“The drought is over, precious rain’s returned at last…” is how a song of mine begins. That lyric’s been in my head these days, because even though our particular Pacific Northwest drought ended a month ago, in my personal climate, it’s just beginning to sprinkle. This post promises to be the first downpour in months.
Got your umbrella handy?
Although I’m a writer, I don’t tend to use this blog to talk about writing—with exceptions, of course, when I have actual Author Events to report, like a new book.
If you scroll through the last couple of years, you won’t find more than passing references to the writing project I’ve been working on since traveling to New Zealand for research in early 2019 (and before that, in 2017). Casual readers of Wing’s World as well as casual friends could easily assume, if Gretchen’s not blogging about writing, it’s because she’s busy actually, you know…writing.
So what to assume when she stops blogging at all? Shrug emoji.
To make a short answer long: I stopped blogging this summer because my writing project stalled so thoroughly that I temporarily lost my identity as a writer. Yeah, I dabbled in poetry, wrote a few articles for local publications. But having lost control of my larger writing goal, I didn’t feel Wing’s World had anything to contribute.
I’ve been waiting. Thinking. Journaling. Keeping silent, then talking. Mourning a little. And finally, just now—planning. And Step One of this plan involves telling y’all about it.
The best way to tell this story is to share the pitch I had been working on, with my then co-author, who will remain nameless here. Take it away, GW & __.
Book Proposal (V.8) for The Limits of Empathy: Why a White Author Ran in Black Shoes—and Took Them Off
These phrases—white fragility, white defensiveness, white appropriation—have a habit of standing in for the complicated mess of a true conversation. –Claudia Rankine, Just Us
Just how messy, how complicated, is “true conversation”? Is that why so few people are actually having them?
Systemic white supremacy—intentional and enabled—has become a red-hot literary topic: in the summer of 2020, fifteen of Amazon’s top twenty books dealt with race and racism.
Right on. I read Kendi and DiAngelo. Now what?
Entitlement. Exceptionalism. Deniability. That’s what white author Gretchen Wing discovered after writing a novel with a protagonist of Color. The Limits of Empathy: Why a White Author Ran in Black Shoes—and Took Them Off will be the first book to expose how white supremacy culture unspools silently onto the fictional page despite the best of intentions. Through the medium of conversation—complicated and messy—between its Black and white co-authors, The Limits of Empathy probes the implications of writing across the racial divide.
In a mix of literary case study and cautionary tale, Wing splays Kiwi Crossover—the fast-paced tale of an elite biracial American collegiate runner who flees to New Zealand to escape her trauma—on the examining table for her Black co-author, ____, and readers, to dissect. In the process, ____ and Wing demonstrate the next level of the ongoing dialog on race which Claudia Rankine alludes to in Just Us, but which no current anti-racism book offers.
Like Americans everywhere on the streets in the summer of 2020, the authors came together on the question of what matters. Meeting online with one purpose—to edit Kiwi Crossover—they discovered another: to expose and discuss, with care and personal vulnerability, the limits of authorial empathy. Who gets to tell whose stories, and when, and why?
In his critique of Kiwi Crossover, ____ illuminates how our lived experiences of race can erect a barrier too solid for good intentions to pass…and why those good intentions may cause more harm than understanding. The authors’ mutual pathfinding through this thorny thicket gives hope not only to writers and readers of fiction, but for anyone who yearns to bridge divides of understanding.
If published as originally planned, Kiwi Crossover could have joined the controversial ranks of The Help and American Dirt: another white narrative written from the perspective of a Person of Color. But Fate had other ideas.
First, in early 2020, seeking race-focused critique more stringent than that of her Black friends, Wing hired a recommended editor: ____, a Black man (married to a white woman, father of biracial children). That same week, Breonna Taylor was murdered by police, though national media took a full forty-four days to notice. Three days after Taylor’s murder was exposed, Ahmaud Arbery’s execution finally made national news, along with the horror of its having been ignored a full two months. And twenty-six days later, on May 25, George Floyd was tortured to death…and the Movement for Black Lives swelled around the world. By the time ____ submitted his notes, Wing no longer trusted her ability nor right to portray biracial protagonist, Delaney Grace. Kiwi Crossover appeared stillborn.
Facing the death of her novel, Wing felt the insistence of a transformational choice: the novel’s autopsy suddenly outweighed the story itself. So she asked ____ to join as co-author to examine how white supremacy culture had invaded her own work of fiction. He agreed.
