I don't know if I know what's home. What I thought was home never was, and what I'm running toward and trying to catch always seems out of reach. I try to find home within me, but that eludes me too.
All this is bubbling up as my trip to Russia draws nearer and nearer. The conversations on whether or not I can write a black character made me think hard about my own identity and how I'm trying to run away from it because I don't know what it is anymore. Gissel Escudero has sent me this very helpful post by Kristin Nelson of Nelson Agency: Can White Authors Write Characters of Color? Within this post there are links to more posts, each expanding on this topic, so I've read them all, and all the posts linked within those other posts, and so on, and every one of them talked about what many of you and what my writing mentor has been trying to tell me for years (those who know me tried telling me gently, those who don't harshly)—write my truth. As I've seen with TUBE, no matter how hard I try to adopt this new me, the American me, I'm not American. I'm Russian-American, in terms of my ethno-racial group, and I'm Russian by nationality since I was born in Russia and came to America in my twenties and have lived here for almost twenty years (fours years out of those in Germany). But inside me I don't know who I am, really. And I didn't realize what kind of responsibility a black writer's request of me to write a black character would present. And that's facing my own fear of telling my true stories.
When I tried telling them as a child, no one would listen. But when I changed the facts and made them into fiction or made them funny, people did listen. And so when I came here and tried to chuck my Russianness to the point of writing and thinking in another language, trying to pretend to be like everyone else, trying not to look like an immigrant, trying to look and sound like I belong, I thought I could do it. I thought I ought to write American stories. I thought nobody would be interested in my Russian stories. I'm used to being shunned and told to shut my mouth, or told I'm a liar and should know better than telling things that didn't happen. And so I thought that by assimilating in a new country I could somehow escape.
I've gotten so good at pretending, people who meet me for the first time believe I'm one of them. They think I'm American. I even legally changed my last name so no one would guess I'm Russian. And I've succeeded. But when I shared online my post on diversity and was criticized for it on Twitter, it hardly crossed people's minds that I'm not the white American writer who's either out of ignorance or out of arrogance has decided to appropriate the black culture and marginalize black people even more by playing on stereotypes and aiming to capitalize on my white privilege by stealing the voice of those who know first-hand what it's like to be black in America, when I don't. Hardly anyone thought that I'm a foreigner. If my skin color were different, or my facial features, it would've been more apparent. But I look like your regular American girl, my only prominent Russian feature my square jaw, and the lashing I got was aimed at what people thought I'm in their minds.
I know this will happen again, and so my bubble has burst. I thought I had run away into a place where I can be unknown, where I can lick my wounds and heal, as far away from Russia as possible, but it turns out I can't. On one side, I'm battling with not having enough cultural knowledge to become a successful commercial writer in America as my book subjects aren't mainstream and/or are frowned upon by the mainly male-dominated white publishing scene. I have started self-publishing because I've been told by agents that my books simply wouldn't sell—they're too dark. I write about suicide, depression, metal illness; psychological disorders like ADD, PTSD, anxiety, anorexia; communication disorders; sexual abuse, rape, incest. The list goes on. These are the things I grew up with, and like it or not, I can't get rid of them in my writing. It's who I am, and it's what comes out. I do hate it sometimes, and so most of the time I feel like I don't belong. I have no home. The only time I do feel at home is when I write, or when you tell me you're read something of mine and have connected with it.
So I was thinking hard today again about Zhanna. What do I want to say? Why am I writing it? I'm writing a story about me—a woman without a home, an immigrant, an outcast, a traumatized bundle of nerves, a walking host of disorders—and I'm taking it a notch up by making Zhanna a psychopath and a murderer. And that's what I am in my own head when I think back to the violence I've lived through at the hands of my family. It was considered a norm, and I never questioned it, until I ran away to America and started writing. In that way Zhanna's ethnicity or nationality or skin color doesn't matter to the story, it's not central, but by making her black I make it matter, and it will take away from the story I'm trying to tell and will make it about racism simply because it's a story that I will publish here in America, and not in Russia, and that's not why I'm writing it. But it has become so ingrained in my brain with my fellow writer's request to write a black character, and I've read since then so much about racism and lack of diversity in today's publishing world, and, more than anything, since I gave my promise to do it and will honor it—I'm going to have a black character in Zhanna, but it won't be a main character, it will be someone whom she or other POV characters can observe, just as I have observed black people when I came to America. Now that's authentic. That is what I know, and then I can write her as an immigrant. And this way I'll also be able to write about my astonishment and admiration of black people (blogged about it here) through the eyes of the killer, and her struggle with loving Erasmus and wanting to kill him because he's a man. That's my struggle as well.
Another benefit to this change is that now I can write Zhanna's observations (as a killer) in the first person voice without worrying if she sounds authentic or not. I can make her have Russian accent. And I won't have to research Afro-Russian stories (I've heard of them but never really had any Afro-Russian friends). And I'll write Erasmus in the third person. If I decide to make him black, then I will break the stereotype of the white savior, which I like. This will also add to the conflict of them as a couple, and I do know plenty of white women who have dated black men and have been too afraid to share their stories (their families shun them, black women call their boyfriends traitors, black men leer at them, white women are jealous of them, white men are angry at them, etc.), so then I can share their stories, real stories I've heard from friends, in the same way I've shares real stories in Irkadura, stories that are so terrible they're kept secret by generations. But I haven't decided yet. I don't know if Erasmus will be black or white.
All this said, Zhanna is a work in progress at the moment. I'm on the second revision of the chapter outline, so I don't know what will happen to it. I might change my mind yet again because I might learn something new. And that's okay. I've seen what happens when I try to write a story that's not quite mine. TUBE started out as a train story in America, but I've only been on a train in America once, so after many months of agony and editing, TUBE is now finally a train story in Russia, where I've been riding trains all my life. So we'll see what happens with Zhanna, but as of today I feel like something important has shifted, and I have to thank you all who have given me your feedback for this change. Your perspectives, your opinions, your stories help me write better books, and when I feel that the book I'm writing is good and true to who I am, I feel at home. Nothing compares to that feeling.