Guernica has just published a great interview with Ayana Mathis, who has just published her first novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, to great popular and critical success. The whole transcript is worth the read, but my favorite parts were Mathis’s descriptions of writing minority characters without burdening them with representation. She explains:
My book has a pre–civil rights setting with a post–civil rights sensibility. I believe less and less that there is something called “The Black Experience,” though undoubtedly there was one once. In the book I have a character called Lawrence say that he doesn’t want Hattie to be just another downtrodden black woman, and I think what he’s getting at with that statement is the idea of individuation. There’s a stereotype that to be a strong black woman is to be strong about being black. Hattie is a nuanced character. She makes terrible mistakes, she is prone to longing and yearning and whimsy. She is also a sexual being. I had hoped to write a black female matriarch who wasn’t reduced to her iron will or her capacity to endure hardship. This is a caricature, and I was writing against that kind of thing…
As for Floyd, he’s certainly a very important character in the book. I couldn’t imagine a book with this many characters in it and one of them not being gay. It would have felt like a glaring and problematic omission for me. But I also wanted to write him as a person, not just a gay person. I found his chapter one of the most difficult to write because I seemed to be tempted to write some kind of coming out story. Many people have done that far better than I ever could, and I found I was relying on reductive tropes—what I was producing was boring, predictable. I had to think about the fact that first and foremost Floyd was a guy, a guy away from home for the first time. I had to resist the temptation to define him as gay. I had to tell his particular experience in a very particular set of circumstances.
You can (and should) read the interview here.