Inspiration: Shonda Rhimes and the Depiction of a Diverse World

It’s premiere season, so let’s talk about TV.  And by TV, I mean TV writers.  And by TV writers, I’m talking about Shonda Rhimes.  The woman behind Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, but also Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (didn’t know that did you?).  Shonda once told Oprah that directors own movies, but television is all about the writers. I thank her for that because it gives me a good excuse to blog about Scandal.  🙂

In all seriousness, I actually really admire Shonda Rhimes, and have followed her career ever since I found out that a black, Ivy Leaguer (Dartmouth undergrad, UCLA grad) was behind Grey’s.  She has been commended for doing “color blind” castings, meaning that actors of all races try out for her roles and the best person wins (yes, the fact that idea is so revolutionary is sort of crazy, but whatevs).  In fact, Jennifer Weiner specifically mentioned Shonda to me, when I asked her about the issue at her book signing a couple of months ago. Still, it has been noted that, despite the diversity of Shonda’s shows, race almost never emerges as an issue in the plot lines.

I am fascinated by this issue because I think about how race will play out in my future novel all the time.  I want it to have a black protagonist, but I do NOT want to be pigeon holed.  My audience will be women–all of them!   But we’re talking about Shonda.  On the one hand, her telling the same romance stories just with minority characters—and by that I mean, brilliantly breaking your heart just with minority characters (see Scandal episode 6)—is not insignificant.  The depiction of the relationships, professional hurdles, etc. of a diverse group of people is simply more representative of the world that people in Seattle, D.C., New York, LA live in.  In case I’m not being clear—it just does not make sense to anyone (black or white) to see a show take place in New York without any minorities!  Or, as my Hawaiian friend (not Obama) says—in Hawaii without any Hawaiians! It’s simply inaccurate.  A fallacy. And annoying.  So, when Shonda shows a workplace with non-white people, non-straight people, non-young people, it’s just more like the world most of us live in, whether she talks about identity issues or not.  In my opinion, that makes the show better.

So now the question is, since Shonda (left) is in the powerful position of being able to reach the masses of pop culture, does she have a responsibility to draw attention to various racial/identity issues? I can’t give a yes or no answer to this one.  All I can say is this: minorities bring a unique perspective to whatever they do, which particularly comes through in art.  If Shonda is a minority who is aware of racial issues, understands the role race plays out in her industry, and embraces blackness as a part of her identity (which I believe she does), bringing that perspective to her writing (whether she explicitly talks about race or not) is valuable and helpful.  One of the reasons it occurred to her to have the “color blind” casting, for example, is that she sees a diverse world, and notices the absence of diversity.  That all said, after 8 or 9 seasons Grey’s, and now having a black lead in Scandal (my girl, Kerry Washington), I think it’s getting a bit conspicuous NOT talking about it.  The workplace is so political, meaning professionals have to and do think about the role their minority status plays in their careers all the time.  So, I think she should go for it.  She’s a deft writer, she can do it in a way that coincides with the light, pop-culture feel of her shows.  What do you think?

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Colson Whitehead, Gentleman Lit and 11 Rules on How to Write

Colson Whitehead has written one of my favorite novels.  In fact, much like Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin and Terry McMillan, he has the honor of having a book in my banner photo (can you find it?).  True, he doesn’t write Lady Lit, but he is an African American writer who sometimes writes about that (like in the the fave, entitled “Sag Harbor”) and other times he writes…Gentleman Lit? That is, the male analog of Lady Lit NOT of chick lit (because if you follow this blog, you know that the term “chick lit” has been so disparaged and belittled that I had to come up with a whole new term for what I’m trying to do here).

Brace yourself, I’m about to apply some logical reasoning to my made up terms:  If novels that are somewhat reflective of the male experience could be described as Gentleman Lit, then I might argue that Whitehead writes that.  “Sag Harbor,” for sure, qualifies. It was essentially a male coming of age story (in fact, I keep telling my brother to read it, but he says he lived it, whatevs).

Whitehead’s latest book, “Zone One,” is about zombies, but I still think it’s Gentleman Lit.  First, the topic is pretty  male (ladies, if you read zombie novels, I’d love to hear about it–seriously) and the book is literary.  In fact,  I read the New York Times review of the novel, which begins by stating that a literary novelist writing a genre novel (i.e., zombie novel) is “like an intellectual dating a porn star.”   I THINK they mean that a very smart, educated person (Whitehead) applied his skills toward a topic (targeted at men) that has typically been exploited to the point that many people believe its not salvageable?  What I’m saying is, zombie novels are usually geared toward men and a little trashy, but “Zone One” is Gentleman Lit.  Similarly, chick lit is usually geared toward women and a little trashy, but my future novel is Lady Lit! 🙂 That took me way too long to write. Did any of that even make sense?

