I should write short stories. I keep at this novel ambition while I have yet to produce anything other than pieces of one that please me. Walk to run to fly. That kind of thing. I haven’t written one in some time. When I did, it was from the perspective of a young black man. I am not joking. It all started when a teacher at grad school, the estimable Colum McCann, gave me one of his savory, lilting maxims. He said something like, “If you’re not going so far out on a limb that you’re terrified the limb is going to break, you’re not going far enough.” This in mind, I thought nothing could stand on a limb thinner than a pretentious white brat putting himself in a minority’s mind. To my credit, the story I wrote was largely true, and concerning a local boy my family has been close to for years. They, my family, were living in a particularly integrated neighborhood near Muskegon High School, a strip of fine old heritage homes on Jefferson Street. A few blocks in either direction, the tax-bracket inverted. We all but inherited a boy from the area. He was a fine young man and came in for family meals every so often. Dad would have Junior, as he was called, do chores with him and then give the kid an allowance. He stayed in school to this day and our family remains in touch with his, though my parents have retired to another state. For a while there they were exchanging Christmas presents, my parents giving video game systems and other time wasters. I think they ended up with an old computer I had built. If all of this sounds like white guilt and as if we patronized the family by patronizing them, you’re missing the feel of the relationship, which remains warm and evolved organically from the boy’s visits to our house to meet the new neighbors. One place where Junior lived had no mattresses for sleeping. My dad was a doctor. They were friends, and friends help each other. Simple. So I told this true story from the kid’s perspective and was told it was an allegory for colonialism. It is not the first time my plain experience has been called an allegory for something or other. This one just seemed a bit too clear. Out on that limb I did not categorically fall, though some of my fellows in workshops told me I could not do what I had just done. I understand that I do not and cannot understand the black experience, any more than anyone who isn’t black can, but I do not find it necessarily wrong to attempt as much. Even considering the especially troublesome relations of my race and theirs, a special one for sure that cannot be dismissed, the exercise brought me closer to understanding what I cannot understand. Often that is the best I can hope for when undertaking such a challenge – that I will be informed of what will forever elude me, and thereby take the nature of the relationship as what it is. All that in mind, I think it is time I climb back out on McCann’s limb and look around. What I find there may not be worth publishing, but it might, and will definitely be worth learning from either way.
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