Esther is my mirror. She’s game when I’m game, she’s fast when I ask, and we even look alike. About as much as a horse and person can look alike. We’re both small but lean. Her coat and my skin are close to the same warm, brown hue. But she has better hair. Her mane is glossy and smooth. The hair on my head is frizzy and knotted.
My 11-year-old niece raced down the steps. She clutched a first-print copy of The Wilding against her chest.
“So, is Aideen black?”
I was sitting in the recliner, typing. Without glancing up, I replied:
“Eachann doesn’t define people by their skin color. So, no, she’s not black.”
My niece was not satisfied.
“But you describe her as ‘the same warm, brown hue’ as Esther, who’s bay.”
I looked up. “Yes.”
“So is she black or is she just, like, really tan?”
“Does it matter? How do you picture her?”
I’ve run this conversation through my head a number of times. Skin color, much like feminism, in the novel and the lack of it being a divisive issue was a deliberate choice of mine and it has generated some discussion. Is it post-feminism if it doesn’t meet traditional male roles head on? Is it post-racial if races don’t exist?
I created egalitarian society where your gender and your skin color has little bearing on your role in society. After all, I’ve never seen a horse attack another horse because it had a darker coat. A female horse is as valuable, though in different ways, than a male horse. This is a nation that revolves around horses. All that should matter is that the horse is useful and stays sound. So why wouldn’t the society born of horses be the same way?
That said, what right did I have as a white woman to make my protagonist darker in skin color than my self? I am clearly not the same color as a bay horse. Am I stealing attributes from another race that I don’t have claim to? White authors have gotten in trouble in the past for writing black characters. How can they possibly understand the black experience and make it authentic? It’s a valid argument and I certainly don’t want to offend anyone by pretending I know what it’s like to be a black American.
Then again, I’ve also never raced a horse for 21 days. I’ve never been male, and yet I’ve also written first-person narratives from the point of view of a man. As writers, we attempt to give truth to one big giant lie.
As you can see, I can waffle all day on this subject.
To be honest, I gave Aideen ambiguously darker skin because I’m tired of seeing lighter-skinned girls as protagonists especially in popular young adult fiction. I’m tired of seeing the darker-skinned girl play the supporting role. I wanted any person to pick up this novel and be able to envision Aideen how they wanted. Is she a really tan white girl? Is she much darker? I almost want the reader to project their own race onto Aideen.
As with many first-person novels, Aideen did not avoid getting some of her author’s attributes, however. She didn’t get my green eyes (in fact, her eye color is never mentioned) and she didn’t get my lighter skin or freckles. But she did get my smaller size and full hips. The poor dear also got my unfortunately frizzy, knotted hair that can’t seem to decide if it wants to be straight or curly or just a hot mess. At least I let her shave it off.
I’ve wrestled with the decision to keep Aideen darker for the scrutiny I might receive as someone with fair skin. But I justify keeping her darker by telling myself that race — how we view it in this world — does not exist in the world I created. She doesn’t need to know the black experience (if you view her as a black girl) in this world to be black in Eachann.
For those who are curious, my niece, who is also white, pictured Aideen as black. I never did answer her question, much to her dismay, and I never plan to. I want readers to decide.