Little white lies | Renowned for her thought-provoking novels set in 19th century America, including her latest Passing for White, the Carnegie Medal-winning Tanya Landman takes to the stage with American stand-up comedian Reginald D Hunter and chair Daniel Hahn for a conversation about the long shadow slavery still casts over the USA. Why is it so hard for people to talk about race, and what are the implications for writers and comedians who try to tackle the subject?
“What matters is the story and representation.”
“This event is all my fault,” laughs Tanya. When writing her book Buffalo Soldier, she became obsessed with Reginald’s accent as she felt that his was the voice that she was looking to capture in the book. She’d watch his stand up, any shows he happened to be on, and listen to him. Last year, she said that this would be her dream event, and so here we are. Her new book is dedicated to Reginald, thanking him “for the 53%”, the accuracy he jokes she captured of his voice.
Tanya is aware that as a white woman, people could query why she writes as a young black woman in America’s South, for example, but on the topic of it being cultural appropriation, Reginald notes, “I don’t subscribe to that. If it weren’t for certain people, certain stories wouldn’t get told. What matters is the story and representation, it’s about stories getting told, and how they’re getting told.”
Ultimately, it’s about doing it right. “You want someone who will not do it from a white Western point of view,” he continues, noting that there’s several movies on important topics that are shown through a white missionary who comes to save the day. That’s what we don’t need.
“What matters most is authenticity.”
“In our culture, what matters most is authenticity,” he concludes. “We’re transported by authenticity. Cultural appropriation is complicated with a lot of cultural bias.” He says that his dad used to say to him – good music is good music, good food is good food, is doesn’t matter who made it – the same goes for literature.
“The whole point of fiction is writing someone that’s not yourself,” says Tanya, so she puts in a great deal of research to every topic. “The authenticity comes from being able to think in someone else’s head.”
In the case of Tanya’s books, it was almost startlingly authentic – Reginald’s Songs of the South saw him standing in fields that slaves used to work, and almost word for word, what he was saying had been published in Tanya’s book a few months prior. Hearing him on the show gave her goosebumps.
The discussion turns to whitewashing and the racial tension currently going on in Charlottesville and elsewhere, and Reginald points out, “Western culture has a lot for answer for, to make them think that they’re always represented at the highest level. They feel a threat coming on after being told they’re the greatest for so long.”
Take Westerns – a lot of the stories they’re based on come from and feature people of colour, but they were whitewashed and made big on the screen. Atrocities and crime became almost heroic. “They made massacres into legends.”
“Americans think every problem can be solved with a gunshot.”
Reading, more so than other platforms, lets you put yourself in someone’s head and develop a deep level of empathy, and while you can try your hardest, you have to know that not everyone will think you’ve achieved it. Some will see a good book, others cultural appropriation. “It’s a very sensitive and tricky area.”
And on the other side of reading, not everyone will be willing to step into someone else’s shoes. “They can be unwilling to see, unwilling to understand,” says Reginald, on the alt-right movement and others of its ilk. “A lot of their anger and racism is fear-based. They worry they’ll be extinct. Americans think every problem can be solved with a gunshot.” Look at American storytelling, and you’ll see it’s a common theme.
But back to the stories at hand. “True intellectualism is someone who remains continuously interested,” notes Reginald, “and these stories compel [Tanya]. She has a genuine interest and compassion in telling them.”
The event tackles many complex issues, and does so with astounding honesty that you rarely see. But the overriding takeaways in regards to the books at hand are that reading can transport you into others’ lives, learn beyond your own bubble, and that it’s the representation and the story being told that matters most.