When I wrote The Girl in the Road, I chose to write my hero with brown skin, specifically, both as an answer to what I perceived to be the imaginative and empathetic failures of my progenitors, and also as a reflection of a human population in which the most common phenotype is—and has always been—a woman with brown skin. To write a white woman as my hero in a 21st-century story felt cowardly in the extreme—not only in terms of literary ambition, but in moral terms. How could I fail to extrapolate the lesson of having been unconsciously conditioned by a male-only set of heroes? How could I pretend that whites deserved to have the spotlight in global literature, or even American literature? How could I pretend that they ever did?
Thus was born Meena Ramachandran, a Malayalee Hindu, 27 years old in the year 2068, living in Kerala, India. She’s morose and temperamental. She’s aggressively and unapologetically sexual. She dropped out of college. She shares a house with her transgender partner in a quiet neighborhood in Thrissur. She works at a women’s shelter where she struggles to feel compassion for her clients.
Of course, creating a brown-skinned hero was not a simple venture. When I was traveling in Ethiopia and India to research my characters, I knew I would never understand another culture well enough to write from within it if I lived there for 10 years, let alone a month, so it was both futile and arrogant to try. I knew that one of the most natural coping mechanisms of culture shock—making quick generalizations—was fundamentally at odds with my purposes as a writer, and I feared I would only ever be able to see stereotypes and not individuals. That my privilege in all dimensions—especially in coming from an imperialist, ex-colonizer culture—overruled my right to write about cultures affected by colonialism. There’s a painful history of white writers doing exactly that, without grace or consideration, the imaginative equivalent of what Teju Cole called “a little due diligence” in the sphere of international aid.
It's also true that white writers—and I include myself—largely escape critical inquiry on our right to write about whatever we want, as if whites are the objective commentators on world affairs. Many also write within a mindset that regards countries with histories of colonization as “playgrounds” where they can engage with minimal risk.
So there are pitfalls. At several points I considered abandoning my book for those reasons, not to mention the fact that brown-skinned women heroes already exist all over the world, like Phoolan Devi, Princess Mononoke, and Scheherazade. But my hope for a greater benefit won out.
Western writers still make up the majority of published English language authors, and English is one of the global lingua franca. Western literature already has extraordinary women heroes created by extraordinary writers: Toni Morrison’s Sethe, Ursula Le Guin’s Tenar, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ifemelu. But they’re a tiny proportion of the whole. We need more. Writing characters different from us—for all creators, in all directions—is integral to creating a literature in which all phenotypes are heroic, and therefore, all are humanized.
I won’t go so far as to say that creators have a responsibility to do so. But I do submit that our increasingly global society offers an unprecedented opportunity for all creators to write what we don’t know. The defining heroic journey of the 20th century was to conquer evil: the Nothing, Sauron, the Harkonnens. But the defining heroic journey of the 21st century will be to reconcile the Other with the Self.