The book’s structure immerses the reader in conversation. First, a brief, wry dialog between Wing and ____ invites the reader into their mindset as they face their daunting work. A preface entwines their personal stories: who they are, how they came to this moment together. Next, the main body of the book: the page-turning beat of Kiwi Crossover front and center (200 pages), with red flags on the margins. Those red flags signal “let’s talk,” and at the end of each flagged chapter, ____ and Wing do just that. Starting with ____’s comments, questions and discussion about the novel’s assumptions and blind spots, the conversation delves and winds through layers and mazes of understanding between two people of different race and gender. In what Claudia Rankine calls “the complicated mess of a true conversation,” ____ and Wing raise more questions than answers, but attest to the value of the questions themselves. The book concludes with Authors’ Q & A, and Discussion Questions for individuals and study groups to examine their own assumptions, or have their own conversations.
Still with me? Good.
The book proposal continues, as good nonfiction pitches should, with suggested readership, and ends with a roundup of seven comparable books, ranging from Ibrahim X. Kendi to Ijeoma Oluo. I wrote draft #8 in May, then sat back to wait for ___’s edits and suggestions. Since ___ is both a teacher and a parent of young children, I knew I shouldn’t expect anything from him until June. The poor guy was exhausted from a year+ of teaching and parenting under COVID, not to mention all the stress of Black people being constantly manhandled and murdered. He deserved a rest. We had all summer to get back to work together.
Then, on Memorial Day weekend, ___’s sister was found dead in her house. No explanations.
I gave him lots of space, checking in occasionally just to see how he and the family were doing. No doubt in my mind that our project was on hold. I just didn’t realize for how long.
Time to make this long story short. In September, ___ and I finally checked in with each other through more than just texting. In a long phone conversation, he acknowledged that his suppressed grieving had plunged him into a summer-long depression from which he was only now beginning to emerge. I said what I knew I had to say: “___, you’re too kind to do it yourself, so I’m going to pull the plug on our project. Your heart’s in the right place, but you just don’t have the capacity right now.” His response: “My therapist will thank you.”
Since that conversation, the rains have finally returned.
My own extended family’s tribulations also suddenly increased, causing the death of my/our book project to seem like that Casablanca-esque “hill o’ beans in this crazy world.” Only now, having given myself several hours of journaling-for-clarity as a 60th birthday present, has my personal drought loosened its grip.
I have worked up to a new idea: to turn this entire saga into a magazine article and pitch that. ___ has given his blessing. He even gave his blessing to this post. Thanks, ___.
What do you think? Have I piqued your interest? Does this sound like an article you’d read? Be kind but honest, please. I’m ready for the rain.
My interest is definitely piqued, Gretchen! Can’t wait to follow you on this new adventure. I’m guided to suggest that you “aim high.”
Love and blessings,
Thank you, Lorna. I’m feeling that way myself–at least in theory.
In response to your final question, yes, indeed. I need to be convinced of the truth of your premise that a “white “ writer cannot get into the skin of a “black” one. Alan Patton, Cry the nBeloved Country? Aren’t our hearts equally black, our blood equally red? Social and rearing differences can certainly raise seemingly impenetrable boundaries but these, I believe, can be crossed
Sent from my iPhone
I do not hold this as a universal premise. In fact, that question of who can “inhabit” whom was one of the main questions ___ and I were going to dig into. My decision not to try to publish Kiwi Crossover had to do with my OWN lack of fullness of cross- racial understanding, as well as the very sensitive timing, when Black lives are needing to be held in as careful a manner as ever in our history. To proceed with that book in this time would simply have embarrassed me, good intentions or not.
This is such an intense journey you’ve been on! It’s a good question, who can “inhabit” whom. I think it can be done—I’m reminded of when I read She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, and I was stunned at how he could write so perceptively from the perspective of a young woman.
Obviously, to write something from the perspective of a Black or biracial character is an especially sensitive topic at this moment in history. I think you took the best approach, to try to work collaboratively with a Black writer. I hope your project ultimately comes to fruition—it obviously needs you!
Thank you, Laurel. I don’t know if I’m the person the project needs, but it does seem to need someone, so I’m gonna give it a go!
My heart is with you, Gretchen, as you navigate this terrain. Although I’ve been with you as a writing friend through the drafting of the novel and the proposal for a dialogue with a writer of Color, I appreciate the overview you posted here. I admire the way you’re staying with this challenging work and revealing the examination all of us white writers (and white people in general) need to do.
As much as I anticipated the collaboration with your co-author, your offer to “pull the plug” on the project strikes me as a selfless action that respects the burdens he carries. We all undoubtedly would have learned a lot from the collaboration, but perhaps at too great a cost to your co-author. I’m grateful for your sensitivity and your perseverance, and I look forward to learning and supporting as I can.
Thank you, Iris. Your support throughout this process has kept me going. Still does. 🙂