Since I was a journalist before I became a creative writer, my heart has always been fixed on the purpose of “telling truth to power.” That means that no matter how seemingly offensive or politically incorrect some words are, I must use them if they are true.
I have been criticized by authors, mainstream publishers and readers because of my adherence to this philosophy. Let’s face it. We live in a unique point in history when both sides of the political spectrum have their “sacred cows.”
To some on the Left, the proper use of English grammar rules can be a “political weapon of discrimination against people of color and the LBGQT community.” To some of the Right, anybody who doesn’t speak English in public, or who wears “ethnic clothing,” becomes a suspected terrorist.
I want to give three examples of my work that would never be published in today’s mainstream press because the contents would offend some audience out there and thus would reduce sales. Who cares if it’s historically accurate and/or the truth? It’s the almighty dollar that matters.
Here’s an exchange I had with a fellow historical fiction author. I had approached her in a friendly attempt to have my novel Chinawoman’s Chance reviewed by her on her website. I thought it would be appropriate because she was living in China, and this would help me widen my audience.
Right away, she refused, simply because of the title I used, which, to her, was completely offensive to readers. I had to give her a brief history lesson as to why I would never change my title, and how my entire purpose for writing the Portia of the Pacific series was to expose the racism, sexism and prejudice that existed in the 1800s of the United State of America:
Respectfully, the title “Chinawoman” was used in the 1800s quite regularly, as well as “Chinaman.” In point of fact, the expression “Chinaman’s chance,” came from the practice of the railroad owners, like Leland Stanford, who would send the coolies out with explosives to blow-up the mountains to make tunnels for the trains to use. Until dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel, they were regularly killed doing this dangerous act. Ergo, the racist term, which was used down through the years until it became a common expression for “having little or no hope.”
If my readers don’t appreciate the “facts” of discrimination and racism that existed in the United States in that period (which is one of the main purposes that I wrote my series), then they should never read my fiction at all. I use the latest research (I was a college professor for over 25 years) which shows the terms and denigrating treatment of the Chinese in vivid ways.
The narrator for my audio book is also of Chinese decent and she lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and she did not find the title offensive in the least. I used other terms that were constantly being used at the time, including chink, coolie, Yellow Peril, pagan idolaters, and demons. Chinawoman is the least offensive of the lot.
At any rate, I bought your book, and I am enjoying it. I will write a positive review, no doubt, unless your mystery takes a plunge for the worse.
Take care, and thanks for your opinions.
My next example comes from a novel I wrote that received quite favorable reviews from readers and from fellow authors. However, some people were “offended” because of two reasons: 1. I was writing as a Black narrator and I was white. 2. I was “making light” of people with disabilities.
With the recent death of “new journalism” author, Tom Wolfe, I don’t pretend to be carrying his prestigious mantle. However, since my novel was compared to Tom’s work by another prestigious author, Dr. Jacob M. Appel, I must explain that my work is an exploration into the 1960s and its range of emotional experiments into revolutionary thoughts and actions.
My “theme,” if you will, is that we are all freaks under the skin, and we are also subject to the same pressures to conform. My little exploration does not translate well in these times of “political correctness” and “fake news,” however, and I will live with that.
The readers who can see through the defense mechanisms of the present “new journalism” will understand why we must all realize our “freakishness” in order to survive.
My final example is a novel I wrote quite some time ago. Like my hero, Thomas Harris, I dared to make a serial killer somebody who had an existentially “noble purpose.” We all know serial killers must be all bad, all the time.
I based my thriller upon a real-life serial killer of the 1980s, Andrei Romanovich Chikatilo. Like me, he was a teacher. Like me, he came from a dysfunctional background. Unlike me, he had a psychotic breakdown after seeing his family eaten by fellow “comrades” during the Ukraine’s worst winter on record.
This novel breaks a lot of commercial fiction’s taboos. However, since most of the murderous descriptions are based on fact, I stand my ground. The book was never published in the mainstream, but it does have, if you’ll excuse the expression, “cult following” by readers who enjoy historical thrillers. The same goes for another, even earlier novel, I wrote called Sins of Darkness, about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
In fact, SOD was so realistic, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan’s lawyer called me on the phone to ask about “the evidence I had found concerning Sirhan’s being hypnoprogrammed to kill.” Such are the dangers of writing truth to power. I enjoy it one hell of a lot. I hope you do to.