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Fiona Snyckers Tackles the Prickly Topic of White Writers Creating Black Characters

Fiona Snyckers

In a recent Thought Leader column, Fiona Snyckers writes that “the uncomfortable suspicion remains that for a white South African writer to create a black, first-person protagonist is somehow inauthentic – a form of literary blackface”.

Snyckers, the writer of a series with a lead character of mixed race, admits that, “Black stories are best told by black writers”. However, she also presents the argument that writing is an act of the imagination and that if writers were only permitted to write about characters that were exactly like them, it would make for very boring reading. Snyckers believes we should be careful not to give “white writers a free pass to ignore blackness forever”. She says, “It can’t be healthy for writers never to venture outside their comfort zones and that is certainly no way to build a vigorous local literary tradition”.

Team TrinityHis Master\'s VoiceReports Before Daybreak InkarnaSister-Sister

Several writers have commented on the article. Brent Meersman, whose Reports Before Daybreak and Five Lives at Noon, due out next month, have both white and black lead characters, agreed that it is a problematic issue, but he believes that the “act of trying to understand, of putting yourself in another shoes, that is so important”.

Nerine Dorman revealed that as a white South African author, she’s “almost too scared to write people of other races” into her fiction. However, she also realises that “to not do so is inauthentic to my own experiences”.

Rachel Zadok, author of Sister-sister, cautioned against the “the ideas colonialism and apartheid spent so many years trying to convince us of – that white and black denotes a different species of being”. She pointed out that writers often create characters from different cultures, and questioned why “the difference between black and white is treated like something beyond culture and circumstance, a divide so difficult to overcome the research must be deeper and more thorough than for any other character”.

At the risk of generalising, Sandile Memela, author of His Master’s Voice, said he had to make the point that “while blacks live in their own and other white world and thus gain deeper insight and understanding of whiteness or its anthropology, whites are limited to their white world and have superficial understanding of the black experience and reality”.

White South African writers who create black characters are often challenged about the authenticity of their writing. If their main protagonist is black, this challenge intensifies, and if they write in the first person, it intensifies further. There is something particularly intimate about first-person narrative. It gets under the skin of the character in a way that third-person seldom achieves.

When white writers are questioned about this issue, their reactions range from the exasperated to the downright tetchy. Why is this tired old issue being raised again, they seem to wonder. Has it not already been answered a thousand different times in a thousand different ways? But the question won’t lie down and die.

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