UPDATE ON GENTLEMAN LIT: A member of my writer’s group is forcing me to think about this for more than 30 minutes (this is what happens when you blog about something other than what you did over the weekend).  Check out the comments and let me know what you think…

Anyway, Gentleman Lit was NOT supposed to be the point of this blog post.  I’m writing about Whitehead because the one and a half of his books that I’ve read have been delicious.*  He has a wonderful voice, and I was so happy that a brilliant, award-winning writer wrote a novel about my favorite place in the world.  He also published in the New York Times about “How to Write” on Friday.

Below are Whitehead’s 11 Rules on writing, which he expands in the article.  Personally, I found Rule # 2 and # 7 the most useful.  What do you think?

  1. Show AND Tell (as opposed to show, don’t tell).
  2. Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you.
  3. Write what you know.
  4. Never use three words when one will do.
  5. Keep a dream diary.
  6. What isn’t said is as important as what is said.
  7. Writer’s block is a tool—use it.  (Specifically he says “when asked why you haven’t produced anything lately, just say, ‘I’m blocked.’”)
  8. Number 8 is a secret.
  9. Have adventures.
  10. Revise, revise, revise.
  11. There are no rules.

(In case you’re wondering why my blog is progressing so much more nicely than my novel, it’s because I’m busy having adventures and letting my subject find me.  I’m also blocked. ) Hollllerrr.

<– That’s Colson.

* In addition to “Sag Harbor,” I read half of the Intuitionist, about an elevator inspector. The reason I didn’t finish it is NOT because I didn’t enjoy it; rather I think I just left at home then went to college, then years passed and I forgot what I had already read.  Now it’s on my to-read list.

The Ultimate Novelist: Toni Morrison (not who I’m trying to be).

The untouchable 81-year-old Toni Morrison will be signing copies of her new novel, “Home,” at Politics & Prose tomorrow, May 17, at 4pm.  I would go, except I can’t just leave in the middle of the day.  Well, I could–but not now that I’m blogging about it.

For the record, in my noveling pursuit I’m not trying to be like Toni Morrison.  In fact, she would probably not like whatever I end up producing.  While I appreciate intellectuals and academics, Morrison is so high brow, I’m get a headache just thinking about any attempt to try to emulate her.

What people need to understand about Toni Morrison (and I admit, I learned this from New York magazine), is that Toni Morrison is more like William Faulkner (a Great American Author) than, say Alice Walker (described as a Great African American Author or, alternatively, a Great Female Author, or worse, a Great African American Female Author).  I had heard somewhere that Morrison basically hated Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale author–can you find her books in my header photo??) but I didn’t realize until recently that she basically sees herself as above all black writers.  Maybe Morrison just wants to transcend the label—in other words, she just wants to be known as an accomplished writer, rather than an accomplished black writer.  To be honest, that’s my goal with my Lady Lit novel, and if Toni hasn’t been able to get past the label, I wonder if anyone ever will.  In college, I actually wrote my senior thesis about The Human Stain by Philip Roth.  It was about a brilliant, arrogant academic who was so light he could “pass” as a white, Jewish man in the 1940s.  I concluded that the reason he chose to be white and Jewish (during a time where I found evidence of lots of prejudice against Jews) was that it enabled to be viewed as a Brilliant Professor without being qualified by his ethnicity the way he most certainly would have been if people had known he was black.  I actually referred to Morrison’s book “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” in which she explains how all American fiction is influenced by African Americans.  I mean, all American life is influenced by African Americans because African Americans…are American (as Obama is constantly trying to convince everyone).

You see how I had to go all the way back to my senior thesis to even discuss Toni Morrison? High brow.  Anyway, I haven’t read “Home” but below is what I learned about Toni Morrison from New York Magazine:

  • She’s 81 years old
  • She won the Nobel Prize in 1993 for an entire body of work (first black woman Nobelist)
  • She was born Chloe Wofford, and hates that her legacy includes her ex-husband’s last name, Morrison
  • Her son, Slade, died 16 months ago (pancreatic cancer) at age 45
  • She was the one who called Bill Clinton the first black president in the New Yorker (well I didn’t learn that in the article, but it’s still interesting)
  • She has, like, a million homes
  • She’s trying to distance herself from Oprah (who made her novel Beloved into a movie)
  • Home  refers to the protagonist’s Georgia hometown, which lies at the end of a long, tortuous journey. Traumatized by atrocities in Korea and the Deep South of his childhood, Frank races back to save his sister from a sadistic white doctor.

What’s your favorite Toni Morrison novel?  Have you met her or taken a class with her?  Will her legacy be Great American Author or Great African American Author?