hear but I anticipate that some things that are culturally acceptable in Antigua, where I’m from, may stir a different kind of reaction in readers from outside of the Caribbean. But I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing…it’s okay for art to sometimes make us uncomfortable in my book.

     

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    black language, white language, plain old language

    I recently read ten pages from my novel at my college and was stunned afterward to realize the impact of curse words and the n-word. It was as if I had assaulted my audience. They paid rapt attention, but I felt the collective flinch when my characters used this language. It struck me that the n-word is different on the page, where it is documentary vs. spoken where it becomes socially interactive. I teach in an urban community college; I had a black student walk out, insulted by the n-word in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." Another time, when teaching August Wilson's "Fences," the class dialogued about how a white student reading Troy using the n-word sounded offensive and a black student doing the same sounded completely different. It's hard to have a conversation about race because people want to remain civil. But to ignore race, and especially for editors to abhor a manuscript because it springs from the ghetto, is oppressive. However, if the work isn't compelling literature on its own merit, then its use of sex, cursing or violence may consign it to pulp fiction.

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    Is this a perennial issue relating to psyches?

    Thanks for these thoughtful reflections, Bernice.

    I've been wrestling with similar questions. In my lifetime I've seen a wider acceptance of realistic language, in movies, on TV, and in books. I feel a writer portraying teenagers, soldiers on a battlefield, and others who use the language of the streets would be hamstrung if not allowed to use four letter words and salty images. I myself have a great urge to listen to people speaking, and to incorporate into stories the actual expressions that are used.

    But there are different personalities, different psyches. When someone who has not seen The Wire, or admired any of the groundbreakers I respect, or read the Native American Trickster stories, etc., reads a story with language of the street, and with images suppressed by the worldview he assumes is correct reality, he is disturbed. There are widely diverging audiences, and I don't think it is based just on ethnic backgrounds. I think the examples of writing we admire also play a part.

    There is a long history of writers getting into trouble with disapprovers and censors for telling it like it is, and this quetion of yours is part of that long story. Sometimes when I see someone who is appreciated for daring realistic portrayals (and for humorous and surreal imaginative ones) I marvel and wonder how he or she got away with it. But probably behind the scenes as the work was submitted there were covens of censors and supressors who tried to cut out the rough language and vivid scenes. It's hard enough to write candidly, but then the author has to defend his or her honest work too. It's an enduring story.

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    Definitely an upbringing thing

    As a writer who likes to "keep it real" when it comes to language and content, and someone who has written about people who are less than gentile, I know first hand that readers respond to such prose in a wide range of ways.  I don't think it's necessarily a race thing so much as a matter of upbringing and also age.  The more "mature" language and graphic imagery you are accustomed to being around, the more accepting of it it you will be.  Perhaps more black people than white have had to walk around a corpse on the way to school (quite the anecdote btw), but there are blacks who have led sheltered/pampered lives that would scream and faint at such a sight, and whites bopping their heads to Eminem rapping through their ipod speakers who would shrug and keep it moving like your sister.  I guess I'm saying that percentage wise such an attitude may be more common among blacks, but probably not genetics wise.  Tolerance of harsh prose most likely has a stronger correlation to income than anything else since income determines neighborhood and school and often number of parents around.  Also, I'd say younger readers on average have a higher tolerance than their elders.  They've seen more earlier and at a faster pace than the last generation did.  If some F-bombs and N-word usage turns off certain readers, so be it.  There are elements in just about any novel that are unappealing to some people.  Too rough, too flowery, too wordy, too simplistic, too whatever.  Every story insists on a certain person to write it and a certain way to be told.  That's my theory.  No story is for everybody no matter how hard an author tries.  Apparently there are even 12 people living under a rock who have no interest in reading 50 Shades of Grey.  I know this for a fact because I'm one of them.  I'm sure that My Name is Butterfly, no matter who published it and how much it's selling for, was written the way it needed to be for the story to best be told.  I don't have an e-reader though so I'll probably get to Sugar or The Warmest December first.

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    I am writing this quickly

    I am writing this quickly because after reading your blog I want to read your book. Swearing and violence works when it is appriopriate. I was very turned off by the violence and gratiotuious use of sex in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. So much so that I finished the second book only because I had spent money on it.

    But sometimes it works. I think one of the most moving movies for me "Boyz N the Hood" would not have opened my eyes to how people live had it been without the violence I would not have insight to the very real violence that landed a classmate of mine to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, his sole crime was stopping to call his mother ona  pay phone so she wouldn't worry that she would be late.

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    Realism in Literature

    A previous comment said, "I was very turned off by the violence and gratuitous use of sex in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series."

    As a child, the main character in 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' was physically and sexually abused by more than one of the adults/legal guardians in her life, which explains her character. I feel that it was necessary to include that violence and gratuitous use of sex. Watering it down might have lost some of the meaning behind her character.

    For example, in my next novel, which takes place during the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia from Vietnam to the Golden Triangle in Burma with the main character being a US Recon Marine on his third tour of combat, there will be much violence, profanity and some gratuitous sex because that's the way it was. To water it down would be dishonest and paint a picture that wasn't true.

    In fact, it was my experience that in the US Marines, almost every other spoken word is profanity with colorful sexual content. In addition, there were about 50,000 prostitutes servicing US troops around just one major naval base in the Philippines and more than 50,000 in Bangkok, Thailand, which represents just two cities and not much has changed near US foreign military bases.

    As a former US Marine that was stationed in Okinawa in 1965 before being shipped out to Vietnam and combat, heavy drinking, prostitution, drugs, profanity, violence and sex were part of the experience. To apply any politically-correct censorship to mollify potential readers that want this type of story watered down would be a crime. As General Sherman said after the American Civil War, "War is Hell!"

    Readers have a choice to read a book or not. In fact, with Amazon reviews, a reader may screen a novel without reading it to discover if it might shock their tender sensibilities, which means they do not have to buy and read it.

    If this sort of material is part of the story, the author should not compromise and the author should be the final decision maker since it is his or her story to tell.

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    Good point

    I totally agree. Sometimes it works though and sometimes itdoesn't.Millions of people agreed with the author and not with me. For me it was too much and to explicit. In a book about about the war in Vietnam the violence against people, be they solidiers or civilians , was very important and explaining the war in Vietnam cannot be done without talking about it. Nor could a story about abuse in rich white family. It just felt excessive and to explicit in that one particular case. I tried writing about an abusive relationship that I saw first hand and there was a limit to how much I could "sanitize" it without doing a grave injustice to the victim.

    I think violence and sex, when not used merely for the sake of having sex and violence in the story, is a powerful tool. The only book I read where the author was successfully able to talk about the violence without talking about it was Night by Elie Wiesel . But yes it is up to the author and the readers .

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    Some People Are Not Flies on a Wall:

    Unless we are writing fantasy or fluff, there is little use in overly censoring how people speak or feel, whoever they are in America, especially now that the Nation has dropped its pretences (while still lying about them) and is murdering innocent human beings of various colors in the name of various "wars" (on terror, drugs, for raw materials, etc).

      Write honestly and artfully, Bernice, and you will find your audience -- even in this Age of the Decline in Practicing Literacy.

    Alex Fraser -- Red Room; Macresarf1 -- Epinions. com; Glenn Anders -- Wellesnet. com