So…I’m reading Little Bee by Chris Cleave, but why am I thinking about Wally Lamb and Arthur Golden?
The bookjacket blurb for Little Bee (published as The Other Hand in the UK) doesn’t give away much about the story, just that it is about two women “whose lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again–the story starts there…Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.”
This little teaser has kept me from reading reviews of the book–I want to see how the magic unfolds!–so all I know thus far is that one of the women is a young Nigerian woman, Little Bee, who comes to England as a refugee, and the other is a British woman (presumably white) who is the editor-in-chief of a prominent women’s magazine.
As the magic is unfolding, I find myself thinking back to two other engrossing books I’ve read that were written by men featuring female main characters–She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. While some readers were pleasantly surprised at Lamb’s ability to write so astutely in the female voice, others considered it an affront that he would dare to do so. In addition to gender-related criticism, Golden also faced additional layers of controversy related to race, culture, and breach of contract:
After the Japanese edition of Memoirs of a Geisha was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel. The plaintiff asserted that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients, if she told him about her life as a geisha. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to face a serious backlash. She even received death threats. Arthur Golden of his behalf countered that he had tapes of the conversations. Eventually, in 2003, Golden’s publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.
Iwasaki later went on to write her own autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentieth-century geisha than the one shown in Golden’s novel. The book was published as Geisha, a Life in the U.S. and Geisha of Gion in the UK.
Back to Cleave…While I’m steering clear of reviews of Little Bee, I did read a brief review of his previous, debut novel, Incendiary. The review notes, “Cleave has mimicked the voice of a working-class woman with remarkable persuasiveness…”
Certainly Cleave, Golden, and Lamb aren’t the first male writers to pen protagonists who aren’t white males. And I don’t dismiss such writing out of hand any more than I would a black female writer whose protagonist isn’t black and female. But with the former, my radar still goes up regarding the question of authenticity and also of intent, especially across color lines. It’s a double standard, perhaps, but not without some basis. Historically and contemporarily, too often representations of non-whites penned (or filmed) by whites are indeed inauthentic, grounded in stereotypes, racial fantasy, fetish or objectification, or otherwise in the service of racism and the status quo of social injustice. Experiences and perspectives of women viewed through a male lens can also yield similar results.
Inauthentic, stereotypical, or otherwise problematic representations are possibilities when writers write across gender and race, but are they probabilities? Anybody else employ a radar like mine? Or do you just read the damn book? And what about with regard to film and other art forms?
(You can view Cleave’s Amazon promo for Little Bee here.)