Let’s start with this fascinating article: “The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don’t“ by PolicyMic‘s Gracie Jin – go ahead, take a few minutes to read it.
You’ll see from that giant close-up photo that author Bill Cheng is indeed of Asian ethnicity. He’s Chinese American, in case you were wondering, and was just 29 when his debut novel pubbed last May, a book that follows the lives of African Americans in rural Mississippi during the decades following the Great Flood of 1927.
Mega-award winning author Colum McCann blurbs, “Cheng, almost literally, writes out of his skin.” Ironically, McCann – an Irishman now domiciled in NYC – himself has a reputation for writing beyond his background, but who’s noticing? Indeed, that’s exactly Jin’s premise: ”Unfortunately, most reviewers and interviewers seem to care less about the quality of Cheng’s writing than they do about the answers to these questions: Did the Chinese guy get it right? Can an authentic picture of the South come from a man of Asian descent who grew up in Queens? …In a society masquerading as post-racial, it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man. People of color, on the other hand, are expected to speak only for themselves.” Ouch.
Cheng apparently hadn’t set foot in Mississippi before he went on book tour in the deep South. But that didn’t stop him from creating the absolutely convincing, haunting voice of his African American protagonist, Robert Lee Chatham. Moreover, if you decide to stick the book in your ears, actor Prentice Onayemi will undoubtedly dispel any lingering doubts.
Robert Lee Chatham survives the Great Flood with his parents – his mother already hopelessly damaged by the brutal lynching murder of her older son, his father desperate to save his remaining child – only to be put in the care of a brothel owner. He does the rest of his growing up at the Hotel Beau-Miel, but is again set adrift as a young man. His journey keeps him moving, as a laborer, fugitive, prisoner, friend, and lover; he bears the scars of ingrained prejudice of his violently segregated surroundings, but runs as often from his own demons.
Beyond ethnicity, Southern Cross is a Bildungsroman of epic proportions, rhythmically punctuated by Cheng’s devotion to the blues, “particularly country/delta blues,” he reveals in the publicity letter that accompanied the book. “I thought my first full-length work should be a tribute to that kind of music, those stories, those people.” As if in answer to his ethnic questioners, he adds, “I wanted to capture the sense of a country and people that was unsure of itself, that was tenuous about the future. I think that has some resonance with how I think America is today.”
That said, choose Southern Cross with certainty. The only bottom line you really need to know? It’s a good story, very well-told. Simple as that.