I was told when I first started writing seriously to write what I know, and that is what I did. However, I soon realized that what I know is not infinite. I quickly realized that what I knew about my culture was only a small piece of a much larger pie. For example, I did not know how Darrell Bourque felt and believed about my culture. I read his poetry and found that his view of the Cajuns was slightly different than mine. I did not know what Earnest Gaines felt and believed about my culture. He saw them from a Black man’s perspective. Both of these talented, but different writers, had experiences with the Cajun culture that I never had. The more I read people who wrote about the Cajuns, the more I realized just how little I knew. My advice to new writers is to read a lot before you write a lot. In other words, start with what you know. Then learn what you don’t know, and write about that.
Let me give you an example.
When I started writing, I created Pete LaSache, a story-telling Black man, who could never come right out and say what he meant, so he would bury his philosophies, beliefs, and visions in stories. As a young writer, I had no idea why he did this—only that I liked the idea. Let’s face it, wasn’t that what I was doing, too. But what did I know about Pete’s culture? Yes, I was the poor son of a sharecropper and not very high on the social scale—not much different than Pete—but I was White. I had no idea what it might be like to be Black. I decided that I needed to know why Pete told stories.
I did a little research, and here’s what I came up with: Pete is a descendant of the Xanekwe people, and they believed in the power of the sangoma, the shaman, men and women who had the power to see spirits and read the future. I invented the idea of a snake that would wrap itself around a person’s brain and speak to his host with stories about people and events; some of them dealt with the past and some with the future. Here is a brief description of the Xanekwe story snake from a novel I was working on at the time:
The story snake was a talking snake—he had a human tongue, instead of forked like a snake’s tongue; it was fat and oval-shaped like that of the Xanekwe people. When the old sangoma slept in his hut, the snake slithered in through the front opening and curled himself around the old man’s head. “Listen to me,” the snake said in the old man’s ear. “You are a great healer of men’s ills, both physical and spiritual. You have been chosen by those that have gone before you and will follow after you to carry the story snake in your head.” With that, the snake slithered through the shaman’s ear and coiled himself around the old man’s brain. When the old man woke up, he didn’t remember anything that happened—only that he had an important dream. But from that day on, he could see things in the future. One day, right before he died, he called his son over to him and told him the story of the snake and in that way, the snake passed on from father to son. And when that son became a father, he passed it on to his son, who passed it on.
Now, I knew why Pete told stories, and as I matured, so did he, and his stories became more powerful and prophetic.
I grew up in the fifties and sixties during a very tumultuous time when Blacks were beginning to assert their identities. There were issues out there that I had never faced before, and that bothered me. My father, although illiterate, raised me to respect all people, and I thought that was all that was needed. But this is a complex world. Respect, though admirable, will not right all wrongs. Then while I was in college, a Black friend of my wife and me, told me that no White person could ever know what it was like to be Black. As a writer, this troubled me. How could a White person write from the point of view of a Black person or a Native American then if he/she could never know what it was like? How could a male write from the point of view of a female? However, as I grew older, I realized that yes, I could never know what it was like to be Black, Native American, Muslim, female, gay, lesbian, etc., but as different as we are, we share many of the same similarities, beliefs, experiences. That’s when I decided that if I was going to write from these different points of views, I had better learn what I could about them. In other words, I would borrow from their experiences, histories, cultures, and hopefully, my stories would at least have the ring of truth.
I believe that the power of a writer is the ability to crawl into the skin of another person and see the world through his/her eyes, but how does one do that when he/she has not had the same experiences. There is only one way. I started reading Black writers, took a course on Black literature, paid attention to what was happening around me. I read news stories. I read obituaries. I read biographies. I read Native American writers, Muslim writers, female writers, LGBT writers. I read, I listened, I internalized. True, I may not belong to any of those cultures, sexual orientations, religious denominations, or sexes, and my characters will always be tainted by my experiences, but I honestly believe my characters are stronger now because at least, I have a rudimentary knowledge of where they’re coming from. Not only did it make me a better writer; it made me a better person.
Jude Roy, Originally from Chataignier, Louisiana, a small community in south central Louisiana, Jude Roy writes about the Cajuns who live, play, and work there. His work has appeared in such venues as The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, PEN Syndicated Fiction’s The Sound of Writing, The Fiction Writer, Mysterical-E, The Writing Disorder, and numerous other magazines and anthologies
Jude Roy is the author of two Cajun PI mysteries and a collection of literary fiction short stories. These are all available on Amazon.
My thanks to Jude Roy for his insightful look at writing from a different perspective. Jude is an active participating author in Mystery Thriller Week. You can find out more about Jude on his blog and his Amazon author page