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The novel I am just completing and will be sent out to my beta readers this week will be a very controversial story.
MURRAN is the story of a young African-American boy named Trey coming of age in the 1980s, and his rite of passage to adulthood. Trey is a member of a ‘crew’ in Brooklyn and is enticed into helping a violent drug gang. He is eventually framed for murder and flees with his high school teacher to his Maasai village in Kenya. There, Trey learns what a true Black African and African culture is, goes through the Maasai warrior’s rite of passage, becomes a young shaman, and returns to America to confront the gang leader that framed him.
The story is a politically incorrect version of Black America. The language, scenes and characters are realistic and gritty. Certain characters use profanity appropriately and the gang members use the ‘N’ word liberally. I wanted this book to be as close to reality as possible.
Oh! And it’s written by a white boy.
So, I hired a story polisher who had the knowledge of the gang culture and teenage crews in Brooklyn at that time to check on my facts and semantics.
So I thought some thoughts on controversial fiction would make a nice blog post.
The IB blog ran a post on How to Write About Controversial Subjects. Let’s see how his rules for writing that kind of fiction were followed by me in MURRAN.
Do your research
It doesn’t matter what you write about, you should always do a certain level of research. Some stories require more research than others, but if you’re going to write about a touchy subject, you need to make sure that you know what you’re talking about.
I spent several years researching MURRAN. I had two challenges in this regard. First, learn as much as I could about the gang culture – their society, language, reasons there of – and the Maasai tribe. To backstop my research on the gang culture, I hired a story polisher who had personal experience with the gang culture. As for the Maasai, I have been to Africa several times so I had a good feel for the environmental aspects of the story. I was able to include many areas of my Brooklyn experiences since I grew up there. The research on the Maasai and the gang culture came from reading many books, visiting many websites and interviews.
Ask an expert
You can read as many books as you like, but there’s nothing like speaking to someone who has been there and done it.
My story polisher Kenji Jasper was an invaluable help in making sure my research ran true for the time period of the story and the lifestyle and semantics of the gang culture. He grew in the city and around the gang culture during the timeline of the story.
Do it for the right reasons
Controversial subjects are there to be tackled, but make sure you’re doing it because it’s integral to your story. No other reason.
I structured MURRAN to show the juxtaposition between one view of what it means to be an African and another. The view of what is an African-American today and what a true African is in the form of a Maasai. The view of what it means to be a street warrior in a gang and what a true Maasai warrior is. The view of the current African-American values in certain circles and the values held by the Maasai tribe. This approach is filled with controversy.
Prepare yourself for criticism
It’s likely that someone will take offense to what you’ve written. If you’ve done your research and got the experts in, that shouldn’t be a problem. You can rest assured that your work is accurate, plausible and handled correctly. Any complaints, well, it comes with the territory.
If MURAN becomes popular, I fully expect it to upset many people in certain political circles. It will come with the territory. After all, the story is a conservative view of the Black experience in this country and —- it’s written by a white man. One objection will be what does a white man know about the Black experience in this country. I retort, what does a white man know about any ethnic group or society or culture. Research is research and as long as the end result is factual, it doesn’t matter.
Don’t be shy
Finally, if you are going to write about a controversial subject, do it with gusto and empathy. If you are tentative, you will run into problems and your authorial shyness will come through on the page. It will lead to half-hearted characters and a plot that drifts.
No problem there. As long as I use them appropriately from characters who state from their on personal experiences and individual behavior – which they do - the profanity and the ‘use of the N’ word is unabashedly used. It’s my characters speaking from their true selves – not me.
So, what about you? How do you approach controversial subjects in your writing? Have you or will you be writing controversial fiction? Let me know in the comments.