Janet Gurtler on If I TellPosted by Janet Gurtler on Oct 17, 2011 in Blog, Featured, Guest Posts, Young Adult | 4 comments
Jaz, the main character in If I Tell, is biracial with a black father and a white mother. Race is a large part of Jaz’s story as she struggles in the midst of chaos to figure out exactly how she fits into the world. She’s been raised by white grandparents and has virtually no connections to her black heritage. So what made me, Snow White (minus the seven friends, fairest of them allishness and the poison apple) write about a girl struggling with her racial identity?
Like many stories in my life, it began with a boy. In my twenties there was a boy I deeply loved. He was black. We got pregnant and unfortunately, as sometimes happens, we lost the baby. Eventually we lost each other as well, but to this day I think of that child and how she may have been perceived by the world. Jaz is a much fictionalized version of her, kind of a tribute to a daughter I never had. Perhaps exceedingly personal, but in the end, honesty is at the heart of my novel.
I’ll admit to fearing that I wasn’t qualified to write about a girl struggling with racial identity. I worried (worry) about getting it wrong or coming across as patronizing or disrespectful given who I am and what I represent. In my mind though there are similarities to the fact that I’ve never been a boy, yet I wrote a book from a boy’s point of view. I’ve never been a lesbian, but a secondary character in this book is gay. Is it presumptuous to assume I can do diverse characters justice? Trite? I hope not.
I did research for the characters, trying to create authenticity. For this book I did ask for extra feedback about certain scenes from friends of color. I straight out asked another black writer what she would say to a biracial child who wasn’t familiar with her “black side.” Her comments helped to create moments in If I Tell. I had critiques from friends who are black or biracial and used their feedback and comments to shape some scenes in the book as well.
In essence, my hope is that readers, regardless of color or gender or sexuality can relate to parts of Jaz’s internal struggles as she learns to accept herself for who she is. A large piece in Jaz’s puzzle is about forgiveness, for others and for herself. When should people be forgiven and when is a relationship no longer healthy to maintain? Readers don’t always agree. Fiction doesn’t always make us feel comfortable. I hope it makes us think.
People make mistakes. Some mistakes are horrible and some mistakes are unforgivable. But does making that mistake make us bad people to the core — the end? Hopefully not. Hopefully most of us are works in progress. We’re learning and growing and adjusting to changes in the world around us. After all, isn’t that what a lot of life is ultimately about? Discovering how to accept ourselves and others for who we truly are.