Writing From A Woman's Point Of View

© Carol Cizauskas
Thurs., April 22, 1999
Reno News and Review

UNLV's Richard Wiley Says Authors Aren't Limited By Gender Or Race

The Reno News & Review interviewed novelist Richard Wiley at the recent TMCC Writers' Conference. A professor in the UNLV Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, Wiley has lived in various countries, which he then has used as settings for his novels. The first, Soldiers in Hiding, occurs in Japan and the Philippines. For this, Wiley won the PEN/Faulkner award, a prestigious recognition for excellent fiction. Settings for his following novels include Alaska, South Korea, and Nigeria. Forthcoming is Commodore Perry's Minstrel Show, which will be set in Japan.

Most recently published is Ahmed's Revenge, which chronicles the story of the Kenyan coffee farmer Nora Grant, a white woman in her early thirties, who is unraveling the mystery of her husband's sudden death while coming to understand her role in a world darkened with prejudice and crimes of poaching and ivory trading.

RN&R:Did you always want to write about other cultures?

WILEY: No, only after my experience in the Peace Corps, which happened when I was only 21 or 22. That experience was like getting hit with a huge baseball bat about the differences and places in the world, and it never left me. That really entering another culture – like going to Venus, it was so different – that's what made me interested in that.

That Korean experience just awakened in me everything about the Other that can be awakened, and I still haven't gotten over it. I became a proponent through my books and through my constant talking about it of trying enlarge American fiction, to give it a larger sensibility. A lot of American fiction is too introspective for my taste, not only looking into the writer, but looking into the country. I would also like to see it be expansive.

And so, I, in conjunction with some fellow writers down at UNLV – we've developed this international MFA program. Every student must go abroad to a non-English speaking country for one semester and get lost in language and Other-ness. And we think that will mysteriously change the nature of fiction and poetry a little bit. It's the only program like it in the whole country

RN&R: Do you find that you look at the word "foreign" very differently now than you did before your years abroad?

WILEY: I look it at the word "exotic" much more differently. "Foreign" is just a word, but "exotic" is a wrong sensibility. Nothing is exotic, it's only that you don't know it. Exotic or alien is in the eye of the beholder, and as soon as that beholder educates herself or himself, that exotic part just disappears – it's not exotic anymore.

RN&R: But isn't "exotic" something good? Isn't it an exciting way of looking at things being different?

WILEY: There's nothing wrong with it, but it demands unknowing in order for it to stay exotic. Whatever is exotic to you, so long as you keep your distance, it'll stay exotic. But no matter how much you try to keep it exotic, the only way you can do that is through ignorance. So if you approach it and get to know it, then all of a sudden – it's still real and lively and all that – but that exotic part is gone because you now know it. It's good to make the Other "normal". It's a good way to stop wars, too.

WILEY: Yes. I have to believe that. I really hate the idea that you can't write from a black or a Jewish or an Asian or a woman's perspective if you're not those things. People can say about my Nora Grant in Ahmed's Revenge that I didn't do a good job of writing from a woman's point of view if they want to. But I have the right to try. And it's only by not respecting such boundaries as are brought up in that question that we can begin to understand each other, especially racially

RN&R: Why is it that no major literary reputation along the lines of a Faulkner or a William Kennedy has been carved out of Nevada? Does a writer have to live in New York City to be respected?

WILEY: Of course not. The reason is because it hasn't happened yet. It's got nothing to do with Nevada. I don't think it's short shrift. There aren't very many of us. We have to be better than we are if we expect to be respected nationally. There's also a little of impatience with it. It's a long process. I was at it for twelve years before I got a book published – that's a long time.

RN&R: The theme of prejudice pervades Ahmed's Revenge. Is that a recurring theme in your novels?

WILEY: Yes. I hate it, and yet, it's not on top, it's underneath. As soon as you become didactic, then you've lost your audience. It's got to be coming out of character and story and situation, not some message that I've got to give, laid down on top. I don't think about it in any overt way. It's got to be in the electrical current of the prose and story.

RN&R: Was it a challenge to write a novel where the protagonist is a woman, as it is in Ahmed's Revenge?

WILEY: It was a bit of a challenge, about sensibilities. My wife said, "Put more flowers in it," when she read a draft of the book. She meant, "Don't let her jump out of the land rover and run in the house and get a beer. Have her notice the bougainvillea. Have her notice what's going on."

There have been reviewers who have hated this book. But no one has ever said anything about her not being an authentically-sounding female narrator.

RN&R: What did you use to help you meet whatever challenge did exist of using a woman as a protagonist?

WILEY: Just make sure I knew her as a person, as a character, as a real person, knowing her personality. Once you get to know somebody, you know how they'll react. It doesn't matter what gender they are.