Monday, January 31, 2011
THE WOMEN AND MR. JOHNSON
I've been an avid, unconditional supporter of the Women's Movement since the 1960s. Furthermore, I'm the father of an artist daughter who is also a business woman, owner and operator of Faire Gallery/Cafe in Seattle, which I support by putting my money where my mouth is. In my first published novel, Faith and the Good Thing (1974), the protagonist is Faith Cross, a beautiful, idealistic, Candide-like seeker of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; and the Swamp Woman in that novel knows Western philosophy like Bill Gates knows computers. I suspect Faith is probably the first heroine in a very robust black, philosophical novel. (I wrote that book while finishing my master's degree in philosophy.) In fact, the feel or spirit of that early novel is one of misandry, or hatred of men.
But like the men in my later novels and stories, the women range the full gamut from wise to not wise, enlightened to unenlightened, attractive to repulsive, noble to petty, mature to immature---just like people in the real world. You have the protagonist in "A Soldier for the Crown" in Soulcatcher and Other Stories, a character black women tell me they like; and Amy Griffith in Dreamer is a paragon of strength and virtue, as is Isadora Bailey in Middle Passage (who is overweight when that novel opens, yes, and I do get criticized for that detail, but is anyone going to argue that obesity isn't a problem for Americans, black and white, male and female?) By contrast, Flo Hatfield in Oxherding Tale (1982) is my version of the courtesan Kamala in Herman Hesse's Siddhartha (kama means desire in Sanskrit): a slave-owner who sexually exploits the black men she keeps in bondage. A person who, a Buddhist would say, is herself enslaved to hedonism, vanity, and selfishness, just as any man in a position of (white) privilege and power might be. Yet Flo has her scars from living in a patriarchal society, i.e., a humanity that has been denied, and reasons for being as she is.
I never create characters, male or female, on the basis of ideology, or political
agendas, or pre-established meanings. My novels are not political tracts or agitprop, nor are my characters one-dimensional, one-note creations. I don't flinch from realistic details that deliver the individuality and uniqueness of my characters in their emotional nakedness, warts and all. To write well is to explore all the dimensions, "good" and "bad," of a character, the same way a good biographer (or scientist) explores his or her subject. So I can't really say what a feminist scholar will think about the women in my fiction. But I will say, as a literary artist and teacher of the craft of fiction-writing for thirty-three years, that character is the engine of storytelling, and fidelity to individual characters in all their complexity, ambiguity, contradictions, and granularity of detail is the antidote to mediocre fiction in which characters are no more than emblematic of a pre-fabricated, abstract idea.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 2:54 AM