Story last updated at 2:54 p.m. Thursday, June 27, 2002

Banks urges writers beyond race
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: entertainment
Writer Russell Banks gives keyote address Sunday.  
Russell Banks, an author of fiction, poetry, stories and essays, started off the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference on Sunday night with a keynote address that focused on a quest for the common American myth.

According to Banks, whose works include 1986 Pulitzer Prize finalist "Continental Drift," the American story has been fragmented by race, causing every "hyphenated" American group to adopt its own story, leaving the country with no common identity.

"What story-tellers have always done is tell us the story of our origins, so we know how far we have fallen, or how high we have climbed," Banks said.

But in America, Banks said, that story of our origin, our common story, doesn't exist.

Each group, be it African-American, Latin-American, or Asian-American, has told its own story through literature, Banks said.

"Our stories have multiplied and become increasingly tangled," he said. "Our multiple origins end up competing with each other. More becomes less."

In reality, Banks said, the fragmentation of the American story results in people disregarding chapters of that past.

"It allows separate stories to stand against each other," he said, adding that people can say, "It's not our story, it's theirs."

Banks said he blames the promoters for the "atomization of the marketplace," citing the book-selling Web sites with categories of suggested reading material for Native Americans, African Americans, gays and lesbians and other groups of readers.

"We let ourselves tell at best only a small part of the whole story," he said. "We are a nation taught to write about what they know, and readers are accustomed to reading about what is already" familiar to them.

As a result, he said, "White writers seem to be getting whiter and live in the literary equivalent of a gated community."

To the writers in the audience, this internationally renowned author called for people to strive to tell the whole story, even if it is uncomfortable.

"The reality is that we are all racially and socially mixed," he said. "We are uniquely in the world a separate Creole people."

To move on from this segregation of story, Banks said, writers must accept that race and "its evil spawn, racism," is the one link that holds all Americans together in a single story.

"If we are to move beyond racism, we must move beyond our current racial identities," he said. "Our imaginations are shaped out of darkness by our story-tellers. How we treat one another depends on the stories we hear."